January 13, 2020

By Asra Haque & Xari Jalil


It was not until after the second anniversary of Zainab Ansari’s rape and murder that the National Assembly finally passed a Child Protection Bill. The Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill (ZARRA) 2019 was passed on January 10th, 2020 and is named after the eight year old girl from Kasur, who became the face in media of a series of grisly sexually motivated murders in 2018.

In 2015, Kasur district had once before reached headlines when a child pornography ring was discovered in a village.

The truth is that these two incidents are only the tip of the iceberg. The distressing reality of child sexual abuse is that it persists in the country, all year round. It was a coincidence that these incidents garnered enough media attention, otherwise most are under-reported.

Sahil’s annual report called ‘Cruel Numbers’ shows that for 2018, an average of 12 children were abused every day between January and June. This was an increase from the prior year, when an average of 7 children were recorded as being abused per day.

In the same period, a total of 2,322 children were abused, but these numbers are based on cases published in newspapers.

Likewise from January to June 2019, the total numbers of child sexual abuse seemingly decreased, falling to 1,304 cases. But despite the decrease in the number of cases, the picture was still shocking. An average of around 7 children were being abused each day, with no one to intervene and protect them.

The fact is these numbers are based on the number of incidents reported in the media. And a large number of cases continue to go unreported. Even Sahil – which is the only NGO working to collect this data yearly – cannot produce true figures, thanks to many reasons, including a culture of shame existing within communities where abuse is seen as a taboo.

There is also a lack of cooperation in police, and this often dissuades parents and family to pursue cases as there is little hope in the criminal justice system. There is often also discrimination against marginalized communities and the police tends to restrict their access to justice. Apart from everything, these numbers do not even touch the number of children who have gone missing and unaccounted for, or those on the streets with no families to protect them against child abuse. Therefore, many cases go unresolved and unreported.

The Zainab Alert Bill endeavors to address the number of child abuse cases that are reported, as well as those that remain invisible.

But its measures include harsh sentences to perpetrators rather than preventive steps. For kidnapping or abduction, the maximum punishment for example is life imprisonment or death; the minimum is a seven to fourteen year prison term, and a fine of up to Rs. 20 million. For police officers who cause willful delays and hindrances in providing access to justice, or the search for a missing child, there are also severe penalties.

For the redress of abuse cases, the Bill also aims to establish an ‘Alert, Response and Recovery Agency’. It is meant for organizing of databases, campaigns and programs, an interactive helpline, and the maintenance of a network of information and offices that can ensure swifter processing in the recovery of missing or abducted children.

According to Farshad Iqbal, former Research and Communication Manager at the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), the formation of a database to record, track and monitor child sexual abuse cases via ZARRA corrects the long standing issue of the lack of such databases with the government.

“Prior to this bill, the government has had to rely on Sahil’s Cruel Numbers (which only records reported instances of violence against children in media) as no official figures exist,” he says. “However, given the rampant corruption, bureaucracy and disorganization that plagues most government or semi-government institutions, there is no guarantee that ZARRA will suffer from the same concerns and restraints.”

But the Bill fails to address adequate solutions to prevailing problems that are causing under-reporting of abuse cases.

Obviously, the promise of severe penalties does not guarantee that violence against children will be deterred. Crimes will continue wherever justice is lacking, the police is inept and unwilling to provide assistance, and the general public does not trust the justice system.

The Zainab Bill may also be threatened by bureaucratic hurdles.

The non-implementation of child protection laws as well as correctional facilities has been a major issue.

“Lack of implementation of previous child protection laws as well as establishment and management of correctional facilities is yet another concern,” points out Robina Shaheen, a Women and Juvenile Protection Officer at the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell. Shaheen has spent decades working with children in prisons and also those on the streets.

In Pakistan there are a total of seven juvenile detention facilities – two in Punjab, four in Sindh and one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – one that is not functional. The others have poor administration and facilitation of juvenile prisoners, which remains a grave concern.

According to the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000, death penalties cannot be awarded to minors. But in the fragmented justice system of Pakistan, this has been done too. Convicts when arrested were minors and after languishing in prison were handed the death sentence.

Ansar Iqbal and Bahadur Masih were both 15 years old when they were charged with murder, charges that their families and human rights’ groups maintain were false charges. They were executed well into their adulthood after languishing for decades in prison.

The existence and promulgation of the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000 did not ensure that Iqbal and Masih as children were protected, thanks to a lapse in the justice system. That lapse persists to this day and according to SPARC, 10% of prisoners on death row were convicted for crimes when they were minors.

Under these dire circumstances, it is society’s obligation to raise questions concerning the promises made by the State to ensure the protection of its children through multiple laws and policies that, to this date, have yielded very little positive change.

Instead, instances of violence and abuse against children have bloated in number. Only recently in Chunian, four bodies of minor boys were discovered. It was found that, like Zainab, they too had been sexually abused before being killed. On investigation, it came to light that the suspect Sohail Shahzad had averted arrest twice only because of police negligence and failure to follow due procedure, and instead allowing him to pick off new victims during this time.

Currently, the Zainab Alert bill only extends to the Federal Territory and all additional laws under the 18th Amendment will have to be passed separately in the provinces, slow and laborious process. Furthermore, existing laws such as the Juvenile Justice Systems Ordinance 2000, the Juvenile Justice Systems Act 2016, the Employment of Children Act 1991 and its provincial variants have yet to be executed in letter and spirit.

In this context, it remains to be seen whether the Zainab Alert Bill can in reality eliminate child sexual abuse in Pakistan.