Will the Zainab Alert Bill 2019 Champion the Basic Rights of Children?

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 to ensure the basic rights of children. 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.

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.

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.

The Bill also 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.

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. 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.