Some of the political parties are starting to draft their election manifestoes for the coming elections. Many criticize these manifestoes as promising a lot but the fact is that most during the past three decades read more like a governmental policy document than anything alluding to a change.
The days of promising the masses roti, kapra aur makaan are long gone. Nobody promises to end the feudal system or introduce secularism. Instead, we come across vague commitments like `Fighting Corruption’ and `Ending Exploitation’. These are meaningless statements as even the most corrupt condemns corruption.
The manifestoes actually play with language. Simple policies are proposed in one or two sentences to deal with complex problems that are linked to many different factors. They act as if they could find solutions by means of concepts and words. Among the host of causes and conditions responsible for any given situation, they isolate one or two and fail to take the others into account. The result is what we get after the elections: an inadequate response and misunderstandings.
Pakistan has innumerable problems but children suffer the most for the simple reason that they have no voting power and are thus politically powerless. Until recently, child rights were seldom mentioned in any of the election manifestoes. In the 2008 elections, a few political parties bothered to insert one or two sentences promising to promote child rights.
The children defined internationally as a human beings under-18, constitute around 50% of Pakistan’s population. This is more than the population of most of the countries in the world. And our political parties have no program or policies to handle such a large segment of the population. This is indicated by the performance of all the governments during the past five years, whether at the federal or the provincial level.
The Eighteenth Amendment was introduced in April 2010. It inserted article 25-A in the Constitution which promised free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to 16 years in such manner as may be determined by law. Almost three years have passed and we do not even have the relevant law introduced in any of the provinces which can determine the manner in which this article 25-A is to be implemented. The Parliament only recently passed a law for the Islamabad Capital Territory.
It may surprise some that way back in 1962, the then Governor of West Pakistan introduced a Primary Education Ordinance. This was never implemented. In the nineties and in the early part of this century, laws were introduced in all the provinces except Balochistan to replace the 1962 Ordinance. These laws were again not implemented.
According to some estimates, more than 30 million school-going age children are not going to school in Pakistan. The least that the political parties can promise this nation is complete implementation of article 25-A. Education after the Eighteenth Amendment is now a fundamental right of each and every child in Pakistan. It is binding on the State to protect and promote this right and all parties must mention full implementation and adherence to article 25-A in the next five years after being elected.
Children who do not go to school are potential child laborers. Child labor up to the age of 14 years is mostly prohibited in the formal sector by various laws and partly by article 11(3) of the Constitution. But child labor beyond 14 years is allowed in all sectors and there is virtually a carte blanche for employing children in the informal sector. In other words, one can employ a child of any age in her home, in agriculture (65% of the populace lives in the rural areas), and all other areas that are not recognized as formal by any law. There is no law governing self-employed children who spend their life polishing our shoes and selling balloons to our children. Article 11(3) prohibits under-14 employment of children in `hazardous employment’ but this term remains undefined throughout the country.
Isn’t it about time that our political parties promise in their manifestoes that child labor under the age of 16 years shall be prohibited in all sectors, whether formal, informal or semi-formal. Until such a ban is imposed, article 25-A will remain meaningless as the education promised up to the age of 16 years is hardly possible if and when a child is working.
It is estimated that more than 80,000 children are facing trial in various courts in Pakistan. In other words, they are children who are in conflict with the law. Mercifully, not more than 1500 are in prison at any one point of time which is a credit to the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance which was introduced by General Musharraf’s regime in 2000. However, not a single exclusive juvenile court exists in the country under this law. There are few exclusive prisons for children, with Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa lacking even a single one. Children under the Frontier Crimes Regulations in the tribal areas can be imprisoned and convicted for unlimited number of years, and sometimes even under the collective punishment clause. Is it too much to request the political parties to include in their manifestoes that the JJSO shall be fully implemented; exclusive juvenile courts shall be established; and exclusive prisons with immense rehabilitation possibilities for the children will be introduced.
Vague and confusing child rights laws have been introduced in three of the provinces, excluding of course Balochistan. The parties should promise to revisit these laws, upgrade them and make them meaningful.
All forms of violence against children, whether corporal punishment or sexual abuse or rape or kidnapping, must be strictly prohibited and exemplary punishments must be promised by all the political parties in the manifestoes.
And lastly, there should be a body to which the children can go if they witness or experience a violation of their rights or they desire a positive right like recreation or entertainment. Ideally, a body to monitor and promote their rights must be established in each province and nationally, which can be in the form of a commission or an ombudsperson.
Political parties come and go. It is part of the democratic process. But the State of Pakistan cannot progress and advance until and unless the rights of its children are supported, protected, and promoted. aJ@Jillani.org