Violence against girls impacts our collective future

Benazir Jatoi

The devastating consequences of extreme violence against girls has been very recently brought into sharp focus following the rape of a 4-year-old girl in Sindh’s Kashmore, and the not so long ago tragic sexual violence against, and murder of young girls in Kasur.

Last week, another 7-year-old girl was struggling for her life after being raped in Lahore. These tragic, unacceptable incidents from Kasur to Kashmore– and everywhere in between– should concentrate minds as to how grave the problem of violence against girls is in this country. 

According to Sahil, a national children’s rights NGO, between January to July 2019, reported figures show that eight children a day are abused in Pakistan. Reported cases reveal 2,846 cases of abuse against children– and they are only the tip of the iceberg according to child rights experts, with many cases going unreported. 

We are reminded, as though we should need reminding, that violence against the most vulnerable in society can have irreparable consequences, beyond those to just the survivors of the victim’s immediate family. 

There has been considerable discussion within media and society about why this is happening and what can be done to prevent similar tragedies occurring in the future. But beyond these debates, the institutions that can instigate change are deafeningly silent– this includes lawmakers, police, judiciary and religious, political and local leaders. 

Addressing violence against girls is imperative for various reasons, of which two of the most obvious are firstly, because such violence is manifestly a violation of a fundamental human right. 

Secondly, there is persuasive global evidence now widely accepted, which shows that violence against girls and women is an epidemic capable of inflicting short and long-term damage on the health and social and economic well-being of not only survivors– but also on their families, communities and countries.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has given great emphasis to the importance of motherhood in society. But what this government has failed to do is link how childhood violence impacts adulthood. A girl survivor of violence is likely to carry the psychological impacts of her trauma with her well into adulthood, which in turn is likely to adversely affect all her future relationships, including that of being a wife and mother. 

A child survivor of violence may in the future also be more prone to violence in her domestic setting. 

The prime minister is also keen on strengthening the economy. But has the government considered how violence against women and girls impacts economies? According to World Bank research, lost productivity resulting from domestic violence ranges from 1.2 percent of GDP in Brazil and Tanzania, to 2 percent of GDP in Chile. 

It would be misguided to suggest that successive governments in Pakistan have simply failed to understand the issues around child rights. Pakistan’s constitutional guarantees and the country’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are evidence that Pakistan has shown some commitment to a better future for its young people. Following from this, child protection laws and related institutions have been set up at most federal and provincial levels. It is also heartening to witness the shift by the Sindh government in acknowledging the importance of addressing awareness in children about sexual abuse in school curriculums. 

However, these legal and institutional protections for children, while very important, cannot hide the unfortunate fact that violence against children, with girls in particular, is widespread and cuts across all geographical and socio-economic groups in the country. And after every incident that goes viral, the government focus is on penal reforms only. Where are the robust strategies focusing on child protection and prevention? 

Wider policy and law making, beyond those that impact women and children directly, also need to take into account that low social and economic status of girls and women can be both a cause and a consequence of violence against them. 

A comprehensive and regularly updated government owned database system on child abuse, child marriage (which is a form of violence) and violence, particularly sexual violence, is an important initiative to be able to create sound future policies or guidelines. Robust oversight of institutions that are responsible for children’s welfare are also imperative to ensure that legislation and policy are being adhered to. The newly formed national commission on the rights of the child is a step in the right direction.

In Pakistan it seems, we have left the issue of ending violence against girls to international donors, multilateral organizations and civil society groups. This approach will mean the violence will continue, destroying lives and generations. There are enough horrific incidents to now make it necessary that issues of violence be at the forefront: all social, economic and political issues that significantly impact girls and women should be at the heart of political debate and decision making at the federal and provincial level. 

After all, investing in Pakistan’s girls is for our collective future. 

This article was originally published in the Arab News, and has been republished here with express permission of the author. Benazir Jatoi is a barrister, working in Islamabad, whose work focuses on women and minority rights.

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