Voting for the children – Rafia Zakaria

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IT took five days after the six-year-old went missing in January 2018 to discover her bruised, violated body next to a garbage dump. Her image, the picture of a sweet, slightly smiling child in a pink sweater, is emblazoned in our minds and in our hearts. So is the fact that young Zainab Ansari who had been on her way to her aunt’s house for a Quran lesson could not be saved by a country of millions of people, with hundreds of thousands of police personnel to protect them.

Zainab died and was buried; her assailant, as is often the case with child abduction cases, was no stranger but a neighbour. He was finally apprehended, convicted and executed. Zainab, however, could not be resurrected by the deliverance of justice; she was gone forever, leaving behind a grieving family and a shamed nation.

There are thousands of children like Zainab who are abducted, abused, sold, sexually exploited and subjected to the most cruel and inhumane torture every single day of the year. Until now, Pakistanis had chosen to be in denial about their plight, wanting to turn away from a situation that revealed a festering necrotic rot that kills and is lodged deep in the heart of the country.

Now there is the possibility of change. Last Friday, the National Assembly passed the Zainab Alert Recovery and Response Bill that is designed to prevent more Zainabs from dying at the hands of predatory child molesters who continue to lurk in society. In the eight months that it took for the bill to be tabled and voted on and passed, several new cases of exploitation emerged — young girls being sold into prostitution, boys being abducted, raped and killed, etc. Perhaps because of the nonstop avalanche of such cases, and the relentless pressure exerted by civil society groups, the government finally decided to put the bill to vote. Now the bill awaits the Senate’s approval and the president’s assent.

It appears that Pakistan has finally chosen to confront the problem of child sexual abuse that had been festering for decades.

Once approved, the new law will ensure that parents get assistance in registering FIRs about their missing children. A new agency called ZARRA will be set up for the express task of registering and monitoring the cases. Any police station that gets such a report will have to pass on the information to ZARRA. The agency will then compare information received against a special database of offenders and children that it will maintain. The information will be disseminated as quickly as possible to the print and electronic media so that the pictures of the children, their place and time of abduction and other details, along with any images available of suspects, can be shared as widely as possible.

It appears that Pakistan has finally chosen to confront a problem that had been festering for decades. Along with all the practical provisions contained within it, the new law will reflect public recognition of the truth that child sexual abuse and exploitation are widespread in the country. Until now, the procedures and means for apprehending the culprits and recognising the issue as real and dangerous were unclear.

Meanwhile, paedophiles and child abusers from other parts of the world too have taken refuge in Pakistan. Members — of Pakistani origin — of the Rotherham group, a sex trafficking ring that groomed and sold hundreds of British girls in the UK, actually absconded from Britain and went into hiding in Pakistan. There is also the recent case of a known paedophile who had lived in the UK and served a jail sentence there. He was deported to Pakistan where he lived with apparently no one having an idea of his deviance and crime. He even managed to land a government job.

The Zainab Alert bill is a great beginning and one hopes that it will be able to put a stop to at least some of these dark and dangerous scourges in our midst. There are, however, a few more measures that could make it even more effective. Currently, while there are provisions to ensure that electronic and print media are given information about abducted children, a better way to go about it would be to issue mandatory alerts via all mobile phones in the country. Since mobile phones are commonly used in Pakistan, such a move could ensure that everyone receives information about the abduction and whatever details of the suspected kidnapper that may be available.

Another addition would be to ensure that Nadra’s system is used to register all individuals who have been convicted for such offences. This would ensure that those who receive only the minimum prescribed sentence of 10 years are marked forever as paedophiles. Notifications could be sent to neighbourhoods, or locations could be marked on maps showing where these evil people live so that there is greater public vigilance regarding the safety of children.

Finally, an educational wing of ZARRA could be developed that could reach out to local schools and provide appropriate prevention training to teachers enabling the latter to recognise the signs of an abused child, as well as teach the children to be wary of strangers.

It has taken Pakistanis a terribly long time to confront the problem of paedophilia; once enacted into law, the bill will undoubtedly represent a victory. At the same time, it is but a drop in the ocean. Paedophiles are notoriously wily and manipulative; they are excellent at adopting ruses and gaining trust. Parents and children must be very alert to all this.

Apart from its provisions, one huge accomplishment of the bill is that it has finally enabled Pakistanis to talk openly about an issue that was too often shoved under the rug or imagined as the misfortune of someone else’s child. Perhaps now, Pakistanis can start protecting their children against the evils that lurk all around them.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com