Ritual abuse in the name of religion, not the religious teachings- be they from Islam or any other religion- promote unethical practices that mar fundamental rights of various weaker segments of society. Since children are among the most vulnerable parts of society, so they have to suffer a lot in terms of their health, education and development due to social and religious rituals.

The conversion of normal healthy children into the so-called ‘rats of Shah Daulah’ at the shrine of the Sufi saint Shah Daulah in District Gujrat by putting an iron ring over the head of the newly born children to control growth of their heads and minds while allowing rest of the body grow. According to the tradition, those issue-less parents who come to pray at the shrine vow that if they become fertile, their first-born would be delivered to the shrine administration, so that rest of the children they can grow in their home environment. They first such babies received by the shrine administration undergo the inhuman practice of being forced to be abnormal so that they can be sent for beggary and other abnormal practices and are dubbed the ‘Rats of Shah Daulah’. We see them in green dresses in almost every city and they are reportedly controlled by a mafia of beggars. These children are reportedly abused physically and sexually. Their deformity renders them only useful for begging as they cannot perform any other income activity.

This is one of the many kinds of ritual abuse occurring in Pakistan. Ritual abuse is more commonly practiced by the so-called ‘Pirs’ or faith healers who exploit a person’s weak faith or state of mind, either due to a disease or an unfulfilled want. Occurring of such abuses of human rights are not confined solely to the physical nature of abuse rather they consort to all forms of abuse of child rights in violation of domestic laws and international conventions. In the name of relieving people from the control of genies or any diseases, the patients are tortured badly; some of them reportedly succumb to their injuries. In such circumstances, girls are molested or sexually abused by the so-called spiritual healers.

These unethical rituals continue unabated in the absence of a specific laws that deal with ritual abuse. In the worst-case scenario, if during performing such rituals the victim is severely injured or killed, only then such abuse is considered as crime under various offences governing abuse of child rights in Pakistan.

The ritual practice at Shah Daulah is a grave violation of human rights. The child suffers abuse not only at the hands of his parents but also the guardians in whose care he has been given. In particular, section 328 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) marks it a criminal offence to expose and abandon a child under 12 years by a parent or a person taking care of it. The parents in this instance abandon their newly born at the shrine where their guardians then expose them to appalling treatment. The section 332 makes causing hurt by impairing, disabling, disfiguring, defacing or dismembering any organ a crime. The section 335 further makes permanent destruction, disfigurement or impairment of the functioning power or capacity of an organ an itlaf-i-salahiyyat-i-udw, punishable with Qisas. Exploitation of circumstantial situation and putting the ‘rats of Shah Daulah’ in begging to raise income of the shrine is treated as child labour and hence is seen as criminal offence under section 374 of the PPC as Unlawful Compulsory Labour. Sending the children out to beg is a direct violation under Section 36 of the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act 2004.

Furthermore, assuming that the whispered, but more commonly believed, theory of purposely deforming the children to induce microcephaly is true, then those in charge of the shrine are crucially violating the law of the land. Pakistan, on being a part of the United Nations, is subject to compliance with its Conventions. In the abuse of children at Shah Daulah two such Conventions become significant; The United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child 1990 (UNCRC) and the Worst Forms of Labour Convention 2000 (WFLC).

The UNCRC seems to have been violated in its entirety when it comes to assessing the conditions of the children at the shrine. The children at Shah Daulah clearly fall within the standards of punishment and discrimination as they are abandoned due to their parent’s belief in the curse of Pir Shah Daulah, and then they are abused by their caretakers for the very same reason.

The children at Shah Daulah are completely abandoned and transformed into destitute beggars present only to gain sympathy of the people visiting the shrine. Moreover, if the children’s disabilities are taken separately, their rights as mentally ill children are also violated as Article 23 and 37 of the UNCRC, which prohibits torture stating; “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…” The children at Shah Daulah when sent to beg despite their vulnerable state due to microcephaly, the violation of the WFLC takes place as their work falls within the composition of the definition of the worst forms of labor.

At this point, seeing the prolonged nature of the horrendous treatment of the children at the shrine makes the state’s responsibility questionable as well. No notice of their treatment has been taken as yet by state authorities and agencies and the children continue to live in appalling conditions subject to equally horrible treatment by their caretakers. The UNCRC clearly bestows on all state parties the duty to develop and maintain proper laws and agencies to facilitate all rights of the child. For disabled and mentally ill children the UNCRC maintains strict standards as to their rehabilitation and care.

Pakistan has ratified seven out of nine international Human Rights Conventions. The ratification process demands compliance reports from member state. Pakistan’s performance in submission of reports of these conventions is unsatisfactory. This is a global thinking that developing countries ignore their commitment under international legal frame work. Later on, due to non- compliance of these conventions, the international community has no other option but to impose sanctions on the member states not fulfilling their commitments.

There are variety of ways through which the state can intervene in such unlawful rituals and practices without raising obvious hostility of religious discrimination. For example, the government could support programs to educate and raise awareness among community members so that family, friends, teachers, and even religious clergy and laypersons can prevent ritual abuse of children. A simple verdict from Council of Islamic Ideology, which is a constitutional body, should declare all these ritual abuses un-Islamic and forward recommendations to the government for proper legislation on this issue.

The departments controlling shrines and other religious places are not as zealous in identifying cases of ritual abuse as has been claimed. Mostly these ritual abuses are taking place at various religious places or shrines under their care. The Punjab Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department has gained control of the shrine since 1996, yet this immoral practice of making the poor children beg, continues. It seems that not only the Government of the Punjab but the Department for Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons has also not taken note of the situation that prevails at the shrine.

While blaming the government is the very first reaction, the parents of the children stand at the very pinnacle of the chain of responsibility. The parents of such ill-fated children should be charged with the offence of abandoning them to another person who they know would deform the head and brain of the children. Such an act violates the rights of the child. Religion goes too far in such instances; the parents refuse to consult the professionals and go into a state of denial where their beliefs in false religious rituals becomes a defense. There should be strict legislation on other forms of ritual abuse as well which are contrary to Islam and Shariah.

In such a modern era, when research is so clearly disclosed to benefit the resources, nature and actions of human beings the existence of the false enigmatic approaches of religion, become an almost insane nature of our society. In the presence of a knowledge-based, socio-economic, and community-based society, ritual abuse is a hurdle. In a world that is richer and more children oriented than ever before in history, the problem of Rat children in our country is a social stigma. It is time to reassess our individual social behavior against Rat children, in the light of the constitutional, domestic laws and international Conventions. Thus Pakistan has to make further legislations and genuinely activate the enforcement agencies to eliminate this menace of ritual abuses from the society through strong enforcement mechanism.