Child rights in peril
IN 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was adopted and opened for signature. Pakistan was one of the early signatories in 1990, and although the country hedged its ratification with qualifications, it withdrew them in 1997. Immediately after signing up to the document, child-related legislation was brought in at both the federal and provincial levels. Principal among these were the Employment of Children Act 1991, Punjab, and the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000. This augured well for the rights of children in so far as legislation was concerned.
Most importantly, the government also put in place the National Commission on Child Welfare and Development (NCCWD) to monitor the UNCRC’s implementation. The national monitoring body was assisted in its task by provincial commissions on child welfare and development. Yet the NCCWD was hobbled from day one, having been established through a National Assembly resolution that gave it a limited legal standing which had a corresponding bearing on its financial, investigatory and enforcement powers.
The adoption of the 18th Amendment, which devolved powers to the provinces, has further compounded the future of the NCCWD, apparent in a number of overlapping policy dilemmas for the body. It was initially placed under the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights which was later abolished by the PML-N government.
That is why, despite a raft of new child-related legislation at provincial levels in the wake of devolution, child rights activists have major concerns regarding Pakistan’s compliance with the UNCRC — meant to be ensured through the NCCWD. They believe that, in the absence of a centralised coordinating body endowed with statutory status, overseeing Pakistan’s compliance with the UNCRC would be difficult to monitor and implement at a time when provincial capacities on child rights issues are weak and underdeveloped.
In the post-18th Amendment scenario, there is ongoing consultation on the need for an independent National Commission on the Rights of the Child (NCRC) for effective monitoring of all national and provincial programmes and the UNCRC. Some progress in this direction was made in 2012, when the federal government announced the formation of the NCRC. The draft bill governing this announcement, however, has yet to be enacted. This needs to be done soon if Pakistan’s compliance with the UNCRC is to be put on sure and sustained footing.
However, these measures in themselves are not enough if a society-wide, pro-child rights culture is to take hold. This requires a fundamental change in societal attitudes in relation to children’s needs and sensitivities. One measure of our insensitivity is our neglect of the plight of children caught up in the ugly war on terrorism. A huge number of children have been displaced as a result of the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan. One count has put the number of displaced and traumatised children at 400,000. Children have suffered enormous hardship in terms of lack of parental care, education, loss of secure homes and deprivation of vaccinations.
Further, the targeting of children as weapons of war was cruelly exposed in the barbaric attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School in Peshawar. Not only this, the use of children as suicide bombers is a cynical ploy in this dirty war. Pakistan is a signatory of and has ratified the UNCRC’s optional protocol on children’s involvement in armed conflict. Yet no serious effort has been made to ensure that children are safe from the long-range effects of this war.
While this war goes on, the focus on broader issues of growing child poverty and vulnerability must not diminish. With the state offering minimal practical help in the area of child protection, the vulnerability and poverty of children within struggling families is set to become a big policy headache with increasing reports of child abuse, rape of minors and child poverty in recent years.
Yet these are not insuperable issues. There is already progress in evidence on the legislative front at the provincial level, thanks to constant prodding by civil society groups working on child rights. However, these complex problems are also political in nature. The introduction of the right to free education is a laudable first step in the right direction.
However, unless the broader issues of child poverty and vulnerability coupled with effective enforcement of child rights as enshrined in the UNCRC find a place on the agendas of political parties, the chances of wide-ranging societal change in child rights are not bright. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the UNCRC: it is an opportune moment to reflect on our overall progress on all aspects of child rights.