Children at risk

Written by: Mustafa Shaukat

The beginning of the year 2018 was marked with the gruesome rape and murder of Zainab Ansari. It was heavily reported and political parties unanimously condemned her murder and mourned her death. This shock was expected to jolt the Pakistani society into action and reduce the future instances of rape and sexual assault of minors. It did not.

According to a report by an NGO on child rights called Sahil, child abuse incidents which were 3445 in 2017 had increased to 3832 in 2018. Unfortunate cases further arose such as Farishta’s murder and rape. However, little practical steps were taken to address the root causes of the problem. Legislation in this area remained un-passed or lacking, societal attitudes towards discussion of rape and sexual physical contact remained negative and enforcement of some already present laws remained uncommon.

On July 4th at the Launch of Child protection campaign Shireen Mazari asserted that incidents of child abuse are increasing and Pakistan is currently number 1 in terms of child pornography.

On July 17th Pakistan Telecommunication authority (PTA) Chairman retired Maj. Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa claimed that child pornography in Pakistan was on the decline in Pakistan and went as far as to say “Google wanted to know how we achieved the declining trend of access to pornographic websites”

Child pornography consists of an information system that depicts any of the following:

a. A minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct

b. A person appearing to be a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, or

c. Realistic images representing a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct

The statement by PTA’s chairman might make you think that there is little cause for worry for the cause of Child Protection at least in the cyber space as of now. However this assumption should be taken with a grain of salt. Firstly, the blocking of websites by PTA although commendable is inadequate in deterring viewers of this explicitly horrific content from accessing these sites from either Proxy servers via virtual private networks or the Dark-web where the majority of illegal online activity takes place. This means that there is little evidence we can have to ensure the decline in child pornography spreading and consumption in Pakistan.

In fact, the first ever case of the conviction of a suspect in a child pornography case happened only as recent as April 26, 2018 when Saadat Amin was caught possessingover 600,000 files of a child pornography and being involved in a gang that distributed pornography of children from years 10-12.

Secondly, assuming the statement of PTA’s chairman to be true, the decline in child pornography consumption by no means can show that it is not a major problem plaguing Pakistan.

Child pornography consumption is problematic even when done privately because the perverse sentiments it fosters in its audience can contribute significant to real world consequences such as child abuse. It is speculated that individuals that can sexualize children due to child pornography have a high likelihood of seeing them as sexual targets in the real world. Moreover, due to the vulnerability and lack of protection most children, these individuals can go onto target them with little likelihood of facing legal consequences.

The environment of ease with which child molesters/assaulters can feel confident preying on little children can be attributed, at least in part, to the shortcomings in our society and legal system. According to The Prevention of Electronic Crimes act 2016, pornography can lead to up to 7 years in prison. In contrast, countries such as the United States have significantly higher penalties for child pornography such as 15-30 years imprisonment for first time offense. Legal scholars such as Advocate Almas Ali Jovinda have suggested that the current punishment for possession and distribution of child pornography is insufficient punishment for such a heinous crime and have shown their support for having 15 years of imprisonment for child pornography.

However it seems that the issue is more nuanced than just needing to increase legal consequences to deter crime. Researches such as Deterrence in The Twenty first Century by Daniel S.Nagin, have shown that certainty of apprehension, not the severity of the ensuing legal consequence, is the more effective deterrent in reducing crimes overall. Hence one major hurdle in ridding Pakistan of the plague that is child pornography and child abuse, is going to be the culture of under-reporting. Often victims and witnesses do not come forward in cases where such crimes are observed. This can often be because the criminals are family relatives or at least quite close acquaintances and it may harm the victim’s reputation to come forward. Moreover many victims have had unfortunate experiences with the legal system which reduces their trust in it to bring justice to the criminals in the first place. Mistreatment of victims’ families such as in the case of a 10-year old child named Farishta who had been raped and murdered, show that this hesitation victim and their families feel towards law and law enforcement is often understandable. In this case, the father of Farishta remarked:” The police station was paid numerous visits to get the FIR registered and to search for the missing girl. Instead of searching for her, the SHO remarked the victim must have eloped with the suspect,” and registered an FIR against the police station for delayed inquiry into the suspects of Farishta’s rape and murder case.

In order to attempt to reduce the disillusionment and inconvenience victims may face from the legal system, Dr. Mahreen Razar Bhutto suggested that in The Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act 2019, (ZARRA) aggrieved parties be provided a one-window operation system for registering complaints and having their case processed.

ZARRA is yet to be passed by a standing committee of the national assembly even though its draft has been approved by a subcommittee. However, once passed, ZARRA will allow signaling and SMS services to inform citizens of the abduction of children from their communities. This response system is intended to collaborate with Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority for running tickers on TV that will include descriptions of the physical appearance of missing children and information in order to have those children returned to their communities.

Bills such as ZARRA if passed and implemented can make major inroads in the fight against child abuse and abduction. However, beyond legal alterations, there are societal changes that might be necessary such as the education of children and adults on sexual consent. Often children may not realize the extent to which they are being exploited by such horrific individuals or may be too traumatized to confront even those close to them about it. On the communal level, sexual education for children has been suggested by many activists as a means of allowing children to identify when a sexual predator is having interactions with them. An environment where children can talk about physical interactions they’ve had with at least their parents can often mean a safer environment for them growing up as this can improve rates of reporting and thus deterring cases of child sexual abuse and child pornography.

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