The tragic case of 8-year old Zainab Ansari startled the country and international community in 2018 when it was reported that she was raped and subsequently murdered. The turn of events had called for not only a reform in the law but for an incredible increase in the severity of the punishment of those involved in child abuse. This, of course, included the resentment of the general public towards those like Zainab’s murderer and the ineffective system of law and order that has sadly prevailed in Pakistan. As if this tragedy was not shocking enough, her killer’s DNA had matched with other eight cases of the similar grave nature. It is with a most heavy heart that one must accept the fact that Zainab was like many others who were brutally murdered. It has been reported by Sahil in its Cruel Numbers report that the statistics in 2017 and 2018 were incredibly alarming. In 2017 alone 3445 cases of child abuse were reported. 2018 saw an increase in child abuse cases being reported daily, with an increase to 12 cases per day from 9. The number of reported cases alone paint a grim picture of the situation of child molestation in Pakistan. Furthermore, the conviction rate in Pakistan is only 10% across all offenses including child abuse. In sharp contrast to this, India has a conviction rate of 43% whereas Japan, Israel and Canada have a conviction rate of well over 90%.

The sad state of affairs prompted the Government of Pakistan to pass the Zainab Alert and Response and Recovery Act 2020 in January which placed prosecutions against child offenders and the ability to report such gruesome incidents on a better statutory footing. However, this legislation extended only to the Federal Capital Territory of Islamabad. Meanwhile, the National Assembly has passed a resolution on 7th February 2020 that calls for the public hanging of those involved in child abuse. While this motion received support from the general public, it was not immune to without widespread criticism on constitutional and humanitarian grounds. The likes of Shireen Mizari and Fawad Chaudhry openly dissented the resolution of the National Assembly, calling it ‘draconian’. While such matters are almost always emotionally charged, one must not compromise rationality after succumbing to their emotions.

The actions of the child molesters are, without a doubt, too condemnable for words. However, before one is quick to welcome this motion initiated by the National Assembly, one should not overlook the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan 1973 that forbids inhuman and degrading treatment. This includes prohibition on torture and inhuman punishment. As the Constitution of Pakistan is the supreme legislative document, such a resolution if converted into law may be regarded as ‘unconstitutional’. Moreover, Pakistan is signatory to various international treaties and Pakistan has undertaken to abolish death penalty altogether. Pakistan is a signatory of International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966. In its second optional protocol, the ICCPR 1966 seeks to abolish the death penalty because it believes that the abolition is contributory to the development of human dignity and human rights.

A proper solution to effectively remedy the situation would be to increase the deterrence by making the punishments more certain rather than merely increasing the severity of punishments. Investigators need to be well trained and well equipped. Then, there has to be an effective system of prosecution and witness protection which is currently non-existent at the moment in Pakistan. The prosecutors should be more competent and trained along with being supplemented with better working conditions and remunerations. The forensics department also has to be reformed and properly trained with respect to modern standards in order to solve cases within their allotted time frames. Ultimately, the most needed reform is of our society’s mindset. The children, their parents and their guardians have to be well-informed about the ills of society and how to deal with them with reasonable steps. The children have to be educated about their rights and the inviolability of their bodies as well as their mental well-being which ought to priceless at all times. Sadly, incidents of child abuse are under-reported in Pakistan due to the various stigmas prevailing in our society and are quickly swept under the rug, with some going as far as stating that even the most fundamental human rights are too “Western” a concept for a place like Pakistan and erroneously believe it to be an attack on our culture and false notions of honor. It is about time to sweep this flawed way of thinking under the rug instead.

Abshar ul Huda

The writer is a Lahore based lawyer and a feminist.