Bholi knows it well that the Wazir-e-Azam (Prime Minister) has no time to know the plight of poor people, but she can’t tell Chhotay Saab (son of her employer) bluntly that he is telling lies or only teasing her by saying that Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised to protect her daughter Meena.
It is World Children’s Day and Tahir Ilyas (Chhotay Saab) is reading out loud a message from the Prime Minister to Bholi “in a lighter vein”. “Wazir-e-Azam has said the government is doing everything possible to provide a safe and secure environment to all children in the country,” the teenager tells Bholi, their maid. “The government is determined to ensure that every child’s rights, including development, education, healthcare, participation, dignity and security are upheld,” he continues reading the PM message. “Your Meena is also included in all those children whom the Prime Minister has promised complete protection,” he tells the middle-aged widow, knowing well she is very sensitive about the safety of her daughter.
Bholi knows it well Chhota Saab is only making fun of her, but she has to say something to avoid his displeasure. “Wazir-e-Azam is a bigwig (bara aadmi), he must be talking about children of people like you,” she says in a low voice. “Who knows me, and who cares about my Meena,” she murmurs sadly. “Where was the Wazir-e-Azam when a goon had molested my innocent daughter and she had to swallow bitter pills for many days,” she asks bitterly.
Around 40-year-old Bholi works as a maid and dish cleaner in houses and printing press offices to make a living in the Rattigan Road area of Lahore. Her original name is Shamim Bibi, but she even herself doesn’t know who started calling her Bholi, and when. She lives in a single-room house, which was inherited by her husband in the area situated behind Data Darbar.
Rattigan Road is a semi-commercial area. Mostly, printing machines are installed in a long narrow street, and printing material-related workplaces are set up in small and big rooms. Bholi’s husband was a press machine man, who died of tuberculosis (TB) about six years ago. Soon after the tragedy, her only son left her house and started living with his in-laws in the Shadbagh area, on the insistence of his wife. The occurrences shattered Bholi completely, and the last incident was an attack on her Meena by a beast, who’s the owner of a printing press in the area.
Meena used to accompany her mother during her work at different houses and press offices, as Bholi does not want to leave her alone at home. On the fateful day, Bholi was cleaning the basement, where a printing machine was installed, and asked Meena to do dusting in the office on the ground floor. It was a matter of only a few minutes when she heard screams of Meena and came running to rescue her. “The beast was pricking my innocent daughter when I entered the room,” she recalls. “On my hue and cry, he left my daughter, but threatened to burn both of us alive in our house if the matter was reported to the police or any other person,” Bholi says with tearful eyes.
The helpless mother’s narration leaves all promises, speeches of the prime minister and the chief ministers hollow and meaningless. Bholi and Meena’s story is sad and moving, but not only of its kind. Every other day, heart-wrenching stories of child abuse are carried by the print and electronic media. A report compiled by a child protection organisation, Sahil, disclosed last month that more than 10 children were subjected to abuse on average every day between January and June this year.
The report, titled “Six Months Cruel Numbers 2021,” states that the average number of children subjected to abuse increased by two children per day as compared with last year’s January-June report. The data collected from all four provinces of Pakistan, including Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT), Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), shows that a total of 1,896 cases of child abuse were reported in the period. Of those, 1,084 were of abuse against children, 523 were cases of abduction, 238 of missing children and 51 of child marriages.
The report stated that 53% (1,013) of the victims were girls (like Meena) and 47% (883) were boys. It revealed that “children from the age group 6-15 are most vulnerable to abuse”. According to the report, in 1,045 cases, the abusers were acquaintances, while they were strangers in 430 cases, relatives in 49 cases, female abettors in 47 cases, seminary or school teachers in 38 cases, neighbours in 37 cases and family members in 32 cases. The data revealed that 60% of the total cases were reported from Punjab, 6% from the ICT, 26% from Sindh, 5% from KP, and 3% from Balochistan and AJK & GB.
One wonders where to find the roots of such large-scale child abuse incidents while neither our religion nor social norms permit such heinous acts. There are a number of laws in the country which guarantee children’s protection from abuse of all kinds. The Article 37(a) of the Constitution states, “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
Another law was enacted last year titled the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill, 2019. It was ratified in March 2020 by President Arif Alvi, effectively making it into a law. The law, which provides for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a Rs1 million fine on child abusers, also dictates that toll-free helplines be established and a framework for quick police and administrative response be laid down.
However, all efforts and laws have so far failed to provide protection to children, as evident from the Sahil report, showing an increase in child abuse incidents compared with the last year. It means faults lie somewhere deep in society, which needs to be reformed to the core to rectify the situation.
(The writer is a physician by profession. She worked as an intern at the Capital Health (New Jersey) and the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital (New York). Rights and gender issues are the areas of special interest to her. She can be reached at: [email protected])