LAHORE - Following the country’s biggest child abuse scandal surfaced in Punjab last year, rights activists have expressed disappointment over the provincial government’s approach in adopting policy measures to protect children from all forms of abuse and exploitation.

They regretted that the province was yet to come up with concrete policy reforms, legislative development, and behavioural change programmes to reduce threats of violence against children. Also, they noted that the government did nothing for the rehabilitation of victims during the last one year.

This was the upshot of speakers during a follow up conference held in Lahore with regard to most damaging Kasur scandal yesterday. Child rights activists and policy experts also reviewed the progress on child protection measures during a consultative and debriefing session. Some survivors of Kasur child abuse scandal were also present on this occasion.

The conference was organised by Children Advocacy Network-Pakistan and National Commission for Human Rights to review the child protection measures taken by the Punjab government for victims’ rehabilitation.

A leading policy and advocacy group, CAN-Pakistan observed that the Punjab government’s attitude in adopting policy measures for child protection was regrettable. The child rights’ group also expressed serious concerns over the state of street children in the most populated province.

Iftikhar Mubarik, a child rights activist said that following the Kasur scandal Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sahrif had constituted a high-level committee under the chairmanship of provincial law minister Rana Sana Ullah. Population Welfare Minister Zakia Shahnawaz, Social Welfare Minister Haroon Sultan Bukhari, Child Protection and Welfare Bureau Chairperson Saba Sadiq, Prosecution Secretary, Home Secretary, Health Secretary, Human Rights Secretary, Social Welfare Secretary, Inspector General of Police were members of that particular committee.

“The committee was mandated to examination of issues of child rights, abuse and neglect in its entirety followed by conception of plan and action covering all dimensions of the matter i.e. criminal (case reporting, investigation, prosecution, conviction in prison etc.), medical, rehabilitative, legal, and social etc”.

After several meetings and deliberations, the committee had developed a comprehensive action plan to address the issues pertaining to child protection, including establishment of policy formulation committee forum at provincial level, establishment of divisional level child protection committees under concerned commissioners, capacity building, and training of concerned stakeholders on child protection, and life skills based education through school curriculum.

Mubarik regretted that despite the lapse of one year the proposed plan of action did not get the attention of Punjab Chief Minister, and all the efforts invested were wasted. “The civil society organisations and human rights defenders are deeply concerned over this attitude,” he said.

Iffat Saeed Chaudhry, a legal expert from CAN Pakistan, and some survivors from Kasur shared that the families pursuing their cases to get justice from courts were facing sever threats from influential of the area.

They regretted that the government did not come forward to provide any kind of legal assistance as well as rehabilitation services including psychological support services for victims and their families in Kasur keeping in view the gravity and sensitivity of the issue. “The government is following situations oriented actions instead of formalising a comprehensive policy to address child protection issues with holistic and multi-dimensional approach,” they added.

Saeed called for enhancing the legal purview/scope of “The Punjab Destitute & Neglected Children Act 2004” through necessary amendments to cover various issues related to Child Protection in Punjab, which are still not covered by law.

Rights expert Hina Jillani stressed for early approval of child protection policy followed by declaring institutional mechanisms along with allocation of adequate financial and human resources for effective implementation. She also urged for preparation of provincial plan of action for children, with special focus on prevention, interventions, and rehabilitation of children from all forms of abuse and exploitation.

“Community-based child rights and protection mechanisms should be established to respond violations of Children Rights at grass root level, by engaging local government representatives at various levels,” she said. Jillani regretted that protection of children rights was not the priority of the provincial government. As a result, children have been facing severe issues like sexual abuse, exploitation, and abductions.

CAN-Pakistan programme coordinator Rashida Qureshi expressed her concern over not considering the action plan developed by Committee on Protection of Children’s Rights, Punjab. The committee had suggested child friendly centers for reporting and investigation at each police station with specialised female staff, as well as establishment of special cells in the office of Provincial Police Officer and Public prosecution department to monitor the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases.

Qureshi also pointed out that it had been decided in the committee that medical facilities and psychological support services for victims of child abuse would be ensured at THQ and DHQ level.

Chaudhry Muhammad Shafiq, Member National Commission for Human Rights, also criticised the government for not addressing recommendations made by the commission in 2015 including establishment of child protection system in compliance with the provisions of the CRC.

The NCHR had recommended in 2015 that the federal and provincial governments should promote public awareness about child rights and child protection issues in collaboration with all relevant stakeholders including CSOs. Law enforcing agencies, prosecution, judiciary, lawyers and social welfare departments should be sensitised at federal, provincial, and district levels. Also, physo-social treatment and counseling for victims and their families should be developed systematically.