After the Zainab incident I don’t leave my children alone with anyone, even family members. No one can be trusted, says Nabeela, a worried mother of three in Lahore.

Zainab Ansari became a household name in 2018 after the harrowing kidnap, rape and murder of the six-year-old resident of Kasur, Punjab made national and international headlines.

Following intense pressure from the Supreme Court, media and civil society — sometimes in the form of violent protests — the case was resolved swiftly. The perpetrator was apprehended in a month’s time and executed before the year’s end.

Since then, while there have been calls to introduce widespread measures for child protection, similar incidents of violence have not stemmed.

According to a 2019 report by Sahil, an organisation working for the protection and safety of children, 2,846 child abuse cases were reported across Pakistan that year. The number includes 778 cases of abduction, 405 of missing children, 348 of sodomy and 279 rape cases. A total of 3,722 abusers were identified, out of whom 2,222 were acquaintances of the victims. This aspect of knowing one’s abuser raises the importance of the role of parents in ensuring their children are aware of what constitutes abuse and are open in discussing any such acts.

Earlier this year, the government managed to pass the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill 2020 as part of efforts towards child protection.

Under the law, the perpetrator of child abuse will be awarded a minimum of 10 years and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment along with a fine of Rs1 million if found guilty. The Act also calls for the creation of a special agency to issue alerts on missing children and maintain an online database of cases. Police will also now have to register cases within two hours of receiving a complaint by parents, while the respective trials in special courts will have to be completed within three months.

Iftikhar Mubarik, executive director of Search for Justice, an NGO working towards child protection, said, “It’s been more than three months since the law was enacted but there has been no progress. The proposed agency has not been set up, its rules of procedure have not been formulated, and the provinces have not adopted the law in full spirit. Police officials have the most significant role under this law but they have not been trained accordingly. What are they waiting for?”

While the law’s implementation is awaited at a national level, there has been some progress on an individual basis when it comes to the safety of children.

Before the law was passed by Parliament in March this year, the Sindh Police had already introduced the Zainab Alert App which aims to immediately respond to complaints of missing children. Muhammad Farooq, an official who worked on the App, said, “We studied how developed countries are responding to such issues and came across the Amber Alert system. We studied it in detail and came up with a slightly modified version more relevant to our social dynamics.” He explained that the App also reports cases from other provinces which are then passed on to the relevant authorities.

Valerie Khan of Group Development Pakistan, a child rights’ organisation, also termed the App “very helpful” in launching a swift search for missing children. “It is operated in close collaboration with law enforcement agencies and relies on a responsive citizenry,” she said, adding that, “it is critical to adopt it nationally.”

Appreciating the proactive role of Sindh Police, as well as the federal capital’s, in terms of child protection, Sidra Humayun, of Sahil regretted that the overall issue of children’s safety and the specific implementation of the Zainab Act has taken a backseat since the coronavirus pandemic.

Rights activists hope the government implements the various measures laid out in the new law and is not waiting to be stirred into action by another brutal incident of child abuse.

August 10, 2020

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