Of the vulnerable and deprived

by: Qamar Abbas

December 27, 2012

The challenges and difficulties facing children and women must be addressed on urgent bases if Pakistan is to stand in the comity of civilised and rights-respecting countries

The world celebrated human rights day on December 10 and 64th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Issues of fundamental rights came under public discussion. UDHR adopted four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want.

The Charter reaffirms faith in fundamental human rights, and dignity and worth of the human person and binds all member states to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion. Six decades passed and majority of the world population is still far from attaining and enjoying these freedoms and rights. Women and children being the most vulnerable are specially deprived and ignored.

Pakistan is among the 150 states that signed Convention for the Rights of the Children (CRC) in 1990 at Geneva and made a pledge improving the health and wellbeing of children and women by the end of the century. The CRC has 54 articles that cover the full spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of a child ranging from the child’s basic needs such as food, shelter, and access to healthcare to other fundamental rights like right to education, freedom of thoughts and religion.

During the convention of Saarc countries on children, five goals were laid down including childhood immunization, universal primary education, and child nutrition, provision of drinking water and adequate shelter by year 2000. The year 2000 had also been set as the deadline to end child labour in hazardous conditions and year 2010 was the deadline for eradication of all kinds of child labour.

Over a decade has passed since we entered into the new millennium; the state of children of Pakistan is still far from satisfactory.

A recently released state of women and children report 2012 speaks volumes about the plight of women and children in Pakistan. The report hasn’t given any surprise regarding the plight of women and children. What was, however, surprising was the reaction from the government that denied basic realities and facts. The report reassures the realities that have been prevailing for a long time and unfortunately not taken seriously in planning and decisions.

Pakistan ranks sixth among nations with largest population and fifth among countries with largest youth population. It is predicted that Pakistan’s population will almost double in the next 40 years and so its youth population. Sixty three per cent of our population is less than 25 years, 53% individuals are below 19 years of age and 35% of population is between 15 to 24 years of age. Children below 19 years of age comprise more than half of our total population.

Pakistan ranked 43rd among the countries of South and East Asia with highest under-five mortality rate, while countries which are much smaller than ours and facing similar socio-political problems fair better than us.

In Pakistan, there is no significant decline in the mortality figures of children below five years. Hardly significant improvements are made as majority of these children succumb to disorders which can easily be prevented with timely intervention.

The immunisation coverage for Tb, DPT and polio and measles is still far from satisfactory. New cases of polio continue to emerge and there is a resurge in the cases of tuberculosis. The percentage of children born with low birth weight, a state of intrauterine malnutrition, is still 19% (a drop of only 4-5% in the last two decades). Majority of these new born continue to suffer from malnutrition in infancy and childhood. Nearly 40% of children less than five years of age suffer from malnutrition. Of these, 10% are severely malnourished, and those surviving the consequences of malnutrition in early childhood ends up as stunted underweight adolescents. Early marriages of such an adolescent girl results in birth of another low weight baby and thus the cycle goes on.

Education is the fundamental right of every child, and on his/her education rests the development of the nation. Only 56% of our children are enrolled in primary school. Percentage of girls enrolled in primary education is less (51% vs. 60% boys). Of those enrolled, 2/3 rd girls and half of boys do not complete primary school.

Child protection is a concept still alien to the concerned authorities in Pakistan. There has been a sharp rise in the reported cases of child abuse and neglect over the last few decades. Nearly all forms of child abuses exist in our country and cases of sexual assault, gang rape and sodomy, corporal punishment are increasingly being reported. Nearly eight to ten million children are employed as child labourers in various industries; there are no official estimates of children employed as domestic workers. Nearly 250,000 children are living on the street of big cities like Karachi.

The findings of a national nutrition survey 2011 show that 15.1 per cent Pakistani children are malnourished while in Sindh it is 17.5pc. The overall malnutrition rate in children was determined at 11.6 per cent in the survey. The survey done after the floods of 2010 revealed acute malnutrition rates in children under five years of age. The rates were 23pc in northern Sindh and 21pc in southern Sindh, while malnutrition in women was 12pc, definitely a very worrying situation.

Some of the challenges to child survival include a high rate of preventable disease, exacerbated by poor health infrastructure and misconceptions regarding vaccination; high female illiteracy preventing access to health information; inadequate sanitation and hygiene; lack of knowledge about child nutrition; and lack of access to medical checkups for pregnant women and trained assistance during childbirth.

More than 1,100 Pakistani children under five years of age die every day, about 600 of them are under a month old. This means that in Pakistan an estimated 396,000 children under five years of age die every year.

While some progress has been made in child survival and development, much needs to be done to cut down drastically the number of children under five dying mostly of preventable causes like sever cold (hypothermia), pneumonia and diarrohea. These are preventable or treatable with good hygiene and nutrition, and prompt medical attention. Most shockingly, almost six out of ten children dying under the age of five die in their first month of life, usually at home and without access to essential health services and basic lifesaving medicine.

The story of women deprivations starts even before her birth, where most of the girl fetuses are aborted. The lucky ones who survive are mostly “unwanted” children. Their life is a journey of subordination.

Most of the women in Pakistan do not have any choices starting from choice meals to choice males. Before marriages, they are under strict watching eyes and are always thought doubtful in character especially when they are school-going, smiling on other males. In this secondary status treatment and doubts, their marriages are arranged by the families.

The word “woman” in Pakistan is synonymous with “endurance.” She is simply forced to accept certain bare facts of life once she grows up. The right to life for women in Pakistan is conditional with their obeying social norms and traditions.

In addition, women face all kinds of violence and abuse at the hands of male perpetrators, family members, and state agents. Multiple forms of violence include rape, domestic abuse as spousal murder, mutilation, burning, ill treatment and disfiguring faces by acid, beatings, ritual honour-killings, and custodial abuse and torture. According to a report by Amnesty International, several hundred women and girls die each year in so-called “honour-killings”.

The practice of summary-killing of a woman suspected of an illicit relation, known as “Karo Kari” in Sindh and Balochistan, is occurring in all parts of the country. Karis (the females suspected of illicit relationship), remain dishonoured even after death.

Women who report rape or sexual harassment encounter a series of obstacles. These include not only the police, who resist filing their claims and misreport their statements but also the medico-legal doctors, who focus more on their virginity status and lack the training and expertise to conduct adequate examinations.

Furthermore, women who file charges open themselves up to the possibility of being prosecuted for illicit sex if they fail to “prove” rape under the 1979 Hudood Ordinance which criminalises adultery and fornication.

As far as domestic violence is concerned, it is the most under-reported crime because it is generally condoned by social customs and considered as a private family matter.

The story of these challenges and difficulties are countless. This cannot and shall not continue any further and must be addressed on urgent bases if Pakistan is to stand in the comity of civilized and rights-respecting countries of the world.