The National Assembly Sub-committee on Interior rejected the The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2016 on Friday. The changes, recommended after the incidents of child sexual abuse and pornography in Swat and Kasur were exposed, suggested increasing the punishment for statutory rape and child pornography. The committee however, rejected the proposed changes, and the convener – Naeema Kishwar Khan of JUI-F – even went as far as stating that there was no need because a punishment (five to seven years’ imprisonment) already existed and that it was “not rape.”

It is shocking that a sitting Member of the National Assembly does not see statutory rape – sexual assault on a minor – as equivalent to rape; in the eyes of international law, it is generally the same thing. But then maybe, this should not be much of a surprise, considering that the Hudood Ordinances essentially abolished Pakistan’s statutory rape law. Girls as young as twelve have been prosecuted for extra-marital intercourse, where previously, this would have mandated statutory rape charges against the assailant. This is why the problem of child sexual abuse is so rampant in the country.

Consent as a concept is also something that many lawmakers do not understand and the law does not acknowledge since sex outside of marriage is illegal. A minor cannot give their consent for any decision considered in the adult domain – if children cannot consent to participating in sexual intercourse or pornography, the cases in Swat and Kasur are to be considered rape, and Ms Khan of JUI-F should revise her definition.

There are very few crimes that should warrant the ultimate punishments – the death penalty or life imprisonment – and apart from murder, rape is one such crime. Statutory rape is no different from rape and hence all those guilty of those should suffer the same punishment.

Abhorrent as the cases in Kasur, Swat and all other cases of child sexual abuse are, the harrowing reports emerging on this topic at least initiated the discussion on what was to be done. But none of that has resulted into action against this horrendous crime; there are reports that the victims are having trouble resuming life normally, while their attackers roam free and lawmakers in our parliament consider these crimes against innocent children as something less serious than rape.

The government must take action; the bill tabled by Mussarrat Ahmed Zeb, was suggested because the number of crimes of child sexual abuse tell us that the punishment is not acting as enough of a deterrent. One can only hope that others in parliament get their act together to protect Pakistan’s children.