The senate passed a landmark amendment to the penal code on Friday by criminalising acts of sexual assault against children. In the aftermath of the Kasur scandal, the need for this law was self-evident. The abuse of children has existed in Pakistani society for a long time, and the failure of the legal code to protect our children from the people that abuse them has given the perpetrators impunity. In the case of children, the need for this because a child cannot defend him/herself against a fully grown adult, especially when this adult is a teacher or a family member and has a position of influence over the child. The abuser uses their innocence to exploit them, and this must not continue, because apart from the physical abuse, the psychological impact of the attack can potentially be impossible to recover from.

Over the past five years, cases of sexual abuse against children have been brought into the limelight more frequently. Not only that, but some NGOs have released studies that show that the incidence of cases have increased as well. The proposed penalty of seven years however is not nearly enough given the seriousness of the crime. In legal terms, it is important to remember that a child’s status differs from an adult because of the ability to make conscious decisions and provide consent for anything that affects an individual. The fact that the attacker is abusing someone who may or may not know what is happening to her/him. The punishment of a crime against a child then should be the strictest possible in the penal code, which in the case of Pakistan is a life sentence or death.

Increasing the age of criminal responsibility from seven to ten years old is also a very important step. Most developed countries have identified the age of criminal responsibility as ten, with punishments that are moderate and more corrective instead of focusing on retribution for crimes committed. It is important to remember that a child who engages in criminal activity is very different from a hardened criminal. In the case of the latter, it is important to keep the time spent incarcerated long enough to remove the criminal from society until he or she is ready to be rehabilitated. It is in the interest of the society to do the opposite with children, to ensure that they are brought back into the fold at the earliest. The government should be commended for the step it has taken, but should also be reminded that the job is only half done. In order to adequately protect children, the law needs to be implemented, and the police and the courts need to take the next step in ensuring that a positive precedent is set for protecting children from abuse.