Published in The Daily Times on Nov. 17 ::
Former secretary general of the UN Kofi Annan once said: “There is no duty more important than ensuring that children’s rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they can grow up in peace.” November 20 is celebrated as Universal Children’s Day every year around the world. Pakistan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) on November 12, 1990, which provides broader outlines for the promotion and protection of child rights.
Pakistan ranks sixth amongst nations with the largest population and fifth among countries with the largest youth population. It is predicted that Pakistan’s population will almost double in the next 30 to 40 years and so will its youth population. Some 63 percent of our population is less than 25 years of age, 53 percent individuals are below 19 years of age and 35 percent of our population is between 15 to 24 years of age. This is in sharp contrast to 16 percent youth population witnessed in more stable countries like the US and Japan.
The UNCRC made it obligatory on the states that ratified the convention to take all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights enshrined in the convention but, unfortunately, there is no sound accomplishment of the state to share with the world on this year’s Universal Children’s Day. Over a decade has passed since we entered into the new millennium but the state of children in Pakistan is still far from satisfactory. In Pakistan, the convention is only enforceable if it is adopted through domestic legislation. Unfortunately, Pakistan has not introduced any such legislation up till now and the convention cannot be invoked in any domestic court of law.
Let me briefly explain what the convention on the rights of the child says, as it is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human, civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. The convention sets out these rights in 54 articles and two optional protocols. It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere have: the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation, and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. The four core principles of the convention are non-discrimination, devotion to the best interests of the child, the right to life, survival and development, and respect for the views of the child. Every right spelled out in the convention is inherent to the human dignity and harmonious development of every child. The convention protects children’s rights by setting standards in healthcare, education and legal, civil and social services.
In Pakistan, violation of children’s rights is common but most of the children are subjected to torture in work places and educational institutions, sexual exploitation and abuse in urban areas in general and the rural areas of Pakistan in particular. The main reason behind this is lack of education, non-implementation of laws regarding children’s rights and irresponsible attitude on the part of the government. There is a need for proper and immediate legislation on corporal punishment, domestic child labour and early marriages so that the increasing trends of violence against children can be curbed. The responsibility for providing collective and individual safety lies on the state. Similarly, it is equally important to promote non-violent values in society through public awareness.
Pakistani laws do not afford sufficient protection against torture and other ill-treatment. This legislative lack is among the main causes of many cases of torture reported in Pakistan. Children interviewed by several organisations experienced that abuse ranging from slaps in the face following arrest to sustained torture, including being hung upside down, beaten, whipped with rubber belts or leather slippers, or deprived of sleep and sexual abuse. It is difficult to document these abuses since social and cultural factors inhibit children from testifying about such violations. Clear and strict definition of punishment for violence against children is also a necessary step.
According to a report published by the non-governmental organisation Association Network for Community Empowerment (ANCE), almost 25 to 28 million children are out of school, 12 million are engaged in labour while around 618 newborn babies die every day in the country. This report should serve as an eye-opener for the government as well as the people of this country. The president of the ANCE Raja Abbas said, “ These children see a very different childhood because of their living conditions; they go through child abuse at a very young age, they are discriminated against and they have no protection from society. It is evident that the state of child rights in the country is deplorable, to say the least. We need the government, public, civil society and NGOs to come together and do everything possible to rectify the situation. With around 35 percent of Pakistan’s population aged 15 or below, the government must take the issue of child rights seriously. The Centre and the provinces need a coordinated policy in this regard, with proper legislation on child rights and making sure that existing laws are fully implemented. Children are the future of any society but the way we are treating ours is shameful and a disgrace for humanity. If we want our country to progress and move forward in the right direction, it is important that we protect child rights. By neglecting their rights, we are paving the way for a disastrous future for the country.”
Moreover, Pakistan has failed to achieve its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly the fourth one: reducing infant mortality. Poor vaccination rates for children due to a weak immunisation system, a huge amount of out-of-school children, gender disparity in education, growing violence against children and increasing numbers of children living and/or working on the streets are the major issues that require due attention at the moment.
We all are well aware about the 18th Constitutional Amendment whereby child rights have been devolved to the provinces and more resources have also been geared towards the provinces. This is an opportunity to engage more with the provincial governments in order to push for realisation of the rights of the child in Pakistan. In the recent past, provinces have also taken various steps, including enactment of laws and policies central to improving the state of child rights in Pakistan but implementation is still a key concern.
Such issues call for deliberation and require to be dealt with acutely, thus bringing about effective elucidations to the problems of our children, who are the hope for a better future for this nation. Instead of being passive about such situations, it is my opinion that the federal government should lead in the country’s vision, putting pressure on provincial governments to invest in our children. Our children have a right to be protected, educated, fed and heard. It is about time we give them just that.
The writer is a social and political activist based in Lahore and he can be reached at [email protected]