The National Assembly on Thursday passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2015 aimed at protecting children from mental and physical abuse. Amongst the major Amendments, the bill raises the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 10 years and the upper age limit from 12 to 14 years. Moreover, it legalises protection of children from cruel treatment and criminalises child pornography, proposing punishment for the crime.

Children in Pakistan have become increasingly unsafe and the trends of child abuse in the last few years are shocking. Girls are hidden away and their mobility is restricted by social norms, thus young boys are more often the targets of sexual violence. According to a recent study from Sahil, a non-government organisation (NGO) working against child sex abuse, the total number of young boys being abused increased by 4.3 per cent in the first half of 2015 compared to the same period last year. The report said that 178 boys aged 6 to 10 were abused compared to 150 girls of the same ages. In August, The Nation exposed a huge scandal emerged involving at least 280 children who lawyers said were filmed being sexually abused, with their parents blackmailed over the footage.

It was about time that laws were amended. The increasing use of cheap tools to film and distribute videos, like cell phones and social media, make child pornography easier. Laws have not been amended to reflect these modern developments. However, weak law enforcement will continue to be the major problem hindering the protection of children, even after the amendments.

Abuse can be of many types. Though sexual abuse is clearly criminal, many children live in appalling conditions in Pakistan with parents who are physically abusive, verbally abusive, or subject their children to child labour, scavenging or begging. There is no system to protect children in our country, no clear process to report abuse and get children to safety from their abusive parents and caretakers. In fact, separating a child from its family, no matter how abusive, would be taboo in Pakistan, where family ties are considered more important than any concern for well-being, freedom or equality. The fault is in our mindset, where obedience of the young, and of children, is demanded by such an extent by elders (including parents, teachers and even older people in the workplace) that there is no room for the voice of the young. This obedience is extracted by physical and mental coercion of the child by adults. Such an environment, that teaches majority of young children to “respect” elders and obey unquestioningly, also teaches them to stay quiet and obey when the abuse crosses physical barriers.