Children on the streets By Abdul Khalique Shaikh - Saturday 26th March 2011

Source :

LAST week the United Nations Human Rights Council in its 16th session devoted a full day to discuss and understand the situation of children living or working on the streets.
As in other developing countries, street children and the issues they pose or face are a grim reality in Pakistan. Many children living in urban slums end up working on the streets. More recently, military operations in the north and last year`s floods have resulted in more dislocated families and an increase in the number of street children.
A street child has rights like any other juvenile: protection from harassment, torture and degrading treatment, and access to healthcare and education. Naturally, they are more vulnerable than children protected by parents or extended families.
Street children are more likely to come in conflict with the law and are less capable of defending their rights or seeking police protection.
Police officers generally come in contact with street children when they have to take cognisance of criminal conduct involving the latter, either as victims or suspects. Such situations may include juvenile delinquency, vagrancy or begging, drug abuse, sexual harassment or exploitation, torture, child trafficking and child labour. Most police interventions are not part of a preventive strategy but a reaction to criminal behaviour.
How street children are perceived by the police plays a crucial role in shaping the force`s response. An ordinary policeman sees a street child as a problem and violator of the law rather than a victim of circumstances. The situation is further compounded by a lack of awareness and sensitisation as well as the inadequacy of legal safeguards for children.
There is an urgent need to develop a holistic approach to child protection. However, numerous factors are hampering the creation of an environment that ensures the best interests of the child. The main challenges in this regard are an inadequate legislative framework, discriminatory laws — particularly those related to a girl`s age of majority — and undecided matters such as the age of criminal responsibility.
Additionally, terrorism and other security issues are eating away at our already limited resources, while there is often a lack of sensitisation among people involved in the welfare and rehabilitation of children. Limited access to education further complicates the situation.
The police are the primary agency dealing with street children, especially those who come into conflict with the law, but officers find it difficult to fully respect their rights due to little structural support. Exclusive juvenile courts, shelter homes and rehabilitation centres are either non-existent or inadequate. Above all, the resources and capacity of the police organisation are limited.
At the institutional level, there is no statutory body to protect and promote child rights in Pakistan. The National Commission for Child Welfare and Development is not a statutory body and has no effective authority to ensure child protection.
The National Commission on the Rights of Children Bill 2009 seems to have been abandoned. There has been a considerable delay in enacting legislation available in the shape of bills. The Child Protection (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill 2009, which proposes enhancing the minimum age of criminal responsibility from seven years to 10 or 12, has not been passed by parliament.
The draft National Child Protection Policy 2009 is yet to be finalised while the Charter of Child Rights Bill 2009 is also in limbo. One reason for these delays is the devolution of subjects to the provinces in the wake of the 18th Amendment.
However, improvement has been noticed in some areas. These include a reduction in the number of juvenile prisoners, appointment of female probation officers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, increased use of parole and probation for juvenile offenders, and the creation of a Child Complaint Cell in the federal ombudsman`s secretariat. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly has passed a Child Protection and Welfare Act but a similar bill in Sindh has not been pushed through. Five child rights desks have been established in Sindh at police stations and the force has also set up human rights cells at the district level.
At the same time, the police training syllabus has been revised to include human rights and child protection while a training manual on the juvenile justice system has been prepared and translated into local languages.
Besides, the Police Order 2002 makes it obligatory for police officers to assist children in distress. These measures have definitely improved the situation but the enormity of the challenge requires a more coordinated strategy and the accordance of due importance to the issue of street children.
Various departments including social welfare, education, health, local government and the police have to play their role in protecting the rights of children living or working on the streets. As far as police response is concerned, it should not be seen in isolation as the force needs to work in tandem with other organisations.
The right approach would be to link police response to the overall goal of child protection and reaffirm, institutionalise and replicate the good practices of one province in the other three. Capacity-building is likely to bring considerable improvement in the police department`s treatment of street children.
The proposed legislation on the National Commission on Child Rights, the Child Rights Protection Authority and other bills needs to be expedited. At the same time, civil society must come forward and assist the police in implementing preventive strategies.
Above all, the government needs to set up a monitoring system to meet the requisite standards of child protection. Otherwise, meaningful and sustained improvement cannot be achieved. These efforts ought to be supplemented by vocational training and skill-building courses for out-of-school children.
Last but not least, the Juvenile Justice Working Group set up by the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan should be activated to develop rehabilitation programmes for children at risk of offending in general and street children in particular.
The writer is a DIG in the Sindh Police and was a panellist at the UN Human Rights Council`s recent session on street children.

No comments:

Post a Comment