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Despite observing Universal Children’s Day for over half a century, this year’s celebration was especially memorable for me as Pakistan recently held its Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
During the UPR, the state of child rights in Pakistan was highlighted and recommendations were made by several neighbouring countries. The event was well attended by the Pakistani government as the foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, led a high-level delegation to this event.
It seemed like a step in the right direction. Should the Pakistani government accept and effectively implement all of those recommendations, the state of child rights in the country will improve significantly.
The meeting began with a moment to celebrate the many victories over the past four years. The recommendations accepted by Pakistan in 2008 were reported to be widely circulated and well received by Pakistan’s robust civil society, independent judiciary, free and active media in Pakistan which is playing a key role in the protection of human rights. This has played a strong role in creating positive changes in legislation, policy and practice, including the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention against Torture (CAT), Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography.
But there is a long way to go before Pakistan can proudly say that it is a society that respects the rights of all people and does not discriminate based on race, gender and religion. In their recommendations, states present at the meeting focused on a few key topics, including minority rights, ratification of the UN Human Rights instruments, women and children’s rights, education for girls and support for the establishment of the National Commission on Human Rights.
Specifically for children, they suggested universal free primary education to all children, prevention programmes and policy on sexual exploitation and abuse of children, rehabilitation of children recovered from militants or extremists, legislation to prohibit and prevent the employment of children as domestic workers and adequate resources in implementing programmes to achieve the Millennium Development Goals with priority focus on vulnerable groups such as women and children.
Some old and traditional practices in Pakistan were also challenged. There were recommendation to implement laws and policies to eliminated early and forced marriage, in order to propel an end to rape, sexual exploitation and forced conversions of scheduled caste girls.
These recommendations were thoughtful and achievable. It is time that the Pakistani government respond to the recommendations, invest and take action. All the pending bills including the Charter of Child Rights Bill, the Criminal Laws Amendment (Child Protection) Bill, National Commission on the Rights of Children Bill, the Child Marriages Restraint Amendment Bill and the Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill should be passed with urgency.
Some argue that the problem lies with a decentralised system in the Pakistani government, where child rights are a provincial responsibility. The result could be devastating. Balochistan is the only province which has not introduced any child rights specific legislation since independence, which means children are not afforded protection by law and are not guaranteed essential services such as education.
Instead of being passive about such situations, it is my opinion that the federal government should lead in the country’s vision, putting pressure on provincial governments to invest in children. For instance, provinces such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh have passed child rights related laws but the implementation of these laws and budgetary allocation still hangs in the balance.
Our children have a right to be protected, educated, fed and heard. It is about time we give them just that.
The writer is Senior Manager Advocacy and Campaigns Pakistan Programme and tweets @amahmood72