|Picture credit: Marcos Cola, Pixabay
Trigger warning: abuse, assault, r*pe, kidnapping.
As we laud Pakistan’s fight against the pandemic, we shouldn’t overlook how the country is failing its children. Even though children are less susceptible to get infected with COVID-19, the virus is insidiously impacting them in myriad ways. Some of the effects of the pandemic have made their way into public discourse, such as the educational costs and health risks. However, COVID-19 has had a deeper impact on children. There is evidence that measures to curb the virus can have a colossal damage on children’s lives as confinement makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
This blog explores child protection risks and their exacerbation as a consequence of COVID-19 confinement in Pakistan. We also unpack how children’s inherent vulnerability intersects with several other vulnerabilities such as those arising from their class and religion. Amongst many incidences of abuse, we focus on three tragic cases that received significant coverage: the abuse, forced conversion and child marriage of Arzoo Raja, Alisha’s rape by a trafficking ring, and Zohra’s assault and murder by her employers. We will also examine the role of state and society in these violations and propose possible remedial strategies.
Children’s vulnerability is marked by their developmental stage; they possess greater dependence on others and require a stable environment to regulate their emotions and behavior. Extended confinement at home is harmful for them because it disrupts their daily routine and limits their mobility. COVID-19 related confinement adds further health risks and fatalities, uncertainty, loss of livelihoods, and disruption in education. At the Collective, we are currently studying these and other impacts of lockdown on children’s well-being through a longitudinal comparative study called Family and Community in the Time of COVID-19 spearheaded by University College London.
Confinement linked to the pandemic heightens children’s inability to escape abuse and/or access help. Pakistan witnessed a horrific rise in reported cases of child abuse and rape this year. The Sustainable Social Development Organization estimated during the lockdown period (April-June) there was a 400% spike in reported cases of child abuse, attributed to the proximity of abusers as most perpetrators are close relatives and trusted persons. As children spend significant time online, and in concentrated spaces with older individuals, grooming is also likely to increase. Some of these factors are evident in Arzoo's case, in which her parents entrusted their neighbors with the care of their children when they left for their day jobs. The neighbor who exploited this access, Azhar Ali, had cultivated Arzoo’s trust over time, manipulating her from a young age with gifts while deceiving her family.
COVID-19 confinement hasn't created abusive individuals out of non-abusive individuals, it has rather provided an opportunity for abusive people to justify their violence, as Zohra’s case reveals. The neighbors living in Bahria Town, Rawalpindi heard Zohra’s screams but didn’t notify the police or the media because they wanted to uphold the social image of their posh neighborhood. This injustice happened amidst rising COVID-19 cases in Pakistan, leaving Zohra trapped with her abusive employers as she was forced to work to avoid greater destitution.
Confinement related to COVID-19 is not linear and its effects are not equally distributed. For instance, poverty is a debilitating problem aggravating COVID-19 related child safety violations. Loss of livelihoods, job insecurity as well as delayed and reduced wages heighten frustration and stress, and contribute to an increase in abuse. Falls in expenditure and financial hardship have also been considered as strong indicators of abuse and neglect. Unemployment and child maltreatment are closely correlated as neglect rises by 20% with just a single percentage increase in unemployment.
In Alisha’s case, the promise of work and income compelled a woman to take her daughter and travel from Karachi to Kashmore despite the dangers that women are constantly navigating in Pakistan. Zohra’s parents sent their daughter to study in Rawalpindi but she was pressured to work for an employer who paid her uncle only Rs.3000 per month. Her employers also promised to give her an education but tortured and murdered her instead. Arzoo’s mother, on the other hand, worked in a school while her father was a driver. Both of them were unable to leave their jobs to tend to the children or arrange appropriate care while they were away. Poverty and hunger amplify the risks children face and without adequate safety nets, such violations will persist.
Religion is another factor exacerbating children’s existing vulnerabilities. The exploitation of religious minorities in Pakistan is pervasive and systematic; its roots date back to the country’s origins. Prejudices intensify during times of crisis when such populations are most disadvantaged. We witness how this widespread oppression manifests in Arzoo Raja’s case, where her minority Christian identity deepened her vulnerability and made her more susceptible to abuse.
Child protection risks during the COVID-19 crisis have also exposed the institutional and structural dimensions of the problem. Our media tracking for Navigating Civic Space in the Time of COVID-19 reveals state’s incompetency amidst burgeoning child abuse cases. For instance, the Sindh High Court approved Arzoo’s conversion to Islam and dismissed the case against the perpetrator initially, only ordering the child’s rescue after public and media pressure and Pakistan People’s Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto’s intervention. Failure of due process such as medical examination and perusal of identity records are inexcusable shortfalls. Arzoo’s abductor and his family are also alleged employees in the Sindh police and water board, which only adds to their impunity.
Not only does the state fail to protect children, in some ways it directly abets injustices against them. Zohra was one of the 8.5 million child workers in Pakistan driven by her family’s poverty to work at an opulent household for a meagre salary. The government has failed to implement the Punjab Domestic Workers Act of 2019 effectively, which prohibits employing a child under the age of 15 years as a domestic worker in a household in any capacity. Human rights minister, Shireen Mazari called Zohra’s torture and murder, a ‘test’ case. Do we need such heinous crimes to transpire before we improve our accountability mechanisms?
Even when authorities do intervene, their strategies are often ineffective or unsustainable. The ASI responsible for investigating the Kashmore case endangered his own daughter’s life to rescue Alisha, but was glorified by Prime Minister Imran Khan who awarded him two million rupees for this perilous act. It is alarming that our authorities have to enlist minors for rescue operations instead of training and mobilizing strong investigative teams and addressing structural deficits.
There are possibilities of remedial measures to address these dire circumstances and the state has a key role. Some short-term response strategies could be the disbursement of child grants through existing mechanisms like the Ehsaas scheme that can help alleviate caregivers' burden and reduce risk of violence. Another immediate requirement is more robust information which can drive more comprehensive action; data should be disaggregated for gender, minority status, age, disability, geographic region and more.
Mobilizing existing resources, such as helplines, social workers, and shelter homes like the recent Panahgah project, specifically for children is crucial. State capacity can increase if it utilizes police personnel and volunteers through provision of virtual trainings to respond to child abuse cases, as in the case of Mexico. This can be further augmented through collaborations with civil society organizations such as Aahung and Sahil that work on child sexual abuse issues. The government’s child protection units in all provinces need adequate funding and staff to become fully operational. Distributing hygiene kits with awareness messages about gender-based violence, as done in Brazil, can prove to be an effective method during the pandemic. Remedial measures can also occur at the individual level by practicing social distancing and precautionary measures as the UN emphasizes that the “ultimate impact on children hinges on the virus’s longevity itself”.
Abuse, violence, and toxic stress coupled with confinement effects can result in lifelong challenges for children as their neurological development is likely to get impaired if necessary psycho-social support is not provided. The cost of COVID-19 confinement on our children is huge; Alisha is battling for her life, Arzoo still proclaims that she converted and married of her own free will, and we lost Zohra. The fact that a blog focused on children begins with a trigger warning for rape, abuse, assault and kidnapping speaks volumes. The immense cost borne by children should be incorporated in all COVID-19 preventative measures. Our state needs to actively work with frontline workers in social and medical care to counter existing harm and prevent future pitfalls especially in crisis situations. COVID-19 is fatal for children, and we are running out of time.