The Case of Missing Children

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In the recently-published annual report of Roshni Helpline 1138, a non-profit from Karachi, a total of 2,633 cases of missing children were reported in the country from January to December 2023.

Of those, 1,942 were successfully recovered and reunited with their parents. However, the organisation, which focuses on missing children and coordinating with authorities for their safe recovery, added that more than 600 children were still missing, and efforts were underway for their recovery. The report also said that the bodies of 33 children were recovered with 20 of them sexually abused and murdered. Seven bodies were recovered from manholes and drains, while five children had died in accidents. It should be noted that the above figures are of reported cases, and the actual numbers may be higher.

At the government level, the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency (ZARRA) is the major authority for finding missing children. The ZARRA was established under the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill 2020, which is aimed at raising alarm and aiding in response and recovery of missing or abducted children.

Under this law, police are bound to register a first information report (FIR) within two hours of a child being reported missing by their parents. It will inform ZARRA immediately and keep providing updates on the status of the case and available details. ZARRA shall, wherever required, coordinate the efforts of the concerned police stations and other federal and provincial agencies, authorities or departments to recover the missing child.

In the first week of January, the Punjab Child Protection & Welfare Bureau (CPWB) reunited over 600 missing children in the province with their parents, according to a statement from its chairperson Sarah Ahmad.

WHY DO CHILDREN GO MISSING?

Often missing children are kidnapped for sexual abuse, begging, child labour and other abuses. Many of these children end up on the streets at a very young age, becoming part of gangs and other criminal networks, and spiralling into an abyss of drug abuse and prostitution.

The upswing in missing children is often attributed to a lack of understanding on the part of the parents of their children’s psyche. Children often develop psychological issues within the family due to inadequate parenting, which can lead to mistrust of parents and running away from home. The reported cases highlight a notable concern regarding the upsurge of runaway children, particularly above 10 years of age.

Additionally, runaway cases are ascribed to the imposition of unilateral decisions and societal pressure upon children. Violence at the hands of parents and parental abuse also contribute to increased incidences of children leaving their homes. This is seen more commonly in children of broken families.

Sometimes, children leave their homes due to poverty, when their parents are not able to fulfil their needs. Furthermore, there is no proper governmental strategy to address the issue of access to basic utilities for poor households. A majority of people have no clue about the age bar set by state law for child labour, nor do they have any idea regarding which child protection institutions to contact in the wake of the discovery of an abuse victim. Lack of adequately trained teachers, outdated curricula and corporal punishment at schools are also contributing factors in children running away from home.

A recent report prepared in collaboration with Unesco by the Pakistan Institute of Education, which falls under the purview of the federal education ministry, has revealed that the number of out-of-school children in Pakistan has increased to 26.2 million. According to the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc), around 35,000 students drop out of school each year, trying to escape corporal punishment.

LEGAL FRAMEWORK

There is a dire need to address this obnoxious situation through a rights-based approach. This is imperative as Pakistan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1990. The need for protection of children is reflected in Article 11, 19, 34, 35 and 36 of the UNCRC.

Missing children is the issue of protection of children. Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan states: “All citizens are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection before the law; nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the protection of women and children.”

Likewise, the Constitution provides a legal framework for child protection, particularly Article 35, which prescribes the state to protect the marriage, the family, the mother and the child; Article 11 elaborates on child protection; Article 25A guarantees free and compulsory education from 5-16 years; Article 37(e) directs the state to protect children from vocations unsuited to their age and morals; and Article 38(h) directs for measures for the social protection of children.

THE WAY FORWARD

Child protection policies need to be formulated in all territories of the country. National and provincial laws must be harmonised and the functioning of child protection bodies across the country must be ensured. Across Pakistan, there must be comprehensive child labour laws and the implementation of these laws.

There should be an emphasis on protecting the rights of children, so that parents, the community and the state can keep children safe from neglect, abuse, violence and exploitation. The average individual in Pakistan lacks even the basic information on child protection. Prospective parents should be given information on parenting and positive disciplining. In order to sensitise the general educated population, the subject of child rights should be included, on a mandatory basis, in the curriculum.

Corporal punishment must be banned in all settings, as it has been in Sindh. Beating children does not aid them in any way. Instead, it kills their creativity and is a breach of their fundamental human rights. The government should roll out awareness campaigns on the harmful effects of corporal punishment with an emphasis on changing the general attitude towards the practice and on promoting positive, non-violent and participatory forms of child-rearing and discipline.

Article 25A of the Constitution should also be implemented in letter and spirit. The education system should be revamped according to the contemporary needs of the children. Teachers and school authorities of all forms of institutions for children must be empowered with alternative tools and strategies for connecting with their students.

Rather than controlling the children, it is more effective to engage them in decision-making and enhance their communication skills. The case for love, politeness and participation is powerful as well as empowering; we just have to adjust our lens.

Poverty alleviation is another important aspect of addressing the plight of missing children. This can include stipend programmes for educational initiatives as well as assistance to low-income families. There is a need to recognise the gaps in social protection mechanisms, especially birth registration of children, so that the government can provide for adequate social protection measures.

Appropriate and proper training should also be provided to police, doctors, media and those dealing with the subject of missing children, in order to provide a protective environment for children in trouble.

The time is ripe for child protection interventions so that no child in the country goes missing, no child begs on the roads, no child is robbed of their childhood, no child becomes an awful news headline, dies in misery, or is found in a heap of trash or in drains. And especially so no parent experiences the trauma of a missing child.

Written by Nabila Feroz Bhatti and published by Dawn on 04-02-2024

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