Lives of 1.8 million Pakistani children are in danger
Once there was a time when we were kids and were at the centre of our parents’ lives; and now when we have our own children, our lives revolve around them. But, we must not limit our love and care only to our own children rather we should widen this circle and include others’ kids as well because these innocent and loveable beings are to be treated with love and affection and no discrimination should be made between them. Every sane person thinks this way and believes in this notion. But alas, we are not ready to break our self-created bounds or come out of comfort zones of our personas. For our children, we are ready to even pluck stars from the sky, but when it comes to providing other children their due rights, mum’s the word as we have been absolutely heedless and irresponsible. We may find numerous instances of this dereliction around us. Isn’t it the extreme of our slackness that we, as a nation, haven’t yet been able to develop a consensus definition of the age group to which a kid should belong in order to be treated as a child. It is astonishing to see that various laws of the country provide varying age limits for ‘child’. Take, for example, the Constitution of Pakistan 1973 wherein no elaborate definition of ‘child’ has been provided. According to a document released by the Institute for Social Justice, the legislators and the interpreters often refer to Articles 11 and 25A of the 1973 Constitution. Article 11(3) says, “No child below the age of fourteen years shall be engaged in any factory or mine or any other hazardous employment.” But 25A articulates that “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years …” Section 2(a) of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, as amended up to 1981, says that “child means a person who, if a male, is under eighteen years of age, and if a female, is under sixteen years of age.” Similarly in Section 5 of the Sindh Children Act, 1955, a person below the age of sixteen years has been referred to as a child. Moreover, as per Section 2(g) of the Sindh Child Protection Authority Act, 2011 and Section 2 of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Protection and Welfare Act, 2010, the age limit for a “child” is eighteen years. According to the West Pakistan Vaccination Ordinance 1958, a ‘child’ should be below the age of sixteen years while Section 2 of the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance 2000 prescribes that a child is below eighteen years of age. Section 13(1) of The Railways Act 1890, asserts that a child is under the age of twelve years whereas The Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act, 2004 says in Section 3(e) that a “child means a natural person who has not attained the age of eighteen years.” Section 2(c) of The Factories Act, 1934, as amended up to 1997, and Section 3(c) of The Mines Act, 1923, prescribe age limit of below-15 years for a person to be treated as a child, whereas Section 2(c) of the West Pakistan Shops and Establishments Ordinance, 1969 prescribes this age limit up to fourteen years.
Besides these, many other laws prescribe varying ages for a ‘child’. Nonetheless, internationally, the United Nations, through “The Convention on the Rights of the Child,” defines a ‘child’ as a person below the age of 18 years…”
A predefined age group for children is actually the measure by which any institution can make thoughtful planning for awarding children their due rights. But, till today, we haven’t been able to prescribe a certain age limit and our individual as well as collective lethargy and apathy has left our children on the mercy of fate. Resultantly, a huge majority of them is facing numerous hardships that are increasingly rendering their lives miserable and pitiful.
This is not a mere verbiage or prolixity; it’s a grim reality. If we look at children’s population in Pakistan, then we come to know that by 2015, as per the UN-defined age group, 42 percent of Pakistan’s population consisted of people aging up to eighteen years and that the country ranks 61st in the world in this regard. Moreover, with regard to the number of children, which exceeds 82.6 million, Pakistan is the fifth largest country in the world.
But, what measures we are taking for the wellbeing of this huge chunk of our country’s population? It is an important question and its answer can be found by analyzing a few basic aspects.
Take education, for example. It’s a painful reality that only 57 percent of the children of primary school-going age actually get enrolled at schools. More disturbing is the fact that only half of this already small portion could successfully complete their primary education. With increase in educational grade, net enrolment too keeps on dropping gradually. According to Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey 2013-14, only 21 percent of children belonging to age bracket 10-12 years are enrolled in middle schools while this ratio for matriculation level students, who age 13-14 years, is only 14 percent. This is the basic reason why Pakistan, at present, has the world’s second highest number of out-of-school children (OOSC) which according to Unesco’s “Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2015,” had reached 5.37 million in 2012. But, regrettably, no decline in this number has been witnessed since then rather it has shot up to 6.7 million, according to according to Pakistan Education for All (EFA) Review Report 2015.
Let alone the lament for this huge number of OOSC; even more perplexing is that those who, howsoever, manage to go to school face numerous difficulties and hardships. If some schools are without buildings, then some lack boundary walls; if some are deprived of clean drinking water, then some have no provision of electricity, and the absence of toilets in some is highlighting our ineptness and apathy. Another related matter that needs urgent, serious attention is that a number of school buildings have completed their life and have now become dilapidated. A total of 16380 buildings of public sector schools, from primary to higher secondary level, have been declared dangerous till now. An analysis of the report entitled “Pakistan Education Statistics 2013-14” released by the Academy of Educational Planning and Management (AEPAM) — a ‘Subordinate Office’ of Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training — reveals that buildings of nearly 10.92 percent educational institutions, from primary to higher secondary levels, have been declared dangerous and that they can cause a serious tragedy anytime. According to the Report, there are nearly 10.76 million children getting educated at 149491 institutions, at four abovementioned school levels, in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Islamabad Capital Territory. It means that on average, 111 students are receiving education in each of these schools, which, in effect, means that nearly 1.8 million children go to schools the buildings of which have already been declared dangerous.
But, those at the helm of affairs are not ready to come out of their self-created comfort zones that centre around only their own children. Since their kids are not educated at such institutions, therefore, they would never feel the fear that grips the parents of those going to the institutions having dilapidated buildings to quench their thirst for knowledge. Indeed, their time hangs heavy after sending their beloved children to these schools and their safe return surely enlivens them again.
Similarly, a fleeting look at the health sector also exposes our laxity and remissness at individual as well as collective levels. As parents, it’s our responsibility to get our kids not only immunized against 9 EPI target diseases but also to complete the vaccination course. Government institutions too are duty-bound to provide this facility to all children. But, if, on one hand, we ourselves remain careless, then on the other, related government departments also become an epitome of sluggishness and ineptitude. And, all this has resulted in a situation where only 58 percent children of age 12-23 months could get vaccinated. As per the calculations based on the facts and figures, the lowest ratio of child immunization is in Balochistan where only 27 percent of children of age 1-2 years are vaccinated. Perhaps, it’s the very reason why Pakistan ranks 23rd in the world in terms of under-five mortality rate. Every year nearly 394,000 Pakistani children die before reaching their fifth birthday. Moreover, only 34 percent of children under-five years are registered with the government; again a big question mark on the dutifulness of parents as well as the government officials.
Now, if we analyse the matter of children’s nutrition, then the facts, which come to the fore, reveal another deplorable state of affairs. According to a Unicef report titled: “The State of the World’s Children 2015,” nearly 32 percent of Pakistani children below 5 years of age are underweight with regard to their age. Similarly, 45 percent are shorter in length than the requirements of their age and 11 percent are underweight with regard to their height.
Besides economic and social problems, another big reason behind deteriorating nutritional status of the children is breastfeeding trends in mothers. As per the Unicef findings, only 38% of Pakistani children aging up to 6 months get breastfed whereas for the children of up to two years of age, this ratio is 56%. The physical and mental health as well as the growth of a child is directly related to drinking breast milk because numerous scientific researches have proved that after parturition, mother’s first milk, also known as colostrum, is essential for the newborn’s life as well as his/her health and growth; but this milk is usually wasted by assuming that it is impure and dangerous for the baby. Consequently, only 18 percent babies could get breastfed within the first hour after the birth. Moreover, health and nutrition experts recommend that the only food for the children up to six months of age should be breast milk. But, it never happens actually and a big reason behind this is the mother’s own health which gets deteriorated by underage marriage, frequent pregnancies and improper diet because due to underage marriage, a girl becomes mother at a time when she herself is growing up. This adversely affects the health of both infant and the mother as the infants born are weak and underweight while the mothers become anaemic; hence they cannot properly breastfeed the baby.
Underage marriages are included in the category of child marriages. In this context, it is important to mention that 21 percent of Pakistani women, belonging to 21-24 years age group, got married before reaching their 18th birthday — 3 percent of them were even below 15 years. Moreover, 8% of the women from this age group had their first childbirth before attaining the age of 18 years. Experts assert that the chances of premature births in such women are far greater, so how on earth it is possible that the children born to them will be having good health? Such children either fall prey to various diseases immediately after birth or become permanently disabled, physically or mentally.
For children’s physical or mental disabilities, experts hold responsible violence against them or its presence in their surroundings. Is there no violence in our homes? Is the rule of ‘Maar nahi Pyar’ (No beating, but affection) being followed in letter and spirit in our schools? And, especially after the Kasur child abuse scandal, the news and details of which rattled the whole nation, every sane person is compelled to think that is the environment of our society conducive and safe for our children?
Unfortunately, like many other countries, the menace of child molestation is present in Pakistan and during the year 2014, a total of 3508 cases of this despicable crime were reported across Pakistan. An NGO named Sahil has collected facts and figures on the basis of news reports published in 70 national, regional and local newspapers which state that on average 10 children a day were molested during the last year i.e. 2014.
Sexual abuse of children leaves deep scars on their personality and when compounded with other deprivations, these get worse and become indelible. So, feeling our individual as well as collective responsibility toward children, we must love and care for other children; the same way we love ours so that we may not become a prisoner of conscience tomorrow.