Protecting our Children: Kasur in Perspective
Sexual abuse in Pakistan is widespread and often goes unchecked. Societal norms, particularly the notion of ‘family honour,’ result in double-punishment for victims of sexual abuse: first, by allowing sexual abuse to go unpunished and second, by stigmatizing the victims of abuse. A statistical analysis carried out from 2007 to 2011 demonstrates that at least 6 children per day, under the age of 18, fall prey to sexual abuse. Due to the societal taboo on any discussion of sexual abuse and violence, these children and their families are often left with no avenue for justice.
Recently, furore erupted across the country as details of sexual abuse against children in Kasur District were reported by local media. The reports in the local media pertaining to the number of children molested were consistent, highlighting that 280 children were sexually abused. It was discovered that around 400 videos of children being subjected to this abuse were being utilized to blackmail the families of these children into making huge pay-offs to prevent circulation of these videos. A high-level inquiry committee, formed by the Punjab government, determined that these reports were baseless. A prominent minister in the Punjab government, Rana Sanaullah, stated that the issue centered on a land dispute between two parties resulting in the registration of ‘fake cases’ against one another.
Whether one disputes the number of children involved, the duration over which the sexual abuse occurred or the alleged context of a land dispute, the fact remains that children were abused. Moreover, the fact that there is video evidence of this abuse demands a prompt and effective inquiry into the actors behind the circulation of forced child pornography. Additionally, the Kasur incident points towards the State of Pakistan’s unwillingness and inability to protect its children, as mandated by domestic and international law. The occurrence of sexual abuse is not limited to Kasur district – sexual abuse in Pakistan is deeply embedded within various institutional structures, from schools and madrassahs to our very own homes.
Research conducted by Sahil, an organization engaged in child protection for the last 20 years in Pakistan, provides alarming statistics. Between 2007 and 2011, a total of 2206 children were sexually abused in their own homes. Within the same time frame, a total of 2391 children were sexually abused at an acquaintance’s place, while 117 were abused in Mosques, 78 in the workplace and 78 in school. In the environments within which children are meant to be most protected are ironically those in which children are highly threatened. In fact, Sahil’s report for this period concludes that ‘child sexual abuse occurs in all classes of the society’ and that ‘in a prominent number of cases, the abuser is an acquaintance and has the trust of children and their families and they have access to the children in their homes.’
Pakistan is a State Party to the following international human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. Additionally, Pakistan has ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 182. Regardless of the fact that these treaties create legally binding obligations for Pakistan, it was found that, in 2012, less than 0.5% of GDP and less than 2% of the federal budget are allocated towards the protection and promulgation of child rights. Further, in order for these Conventions to be effective in their aims, Pakistan must transpose their provisions into domestic law. Successive governments have not deemed this a priority due to which only half-hearted attempts at domestic incorporation of international commitments have been made. Thus, the first recommendation of this paper, is for the National Assembly (NA) to either draft legislation ensuring the obligations enlisted within the aforementioned Conventions are made effective under the domestic legal framework or to ensure the same through amendment of existing child protection laws.
Article 7 of the ICCPR stipulates, ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation.’ Local media reports and interviews with the victims and their families affirm that the children involved in this scandal were often drugged and threatened with weapons, including knives, axes and guns. Express Tribune reported: “Kids were being intimidated in these videos with weapons, they were drugged. Kids as young as five years old were made to perform oral sex.” A clip seen by Reuters, reported by Express Tribune, describes the inhumane and degrading treatment experienced by one of the victims: “A groggy boy is beaten and abused as a man tells him, ‘I will not stop until you smile.'” Taken in the context of the societal taboo on sexual abuse and the fact that these videos were being used to blackmail the victims, it is clear that this qualifies, at the very least, as inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under ICCPR standards.
Article 17(1) of the ICCPR states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.” Child abuse clearly falls within the wording of this Covenant. Moreover, “Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks,” as per Article 17(2).Express Tribune reported that Shakila Bibi, a mother of one of the victim’s, went to the police station to file a complaint. However, instead of registering a report, the police took her 15-year old son into custody. Similarly, other parents were also prevented, by police officials, from filing complaints. In addition to this being a violation of Article 17(2), it is also a violation of Article 26 which guarantees non-discrimination and equal protection under the law.
Similarly, Article 10(3) of the ICESCR delineates, “Special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons without any discrimination for reasons of parentage or other conditions. Children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation. Their employment in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law. States should also set age limits below which the paid employment of child labour should be prohibited and punishable by law.” In light of the Kasur incident, this provision is particularly important. With regard to the general situation in Pakistan, where child abuse is rampant in homes and schools, Article 13 is also pertinent. It provides for the right of education for all children. Pakistan is already in violation of international standards relating to education of its children. A child is not receiving education simply by attending school. That institution, where the child is supposed to be protected, is often the place where abuse against children is carried out. A recent case where alleged child abuse occurred was in the Islamabad Convent in F-8/4. For a rather long period of time, the school not only denied the allegations but also backed the accused. After public pressure and media attention, the school altered its stance.
In the Kasur incident, it has been reported that a gang of individuals, identified as the perpetrators behind this atrocity, were, and are still, being protected by political forces in the province of Punjab. This is despite the fact that children being prostituted and exploited is in violation of the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, ratified by Pakistan. This Convention is particularly relevant because it is state actors that can be directly accountable for facilitating the exploitation of ‘the prostitution of another person,’ as per Article 1(2).
Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) delineates a two-tiered obligation for States Parties. The positive obligation entails respecting and ensuring the rights listed within the Convention (Article 2(1)) and the negative obligation ensures that States Parties take all appropriate measures to protect a child from all forms of discrimination or punishment (Article 2(2)). Police refusal to register complaints are in violation of Article 3 which stipulates: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration,” (Article 3(1)), ” States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures,” (Article 3(2)) and that ” States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision” (Article 3(3)).Under Article 6(2), Pakistan is obligated to “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.” The findings of the high-level inquiry committee and Mr. Rana Sanaullah statements are in clear violation of this provision.
Under Article 16(1) of the UNCRC, “No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.” Not only the act of child abuse but also recording and circulating these acts on video is in contravention of this provision. More importantly, Article 19(1) governs the responsibilities of States Parties with regard to sexual abuse: “States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.” Article 19(2) affirms: “Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment described heretofore, and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.” Thus, it is clear that States Parties must not only monitor schools and other such institutions where children spend large parts of their time, but they must also ensure that law enforcement agencies assist in the registration of cases against alleged perpetrators so as to encourage victims to come forth rather than forcing them to silently accept abuse. Where it is impossible for States Parties to engage in effective monitoring, such as in scenarios of abuse within the home (or what is generally considered a private sphere), contact points and telephone helplines must be put in place for children to report these crimes.
Article 34 reaffirms this obligation: “States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. For these purposes, States Parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent: (a) The inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; (b) The exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices; (c) The exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.” Setting up national telephone hotlines and contact centres will not only provide children with an avenue through which they can end their exploitation and abuse, but it will also act as a deterrent in a society where, currently, child sex abusers usually go unpunished. Additionally, local laws must be strengthened to ensure that where police officials refuse to register a complaint against an alleged abuser, there are severe penalties for such conduct.
Creating even more specific obligations for Pakistan is the Optional Protocol to the UNCRC on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. The circulation of videos of children being sexually abused qualify under the definition of child pornography under Article 2(c): “Child pornography means any representation, by whatever means, of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes.” Given that child abuse is so rampant and that the perpetrators of these crimes are very seldom found and punished, Pakistan has to not only “make such offences punishable by appropriate penalties that take into account their grave nature,” (Article 3(3)) but also “establish the liability of legal persons” that orchestrate such crimes (Article 3(5)).
There are also ILO Conventions to which Pakistan is a State Party that provide protection for children in certain contexts. For instance, the ILO Convention No. 189 on Domestic Workers provides protection to children working inside peoples’ homes. Child abuse occurs with domestic child workers in Pakistan quite frequently. Between January 2010 and December 2011, local media reported 18 cases of severe torture and abuse of child and domestic workers. The provisions in this Convention can be elaborated upon to also include a framework for protection of children within homes.
The fact remains that the societal taboo regarding sexual violence must be broken. While the State must punish perpetrators, it is equally important for victims to be encouraged to speak up. Children who have been abused are unable to psychologically process that abuse and this results in self-blame, shattered self-esteem and decreased engagement in society. It should be the State of Pakistan’s foremost priority to attend to these children and prevent future abuse by enacting the necessary legal framework and enforcement mechanism in compliance with international obligations.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which she might be associated.