The fault in our system

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The brutal rape and murder of seven-year-old Zainab in Kasur in January 2018 resulted in a wave of protests, anger and condemnation. In the weeks following the incident, sex crimes against children remained part of our national consciousness and discourse.

But once Zainab’s killer was arrested and subsequently awarded capital punishment, many of us were satisfied that justice had been served in this case and shifted our focus to other issues.

We often forget that Zainab’s case was not an isolated crime or, for that matter, an exception. It was part of a larger and more serious problem. Sex crimes against children have become a menace and need to be tackled with care.

After this particular incident, many of us hoped that state institutions and the police force would become more responsive and handle cases involving children going missing or being abducted with greater sensitivity. However, the two cases involving rape and murder that have surfaced over a matter of weeks have once again left us in a state of shock. A student of Government College University Faisalabad (GCUF) and a seven-year-old girl in the town of Jaranwala (which is near Faisalabad) were abducted, raped and murdered in separate incidents. The police have once again showed a callous attitude in this regard by failing to take action with immediate effect.

Abida, the GCUF student, went missing on March 25 soon after she left her university to return home. Although the family contacted the police on the same day, no immediate action was taken. The police even refused to register an FIR against the incident. Her body was found from a canal a few days later. According to doctors, the university student was raped and strangled. If they had acted promptly and taken the matter seriously, the police could have rescued her. Unfortunately, police inaction and negligence resulted in the death of an excellent student who had been a gold medallist and a position-holder.

Protests erupted in Jaranwala following the murder of seven-year-old Mubashira and the subsequent failure to arrest the suspects. A large number of social activists and residents took part in the demonstration and forcibly had shops closed down in Jaranwala. Many lawyers boycotted court proceedings to take part in the protest.

The performance and efficacy of the Punjab police once again came under the spotlight. The police force showed the same level of insensitivity that was highlighted in the Zainab case and failed to act in a timely fashion. It appears that the police have not learned a lesson even though they have been criticised for their irresponsible conduct during previous child sexual abuse incidents that surfaced in Kasur.

The lackadaisical response of the police, local authorities and the Punjab government suggests that they have yet to realise the gravity of the situation. Those who are responsible for protecting children are not taking their duties seriously. It is time to act now before the situation spirals out of control.

Various NGOs that are working towards protecting the rights of children have produced an endless array of reports on child sexual abuse. These reports paint a depressing picture and offer alarming statistics. According to figures released by a local advocacy group, the cases of child sexual abuse in the country have increased by 36 percent this year as compared with similar crimes reported during the previous year. According to Sahil, a child rights organisation, more than nine children are abused every day in the country.

The data on the crimes committed against children in Punjab raises question on the performance of the police in the largest province of the country. The police need to be sensitised on the abductions of women and young children. They must learn to act quickly and aptly in these cases.

According to legal experts, sexual abuse is rampant in various parts of the country. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system either allows criminals go scot-free or the investigation ends up in the hands of a weak prosecution. But the fault predominantly lies with the police and their ineptitude during crime scene investigations and follow-up probes. As a result, the medico-legal officer seldom receives any forensic evidence to send to chemical examiners. This weakens the prosecution.

In our society, violence against women and children has a largely structural dimension. The number of rape cases have increased over time. The callousness of the accused can also be gauged from the cases that have come to the fore in recent times. A majority of the victims are girls between the age of six and 10. In many cases, videos are recorded to blackmail rape survivors and their families to not to register a case against the incident. Some gangs that have been involved in these acts have been identified in different cities of Punjab.

Punjab needs an independent child rights commission to investigate sex crimes against children. The menace of child abuse cannot be addressed without a thorough research on the causes of this social problem in different districts. Civil society activists and community organisations should also be involved in this process. This commission should be prepared to implement a suitable plan of action in light of its probe.

The commission should function without any interference and control from the state bureaucracy. It should establish offices in all districts of Punjab and priority should be given to districts that have the largest number of child abuse cases. The commission shouldn’t be run by state officials and should instead be managed by lawyers, former judges and child rights activists.