Are we promoting child abuse?

As video of the sexual abuse incident began to spread like wildfire, the madrasa mufti fled the command post from where he freely abused his captive audience. His temporary disappearance sparked two major outrages that consumed the Pakistani nation for several days. First, whether he had been caught or not; and second, he must be quickly hung from a lamppost or thrown into Minar-e-Pakistan as an example for future sex offenders.

Such instinctive responses have little impact in reducing incidents of sexual abuse. On the contrary, they help dilute the real problem and keep things as bad as they always have been. Loud citizens don’t understand that situations don’t change through the number of likes, tweets, or expressions of disgust on social media. They change only through our understanding of their causes and our willingness to correct them.

Don’t our institutional mechanisms, infrastructure and policies provide an enabling environment for the crime of sexual abuse in general and child sexual abuse in particular? Let me state seven basic reasons why this heinous crime will continue to flourish.

First, the government has no data on the number, name or location of its 60% of children under six. It does not have any data on the number of madrasas nor on the teachers and students who are registered there. It does not have any data on the number of incidents of child abuse, other than those that can be reported by a private NGO.

Second, no attempt has been made to implement a formal policy for the protection of abused children in schools and madrasas across Pakistan.

Third, with 25 million children out of school and millions working as laborers in streets, homes and factories, we have created the perfect conditions and opportunities for child abuse.

Fourth, the employment laws and the Constitution actually “support” child labor by falsely defining “child” as a person under the age of 14.

Fifth, child welfare organizations, boards and authorities in Pakistan are complex bureaucratic structures, jargonized and self-consumed. Anxious to operate at a sanitized “political” level, they have little capacity to influence situations on the ground.

Sixth, our failure to realize that extreme poverty forces people to force their children to work as domestic, commercial or minors is not a guess but a reality.

And finally, what trumps all other factors is the daily addition of 16,787 new children to a complex that is already cracking.

The tools and techniques needed to treat these causes are well known. They have, however, been systematically ignored. The formation of the already legally mandated organization, ZARRA, has been deliberately delayed. We do not want to monitor and control not only the programs but also the abusive practices that plague our seminars. We are unwilling to provide minimum wage and EOBI to our workforce, which keeps them enslaved, exploited and below the poverty line. We are misleading donors as well as our own people by making false statements such as “child labor is not allowed in Pakistan”.

Population, poverty and child abuse are inextricably linked. To quote Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy: “No one in government dares speak openly about population planning or contraceptives except by holding their breath and only after looking over their shoulder. Although Pakistan produces as many people as the State of Israel every two years, yet it abolished the population planning ministry a long time ago and replaced it with an obscure and non-functioning organization in every province. The children of Pakistan were not created to be abused. We can only reduce their pain and misery by addressing the harsh realities described in this article.

Posted in The Express Tribune, June 23rd, 2021.

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