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Selected news/columns/editorials: 13.03.2016

Child abuse law


THE passage by the Senate on Friday of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2015 has finally put in place some much-needed sanctions against child abuse in Pakistan. The bill, which was passed by the National Assembly in December, raises the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 10 years of age, and brings in a number of important changes to the Pakistan Penal Code by taking a broader view of acts that constitute child abuse. Among the various components of the bill, sexual assault of minors is punishable by seven years’ incarceration, whereas earlier only rape was criminalised. Similarly, child pornography, which did not previously find a mention in the PPC, is now punishable by a seven-year prison term and a fine of Rs700,000. Child trafficking within the country has also been recognised as a criminal act; earlier, traffickers only attracted sanctions if they removed children from the country.

In a country where around 40pc of the population constitutes under-18s, these changes to the law were long overdue, not to mention legally required as per our international obligations. After all, Pakistan has been a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1990, but its laws were woefully, shamefully inadequate in protecting minors from sexual abuse whether at the hands of predatory adults or older children. This was highlighted time and again in the media through stories of children violated in the home, in the school/madressah or on the street. However, as is the wont of societies that are reactive rather than proactive, it took a particularly horrific case — that of the child abuse in Kasur district — to shock the country into acting against the paedophiles amongst us. In that instance, it emerged over the course of a few weeks in August 2015 that scores of minors — perhaps as many as 200-plus — had been sexually abused for years and their ordeal filmed in order to blackmail them and their families. While it is encouraging that there is now legislation in place to deal specifically with crimes against minors, there must be, as always, steps taken to ensure implementation of the law as well as awareness of the issue to make it easier for children themselves to recognise sexual abuse and report it. Maintaining a prudish silence on such matters only leaves our children vulnerable to those who would perpetrate unspeakable acts of brutality against them. 

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2016

THE prime minister and army chief have just wrapped up a visit to Saudi Arabia which saw them witness the ‘North Thunder’ military exercises. Held under the kingdom’s aegis, the exercises saw troops from 20 Muslim states, including Pakistan, come together for war games in Hafar al-Batin, a town located close to the Iraqi border. The drill reportedly involved thousands of troops and equipment taking part in exercises ostensibly meant to sharpen counterterrorism skills. However, considering the fractured state of the Middle Eastern chessboard and the nature of the Saudi-led coalition, there is some speculation about the ‘real’ intent of the exercises. After all, considering that the manoeuvres were explicitly designed to cement “Islamic and Arab unity”, the fact that Iraq and Syria, which fall under both categorisations, and Iran, which qualifies under the first, were not invited is fuelling speculation. Those with knowledge of the affair say “all aspects” of cooperation were discussed by the Pakistani leadership with their Saudi counterparts. But there are troubling accounts in the Saudi media by analysts who say the drill was also designed to send a message to those who ‘interfere’ in the affairs of others — a veiled reference to Iran.

Ever since the Saudi-led coalition was announced last year, Islamabad has appeared to maintain strategic ambiguity about what role this country will play in this alliance, even though Sartaj Aziz has told parliament that Pakistan will not commit ground troops to the coalition. It appears that participation in such exercises is designed to reassure the Saudis of Pakistan’s overall commitment; after all, defence cooperation between Islamabad and Riyadh goes back decades and joint military exercises are not new. However, participating in war games is one thing; committing Pakistani troops to a coalition that may invade a sovereign state is entirely another. Should this grouping be used as a vehicle to invade Syria, then Pakistan must be quite clear about where it stands.

The civil and military leadership did the right thing by resisting Saudi pressure to join the Yemeni conflict. That ruinous war has achieved very little, while aggravating the humanitarian situation in that impoverished country. As for Syria, things appear calm at this point, with the ceasefire holding. We hope this paves the way for a permanent, negotiated end to that brutal conflict. However, should things go awry and hostilities resume, and if the Saudis and their allies decided to intervene militarily in Syria, Pakistan will have to make a decision. When, and if, that time comes, this country must keep the people and parliament in the loop and not become part of any exercise that would not only violate the sovereignty of another country, but also affect the security and stability of this country, along with putting our troops in the middle of a devastating, open-ended civil war.

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2016

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