By Shmyla Khan
The following article was published in Impact SEPLAA Vol. II.
It is ironic that those asking and answering this question are not children. Children are a marginalized majority. This oxymoron rings true of a country like Pakistan where an astonishing 44.5% of the population is under eighteen. Surely this 44.5% has something substantial to say, whether it is through a baby’s first word or the piercing questions in the eyes of a homeless teenager. The time has come for us to listen to their silence.
Many of us will be hard-pressed to find someone fundamentally opposed to child rights, but finding someone who is a proponent of child rights is even more strenuous task. The fact of the matter is that most of us are neither against nor for child rights precisely because we don’t know what child rights are. Our superficial knowledge runs as deep as signing a petition against child labor. Children’s rights however extend far beyond that, and surely for us to hit the stop button at lip service to the eradication of child labor is downright criminal.
Laws and legislation are thus pivotal in shaking us out of our apathy. A piece of paper conferring rights on a certain group of people might seem most insignificant, even unnecessary. In a country like Pakistan, where implementation of the rule of law is an ideal type like world peace, most cynics will argue what is the point? The writer is however glad that the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa did not feel the same way when they unanimously passed The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Protection and Welfare Bill, 2010.
What the myopic vision of the skeptics misses is the optimism hidden in the mere spelling out of children’s rights. In a province, nay country, where the Convention on the Rights of the Child is yet to be implemented despite being ratified as early as December 12, 1990 this act is ground-breaking.
However the Bill is not without its fair share of loopholes. The law seems to be hesitant in encroach on the traditional role of parents as knowing what is best for their child. This archaism is exemplified by Article 44 which introduces the category of “reasonable punishment.” While the meaning of ‘reasonable’ here is suspect, it is reasonable to assume that this clause is susceptible to abuse as it can legitimize cruelty to children. Additionally some might argue that this Bill does nothing more than reinstate provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code, for example child abuse can be tried under the offence of rape. Such an argument gnaws that the very sentiment that has led to the neglect of children’s rights in this country for so long. There is a very real need to make laws specifically for children.
The power of laws to change the perceptions of the society is grossly underrated. As Kant says, “A public can only attain enlightenment slowly” – There should be no delusions about this process being brisk and painless. But if it means getting closer to every child in Pakistan getting the childhood they deserve, then it is worth the wait.
The Consultative Sessions on Child Rights laws in Punjab with the development sector & NGOs this summer was a positive step initiated by UNICEF towards rectifying this issue.