Child rights in Pakistan

Written by Amna Babar 1:13 am

Civil Society and Child Rights in Pakistan

Pakistan’s civil society – made up of varying entities – plays an integral role in fighting for child rights in the country. The civil society fights against child rights violations through different channels: From awareness campaigns to influencing policy decisions.

Civil Society: Understanding the Notion

Emerging from Ancient Greek discourse, civil society (initially limited to participation by selective citizens in the political decision-making of the state) has evolved today to become a third sector encompassing all individuals – prioritizing and representing collective interests of the public against the monopoly of the economic and political elite. Extending beyond formally organized groups and state control, civil society is a notion originating from within public interest and representation, rights and duties of individuals (Hussain, 2018).

For better comprehension of this paper, in which roles and work of civil society are outlined, civil society as defined by CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) can be understood as: “The arena – outside of the family, the state, and the market – which is created by individuals, collective actions, organizations and institutions to advance shared interest. Civil society, therefore, encompasses civil society organizations (CSOs), social movements, and the actions of less formalized groups and individuals” (Grant & Dolk, 2016).

Hence, civil society is a space comprising conscious self-expression among citizens to make the state (the public sector) and the market (the private sector) accountable to the collective interests of the third sector or the civil society (Hussain, 2018), allowing people to come together and collectively address societal challenges (World Economic Forum, 2013).

Child Rights: A Developmental Issue

A child, any person under the age of 18, holds equal human rights along with specific rights that recognize their special needs (UNICEF, n.d.). However, children are dependent upon their family, guardians, community, and the state to fulfil and safeguard their rights. Thus, if not provided with adequate care and protection, the rights and dignity of children can be easily violated.

Child abuse, child labour, early marriages, child trafficking are some critical child rights issues which not only threaten the well-being of children but add significant risks to the development of a country. Abuse of children’s rights results in hindering children from reaching their full potential, increases chances of violence and deviant behaviour, and lowers state security – overall threatening the social order, and fuelling inequality, injustice and vulnerability. Moreover, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, with all goals and targets of the agenda considered directly relevant for children, adoption of a child rights-based approach is vital (Child Rights Connect, n.d.).

Child Rights and Civil Society: A Global Perspective

Globally, civil society has played an integral role in guiding, advocating, and strengthening efforts to protect children’s rights. Acting as a voice for the underrepresented group, raising public awareness regarding injustices committed against them, holding governments accountable for realizing and ensuring child rights, providing expertise to build governmental and organization capacity on child rights, delivering basic services to children i.e. education, civil society encompasses multiple major roles and responsibilities in the domain of child rights (Grant & Dolk, 2016).

Along international lines, UNICEF has recognized civil society as a key player in the implementation of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), a human rights treaty setting out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children, establishing a foundation for child rights worldwide. Civil society actors, particularly NGOs, acting as mediating bodies between international governing bodies and national governments, have provided support for the framework by pushing states for CRC ratification, carrying out close coordination with Rights of the Child committee for implementation of the treaty, and guiding nations regarding law reform to incorporate child rights and dignity (Šahović, 2010).

One such example is of Canada, where the civil society, particularly the non-profit and charitable sector as well as academics and research organizations, have worked tirelessly in pushing forward most advances that the country has made in implementing child rights as per the CRC framework. These struggles include advocacy efforts for law reform at federal and provincial levels, monitoring child rights in the country through collection and assessment of data, education, training and awareness, and effectively partnering with the government to push forth child rights agenda and establish child protection systems in the country

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State of Child Rights in Pakistan

In Pakistan, indicators measuring child health, education, welfare, and protection show a dire state of child rights in the country. Pakistan has been ranked at 151 out of the 181 countries in the global child rights index by Kids Rights Foundation (KidsRights, 2019) – showcasing that Pakistan is among the least favourable countries in the world in regards to child survival, protection, rights, and development (SPARC, 2018).

Around 45% of children in Pakistan experience stunted growth, and more than half of the children aged 5-16 in Pakistan are out of school (Aziz, 2019). Child labour is prevalent, and cases of child abuse are spread throughout the country. While Pakistan has ratified the CRC in 1990, the process of legislation, policy-making, and implementation to protect child rights in the country has remained slow and uneven (SPARC, 2018).

Child Rights and Civil Society: The Situation in Pakistan

Pakistan’s civil society takes shape of diverse social, informal and organizational forms – encompassing the traditional council of elders, neighbourhood associations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations (CSOs), faith-based organizations (FBOs), labour and student unions, social movements, and individual activism. Comprising of lawyers, academicians, activists, human rights defenders, campaigners, students, charities, and journalists, Pakistan’s civil society actors spread across a dynamic spectrum addressing diverse development challenges faced by the country. One such development issue Pakistan’s civil society has long struggled for with increased efforts today is that of child rights.

A key role played for the cause of children’s rights by Pakistani civil society is providing the vulnerable group with representation. This pertains foremost to shedding light on the challenges faced by the group. For example, conferences and seminars by civil society actors including social activists, NGOs, CSOs, and academics presenting detailed accounts into contemporary issues in child protection are carried out across the country annually. This helps not only in spreading awareness regarding challenges, but also provides a platform to advocate for child rights and engage child rights experts in dialogue to guide the way forward for child welfare.

An example of this is the seminar on Child Protection organized at a smaller scale by the faculty and students of Bahria University in November 2019, bringing together prominent experts, NGO representatives, and academics to discuss various child rights issues, spreading awareness regarding the critical state of children in the country. In a country where a prominent statistic of the population is living in poverty, many of child rights issues remain unknown – yet civil society actors come into action here in reaching out to communities and identifying various forms of child exploitation.

A Pakistani independent non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting the rights of children i.e. Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) has outlined various child rights issues and violations happening across Pakistan through publications and has strengthened advocacy by carrying out consultations, meetings, trainings and campaigns. SPARC’s annual report “The State of Pakistan’s Children” published each year provides detailed insight into the condition of child rights citing facts and incidents, adjoined with recommendations and advice for addressing and overcoming the issues.

Child Rights Movement (CRM) is a civil society forum bringing together child rights organizations working on different child rights issues and individual actors such as doctors, lawyers, professionals from media and academia across Pakistan. The forum holds monthly meetings to discuss developments in child rights, devise strategies for advocacy, develop policy guidelines to the government, and provide information for the general public and policymakers (Child Rights Movement, n.d.).

The media, including news channels, possesses a critical role in publicizing incidents threatening the safety and dignity of children, and thus plays a crucial role in providing representation to victims of various form of abuse and exploitation, providing a medium to expose the criminalities and heighten demand for legal justice. The media had a critical role in spreading awareness and creating public outcry over cases such as Zainab rape case, and the Kasur child pornography and sexual abuse scandal. Not just limited to news headlines and stories, journalists penned down articles and opinions spreading information and awareness on social media further charging public sentiment. Many other similar incidents relating to violence against children and their exploitation – not just in urban centres, but also remote areas – are made prominent with the help of the media.

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Paired with representation is advocacy, an important function of civil society for the cause of child rights. The key actors within this field are NGOs and CSOs, which carry out advocacy at multiple levels – including spreading awareness amongst the general public and bringing the issues into government knowledge further adding pressure for action. CSOs appeal to the government to act and implement laws for child rights through press conferences. These occasionally prove to be invaluable, such as during the instance when a press conference was organized by Search For Justice along with various other CSOs, to express concerns over the implementation of the recommendations provided by the UN body on Child Rights. This forum put up the recommendation to the provincial government of Punjab to formulate and oversee an inclusive policy on child protection (“Child rights activists,” 2019).

Child Rights Movement (CRM) continues to advocate for child rights and put pressure on government bodies for action. In September 2019, CRM held a press conference at National Press Club, Islamabad followed by a protest, where many people encompassing various civil society actors, publicly protested for immediate measures to be taken by the government towards the protection of children from sexual abuse in the country in light of increased sexual abuse cases from Kasur (Child Rights Movement, 2019).

To effectively and timely advocate child right challenges, civil society organisation such as CRM act as watchdogs, closely monitoring child rights violations and pace of government action – where it then intervenes to catalyse the process by holding press conferences and carrying out campaigns and protests. CRM effectively carries out such monitoring through its monthly meetings wherein current issues pertaining to child rights are discussed, previous work followed up on, and future strategies devised,  in addition to critically assessing the actions of the governments which go against the interests of children (Child Rights Movement, 2020).

Moreover, NGOs and CSOs provide government and policymakers with expertise and knowledge on effectively tackling child right issues. Group Development Pakistan, a non-governmental organization, is working closely with Pakistan’s law and human rights ministry in establishing child courts in major cities of the country, to ensure juvenile justice and protection. In their project, they are effectively carrying out varying trainings and workshops of judges and lawyers for child court functioning. Furthermore, through in-depth research of child exploitation, civil society actors, particularly academics can better inform and assist in policy planning on child protection frameworks.

Alongside building the capacity of state actors, the civil society is also actively engaged in sensitizing children about their rights and safety by carrying out orientation sessions and workshops at schools. Additionally, civil society is rigorously playing out its part in providing services to children in the form of education, shelter, and relief in times of emergency. For example, SPARC has carried out education projects including a four-year education project in Haripur and Abbottabad districts.

SPARC also runs Street Children Centers in four major cities, working directly with street children who need meals, daytime shelter, clothing, psychosocial counselling, health, hygiene, and informal education. In current times of a health crisis, it is working tirelessly to ensure reduced risk of street children contracting COVID-19, stressing upon the urgent need of nutrition and washing facilities for children on the streets to survive this pandemic.

All in all, the work and effort of the civil society in the field of child rights has helped in defining standards to ultimately ensure the dignity and safety of children. The efforts have constructed a strong narrative against child abuse and exploitation in its various forms, resulting in greater motivation for positive action and increased struggle to safeguard child rights and to protect children from abuse by adopting good practices.

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Child Rights and Civil Society: A Critique

While the details mentioned earlier paint an optimistic picture of the role of civil society in the development of child rights, certain shortcomings can still be highlighted. Civil society efforts are often short-sighted, particularly when it comes to building government capacity – which should not be limited to hourly workshops once a year but should be approaches aimed for long-term engagement. Police, teachers, and religious leaders must also be trained, segments that are currently largely ignored (Mustafa, 2019).

It can also be pointed out that civil society working towards child rights is rather scattered all over and must be synergized for a holistic child protection system, instead of individual entities working in silos on selective issues. Moreover, an important critique of child rights and civil society is the lack of inclusion and engagement of children in decision-making forums. It is necessary to create child participatory committees to incorporate their perspective and to truly empower children rather than limiting them to passive subjects.

Child Rights and Civil Society: The Way Forward

Civil Society plays an integral role in the recognition and development of child rights globally, and in Pakistan. From the perspective of government and policy-making bodies, it is vital to not only realize the importance of civil society in a country’s development but with the realization, facilitate the non-state actors in their efforts to gain information, impart knowledge, build capacities and strengthen platforms for advocacy.

Budgeting for research must be increased to identify and better assess factors detrimental to child exploitation, and to work towards their eradication through joint and collaborative efforts. Civil society must broaden its scope further to incorporate non-traditional stakeholders that play a crucial part in child rights, and extend its umbrella to include child participatory committees to truly advocate and work in the best interests of the children.

References

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About the Author(s)

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Amna Babar is currently working with an NGO in Islamabad. She holds a bachelor's degree in social sciences with major in development studies from Bahria University Islamabad. She is fond of reading fiction and engaging in academic discourse pertaining to social development, women empowerment, environment, and human rights.

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