Children’s rights in peril in Pakistan

An  edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Dec 28, 2012.

Islamabad – On November 20, 2012, on the occasion of Universal Children’s Day, prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf declared 2013 the year of child rights for Pakistan. With this significant announcement providing the context, social activists gathered at a conference in Islamabad on Thursday to review Pakistan’s progress on child rights and share their experiences of working toward child protection in the country.

The “Child Protection Conference” was organised by Save the Children. Child protection is the umbrella term for a set of actions undertaken to prevent, respond to, mitigate and curb acts of abuse, exploitation, neglect and violence against children.

Speakers at the conference highlighted the need to develop a national strategy and a sound legal framework to improve child rights, but almost every presenter identified implementation issues as the real challenge facing child protection in the country.

“In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, despite the 2010 Child Protection and Welfare Act, juveniles are still being arrested, detained and tried under the (West Pakistan) Vagrancy Ordinance (1958),” Abdullah Khoso, of Save the Children, said.

Khoso said children on the streets should not be considered offenders, rather the children are at risk and need to be protected.

Ejaz Ahmed Qureshi, head of the Children’s Complaint Office (CCO), delivered the keynote address. The CCO was established in 2009 by the Federal Ombusdman secretariat in collaboration with UNICEF to develop a child ombudsman system in Pakistan.

Qureshi said the CCO provides a mechanism for receiving and resolving complaints from and about children against maladministration of government agencies. He said there were an estimated 35 million children living below the poverty line in the country and it is not possible for all of them to go to the courts for justice. In such a scenario, the CCO could be their best bet.

The CCO was not completely effective during the past two years, Qureshi admitted, but he said that now with the appointment of a new Federal Ombudsman, the CCO will be active once again.

“The situation is ripe to push for child rights in the country,” Qureshi said. “Oversight is essential to get federal and provincial governments to follow the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child (UN CRC) and the respective Ombudsmans can hold the governments accountable.”

Iqbal Dehto, who is the national manager of Society for the Protection of the Rights of Child (SPARC), shared eye-opening facts with the conference participants during his presentation. For example, he said the convicted juveniles in Balochistan are held at the notorious Much Jail and there is only one juvenile remand home for children in Sindh.

At the conference, Rawalpindi’s Senior Superintendent Police (SSP) Akhtar Abbas said there were 1,500 to 2,000 children in jails across the country with Punjab having the most: 729 juveniles.

Dehto said the constitution’s Article 25(a) (which deals with the right to education), Article 11(3) (which forbids employment of children) and the Pakistan Penal Code’s section 82 (which grants blanket immunity to children below a certain age) all have different upper limits for the age of children.

“In the 22 years since Pakistan ratified the UN CRC, we have not been able to settle on an age-specific definition of children,” Dehto said.

He said there was no uniformity in Pakistan’s laws for children and the country’s policies do not recognise children as individuals with rights.

“In our policy stream, children are still considered an object of charity rather than right holders, Detho said. “This needs to change.”

Fazila Sherdil, manager protection at SEHER, talked about her organisation’s work on child protection reforms in Balochistan. The organisation has worked with juveniles in Balochistan since 2004 to provide them with rehabilitation services.

Sherdil said the children in the province are vulnerable because of political instability, conflict and trafficking issues but the children’s issues are not prioritized in the province.

“There is no political will when it comes to child rights,” she said. “Rulers are more interested in building roads.”

Sherdil, who identified lack of accurate data and research as a gap in the child protection efforts, did have some statistics on hand. She said only 43 per cent children in the province have access to primary education while 62 per cent of the children are dropouts. Around 11,000 children are among the labour force in Quetta, she said.

Baela Jamil, president of the Idara-e Taleem o Agahi, gave a synopsis of the soon-to-be-launched 2012 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). The report will provide an analysis of both access to and effectiveness of education in Pakistan. It is based on a sample of 250,000 children in nearly 6,000 schools and more than 82,000 households in 142 districts across Pakistan.

“If the children are denied their fundamental right to education, I feel there is no guarantee any other rights would be provided to them,” Jamil said.

Representatives of social welfare organizations, judiciary, child protection centres, human rights organisations, the civil society and national coalitions on child rights attended the conference.

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