islamabad - In Pakistan, children are the most vulnerable group of people. Deprived of even basic rights, many children in the country are treated worse than animals.

One prominent case of mistreatment of children is that of artificial microcephaly. A ritual in which a newborn’s head is locked in an iron mask to restrict the growth of skull, this savage act occurs in the Shrine of Saint Dolah located in Gujrat. The ritual is indicative of a wider reality in Pakistan:  the strong beliefs that people have in saints and their shrines. The peculiarity of the Saint Dolah Shrine is the age old tradition associated with it.

According to this tradition, a married couple having no luck with children comes to offer a sheet of flowers & prays at the Shrine of Saint Shah Dolah in hope of having a baby. If the couple is lucky, they have to pay a much bigger price. They have to give their first born to the administration of the Shrine as a gesture of gratitude. The parents are then not allowed to meet their baby; however, they get to keep their other children if the mother gives birth again.

These infants are subjected to artificial microcephaly. With a tiny sloped skull on a normal body, these children are called “Rats” or “Chuhas” (a term used by the locals) of the Shrine of Saint Shah Dolah.

They are made to wear a green cloak and are then dispersed on the streets around the Shrine. Having no education or other skill to earn a living, these children are forced to beg the visitors and local people for money. Along with this tradition comes a superstition that ignoring or rejecting these “Rat Children” for money brings bad luck, therefore people fill their bowls with coins and paper money. This money is later submitted to the administration of the shrine.

Criminal gangs have also followed this act of barbarity. They kidnap healthy children and create their own “Rat Children”. The children undergo the same heart wrenching act of deformity and are then forced into the beggary.

People experiencing hardships in life, looking to fulfill a desire, or cure a disease usually come to these so-called faith-healers or ‘Murshid’ for help. These healers play with their faith and exploit their weak state of mind.

Such ritual abuses are a common occurence in Pakistan nowadays. These so-called ‘Pirs’ molest children and sexually abuse girls in the name of spiritual treatment. There have been several cases where the patients have been badly tortured and beaten under the pretext of getting rid of demons possessing the body. These phony ‘Pirs’ continue to abuse people without any fear.

The ritual abuse at shrine of Saint Dolah is a massive violation of human rights. The parents commit a horrific crime when they leave their first-borns in the hands of such barbarians. 

According to Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), section 328, abandoning a child under the age of 12 by the parents or the caretaker is a crime. In this case, the parents of the child abandon their first born at the shrine after the first or second day of their birth, where their caretakers do everything with them except for taking care. According to section 332 & 335 of PPC, disfiguring or impairing a functional organ of an individual constitutes a crime that is punishable with Qisas. Moreover, the forced beggary of these rat children constitutes child labor according to section 36 of the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act 2004.

Pakistan, being a member of the United Nations, is liable for compliance with the conventions of the UN. The United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child 1990 (UNCRC) and the Worst Forms of Labor Convention 2000 (WFLC) are of critical importance in case of Pakistan. According to article 23 and 37 of the UNCRC, “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…” Even though the children are not mentally strong due to artificial & forced microcephaley, they are forced to beg on the streets.

The general public can take actions against this unethical practice without taking the law into its own hands. They can inform any suspicious or unethical activity immediately to the police or concerned departments as a case of violation of human rights. The government can take precautionary measures by educating people and raising awareness on such issues. People need to know their rights and that other people have rights too. The Council of Islamic Ideology should declare all such unethical rituals un-islamic and forward proposals to the government for legitimate enactment on this issue.

The parents of such ill-fated children cannot be declared innocent as they are at the very apex of the chain of duty. They should be charged for their heartless acts. The parents refuse to consult a doctor out of shame, but when it comes to throwing their child for beggary in a deformed form, they do not feel shame or guilt at all.  There ought to be strict enactment on different types of ritual abuses which are in opposition to Islam and Shariah.

–The writer is a student at IIUI