Among the most alarming revelations in 2016 was the failure of Pakistan to achieve targets set under all Millennium Development Goals (MGDs). This situation calls for immediate and effective policy measures and strong adherence to and implementation of existing legislation. The National Assembly of Pakistan passed a unanimous resolution to adopt the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs as a national development agenda. However, the effectiveness of initiatives for year 2030 needs to be seen.
It has been 26 years since Pakistan signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), however, the implementation of its protocols in a befitting manner is yet to be seen. Even after more than two decades of an arduous struggle by civil society organizations to push for reforms, the challenge to ensure the safeguard of rights of children in the country still requires a herculean task.
Historically, Pakistan has been marred by misplaced priorities of government bodies, which is evident in the abysmally low budgetary allocations for health and education sectors. While the budgetary allocations for the education sector saw a marked increase for Fiscal Year 2016-17. However, the track record of provincial governments in efficiently utilizing allocated funds is not very encouraging. Evidence of that are the over 22 million out of school children in the country. Over the years the gap between the number of children out of school has only reduced marginally, which is a matter of great concern.
Legislation related to child employment is not aligned with Article 25-A of the Constitution which gives each child a right to education and the employment of children remains unaddressed, particularly in sectors like agriculture, factories, brick kilns, street vending and car workshops. Domestic child labour is another pressing issue, for which meaningful legislation is yet to see light of day. Many bills associated with the informal sector and prohibition of child labour are still stuck in paperwork. Even the child labour prohibition laws enacted by provincial governments of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa fail to address child labour in the aforementioned sectors. Whereas, Balochistan has lagged behind in enacting such a legislation, and the recent legislation passed from Sindh assembly has the same lacunas as other child labour prohibition laws in the country.
Nearly half of all children in Pakistan are chronically malnourished, undermining their mental and physical growth. There are many reasons contributing to the nutritional deprivation of children in the country namely; poverty, food insecurity, poor health services, illnesses linked to hygiene, and improper feeding practices.
Among other health related challenges is the failure of Pakistan to eradicate polio. Pakistan remains one of the only two countries left among polio-endemic nations list. It shares more than half of the global polio burden. The number of children paralyzed by polio reduced by 60% by June 2016, compared to the same period in 2015. However, the virus remains active in various parts of the country including the Khyber-Peshawar corridor, Bannu District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Northern Sindh, and the Karachi and the Quetta block.
The health related budgetary allocation for Fiscal Year 2016-17 announced by the federal government was worth Rs 24.951 billion for the National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination Division under the Public Sector Development Programme. However, like previous budgets, there was nothing significant announced for pressing issues tied to the healthcare sector in Pakistan. For example, medical education, oncology and burn care departments continue to be neglected.
The diagnostic and therapeutic equipment in public sector hospitals and institutes has either reached the end of its lifecycle or has been rendered useless due to technical faults that are seldom rectified. The availability of such equipment in the country, especially far-flung areas is not only scarce but in many remote and rural areas it is simply non-existent.
The condition of healthcare can be assessed by the fact that our own policymakers prefer foreign healthcare facilities rather than opting for public or even private sector hospitals in Pakistan for their own treatment.
In the absence of specialized quantitative information, it is hard to measure the precise magnitude of cases of violence against children in the country. It is only now that corporal punishment at school, homes and the workplace is being addressed, whereas, social attitudes require a massive shift, along with much needed legislation across the country to address the issue. The case of 13 year old Muhammad Ahmed Hussain from Larkana, who was rendered paralyzed due to torture from his teacher is a stark reminder of how prevalent the cases of violence against children are in the country.
Pakistan was among the first states to propose a target for ending child marriages by year 2030 in discussions of the Open Working Group on the SDGs. However, practical steps to curb the phenomenon are far from satisfactory. Not only are child marriages common in remote and rural areas of Pakistan but the prevalence of such marriages in slums of Islamabad is no hidden secret.
In 2016, an estimated 979 juveniles remained incarcerated across different jails in the country. There has been no progress in finding alternative means to incarceration for juveniles found guilty of minor offences, whereas the inability of the provincial government to put in place operational Borstal institutions points towards the apathy faced by incarcerated juveniles. This makes them vulnerable to violence and abuse, the ratio of which is difficult to determine.
Separation of juvenile prisoners from normal adult prisoners also remains inconsistent. Furthermore, ensuring the just treatment juvenile children seems to be one of the least priorities of successive governments.
The state of children belonging to minorities remained dismal throughout 2016, with no reduction in cases of violence against minorities in the country. Despite legislation from the Government of Sindh, forced marriages of underage girls, particularly the Hindu minority continue to be reported. Furthermore, the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act, 2016 itself is having a hard time surviving amidst pressure from right wing groups. Needless to say, there is a dire need for legislation protecting the rights of minorities across all provinces of Pakistan.
Be it child sexual abuse, corporal punishment, early child marriages continue unabated as there seems to be a dearth of moral vocabulary to adequately condemn these issues. Rights of minorities and of the disabled seem even harder to come by as both vulnerable groups face discrimination in the social, economic and political realms.
While the provinces were keen to acquire decentralization in law making under the 18th amendment, the same cannot be said in terms of the legislation that followed. Children who fall victim to violence, abuse, negligence or exploitation are deprived of their due rights on a daily basis due to the sluggish pace of legislation that has followed the 18th Constitutional Amendment. This gross neglect in lawmaking is further exacerbated by the lack of implementation of existing laws by the rusty mechanism of delivering justice by law enforcement officials. A mechanism which seems to have oxidized beyond restoration.
Children’s rights have long been neglected by successive governments who have failed to account for commitments under national and international obligations. Not only child rights legislation and needed amendments have been neglected but even the numerous enacted laws and policies have failed to deliver. There is a need for a multifaceted approach to apprise people at the grass roots level to take effective community driven initiatives to help safeguard child rights and act as an effective pressure group to ensure the proper functioning of the government machinery.
There is a need for cohesive development and implementation of policies, which are often bogged down in the bureaucratic and administrative framework of provincial and federal governments. There is an increasing need to collaborate and coordinate with multiple stakeholders to bring the issue of children to the forefront of policy making. The SDGs can act as effective benchmarks to align current and future policies to improve the state of children in Pakistan.