Child abduction: In numbers

Published: August 20, 2016
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Children play on a swing in the village of Chack Rasala outside Faisalabad. PHOTO: REUTERS

Child abduction is defined as the forceful separation of a child from his or her parents. The reasons behind this are as follows; using children in begging rackets, sexual exploitation, forced slavery, human trafficking or organ thefts. This phenomenon has become the centre point of print, electronic, and social media in the most populous province of Pakistan: Punjab, and especially within its provincial capital, Lahore.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken suo moto notice for these abductions and the Punjab government has also acknowledged the problem and are now running preventative campaigns.

However, the fear is still prevalent in the once calm and peaceful neighbourhoods of Lahore, and other notable areas of the province, such as Faisalabad, Bahawalpur, and Bahawalnagar.

Facts

It is imperative to look at these abductions from a factual point of view. In this regard, a relevant report was submitted to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, by the Punjab police, which revealed that over the last five years, 6,793 children have been abducted in Punjab and out of them, 6,654 have been recovered. This translates into an almost 98% success rate which seems largely exaggerated, given the precarious state of human capabilities.

What’s more is that the official statistics revealed a concealed fact; the abduction of almost 1350 children per year over the last five years. This goes to show that the number of abductions is in line with a trend that has been going on for years. This poses serious questions about the state of children’s security in our neighbourhoods.

Around 700 children have been abducted in the year 2016 alone. A disturbing aspect is that since these are official statistics, which are mostly under reported in Pakistan; the actual number of abductions may be much higher.

The aforementioned child abductions directly or indirectly imply failures, flaws and factors on three levels:

1. State level

2. Societal level

3. Family level

Let me briefly trace each of the above three domains.

State level

The fact that such a large number of child abductions have been missing from public knowledge speaks volumes about our governance structures. First and foremost, police authorities have failed to safeguard the lives of ordinary citizens, including the safety of the weakest segment of our society: our children. This has been accompanied by indifference from the judicial and executive branches of the government as they have failed to check and correct the miserable performance of the police force.

The entire matter was only brought up because of Pakistan’s vibrant social media. Those in power have finally woken up and seen the trauma that many families have been undergoing for years. After the enactment of the cybercrime act, we may not even be able to see this.

Secondly, the attitude of the police towards troubled parents losing children has been apathetic to say the least. The result is the deterioration of police and community relations, and unfortunately, this has worked to the benefit of the abductors. How are these relations to be improved if the Inspector General of Punjab is unable to realise the pain of these parents and the severity of this issue by declaring child abductions as ‘not a serious problem?’

Thirdly, people are beginning to lose faith in the police and judicial institutions in order to snub criminal elements and punish them, thereby ultimately creating deterrence through delivering timely justice. This has not been the case. Consequently, people have taken to vigilante or mob justice. Hence, the consequences have been tragic as many ordinary people suspected of abducting children have been thrashed publically – creating further law and order problems.

Lastly, institutions like the Child Protection Bureau have been exposed as the epitome of mis-governance since they have failed to highlight the plight of so many children and families to the authorities. This further undermines public faith in governance, which is deeply problematic as issues like these are the reasons these institutions are established in the first place. I accessed the Punjab Child Protection Bureau website which was devoid of any specific data or relevant information on the present state of child abductions in Punjab.

Societal level

Our society’s social transformation over the years – with regards to it breaking away from a cohesive way of living – is quite intriguing. This is made manifest by the fact that in Lahore, most cases of abduction, have taken place in localities like Mughul Pura, Anar Kali, Bagh Ban Pura, Badami Bagh, Shahdra, etc – which are the densely populated parts of the city.  This may lead one to believe that the days when old neighbourhoods were considered safe havens for children are now gone.

I was born and raised in these areas and enjoyed the safety of my neighbourhood. Children used to play freely in the streets and there was a sense of solidarity where everyone knew each other and any suspicious person or activity was promptly pointed out and taken care of. This has been one of the lesser known effects of the modern way of life, as people are more and more consumed by their own needs and those of their families, they do not get a chance to get to know their own neighbours.

Emile Durkheim, a prominent sociologist, termed this change of relations between people as mechanical solidarity. On the other hand, the idea of social cohesion is based on how strong familial ties and networks are. This concept of social cohesion is marked by organic solidarity, which stems from interdependence that arises from specialisation of work. These occurrences take place as societies become more complex with time.

Secondly, social space for children is shrinking at a frighteningly high rate because not much is invested in playgrounds or parks. Therefore, children from the middle or lower economic strata have been forced to play on the streets which are extremely unsafe, as explained earlier. Even the parks that are available have had serious security issues, like the most recent one in Iqbal Park, Lahore.

Likewise, the layouts of schools have changed, with a lack of focus on playgrounds. It is anybody’s guess how unsafe and unhealthy these conditions are for children and how insecure they feel, as compared to previous generations.

Thirdly, political and societal preference have only been seen through projects such as the metro and Orange trains, since these are more politically useful and are much more obvious forms of economic development. This has come at the expense of psycho–social aspects of development being largely ignored.

This narrow construct emphasises on infrastructure, while humans are side-lined. As a result, issues of human development are completely marginalised, so it wouldn’t be surprising if our chief minister closely monitors the progress on infrastructure projects rather than child abduction – issues that only come to the forefront via the media.

Lastly, what constitutes as security in our national and societal discourse has slowly come to represent the defence expenditure. This concept of security never includes human security, and most importantly, those of children. Like the notorious Kasur case where children were sexually abused and socially stigmatised; we were shocked to listen about it at first – but, yet again, forgot to take any concrete action. This narrow definition of security is what doesn’t allow us to pay attention to the abductions that are a grave reminder of the lack of safety available for our children during their vulnerable years.

 3.  Family level

Firstly, family sizes have remained almost the same over the previous decades in Pakistan. While other countries in the region, mainly Islamic states like Iran and Bangladesh, have successfully implemented family planning programs, Pakistan has failed to incorporate them.

The quality and quantity trade off in demographic literature is well documented which goes like this; the lesser the number of children a family has, the more the family can invest in their well-being and security. On the other hand, the greater the number of children in a family, the lesser a family can invest in their well-being and security. Therefore, since we lack oversight, it is not unjustified to say that child abduction is partly an outcome of our persisting population bulge, as we are unable to give our children proper attention and time.

Secondly, it is quite intriguing to note that the number of children that have been recovered by the Punjab police told them that they themselves had left their homes out of their own free will. The primary reason cited by them is the harsh, unfriendly and strict attitude of their parents which made them leave the safety of their own homes. This is a point that must not be ignored.

Children in families have not been able to escape the violent environment our society is entrapped in, as parents vent their own anger and frustrations on their vulnerable children. This is a psychological phenomenon known as “Anger Displacement” in Freudian psychology, whereas this displaced aggression is directed away from the real and powerful target and towards a safer and easier target, called a scapegoat. This provides a partial release of their pent up frustration.

Thirdly, there are certain economic forces involved at the family level that contribute to the criminal elements in abducting children. A significant factor is the increasing materialistic culture that the media and society imparts on young minds. As average incomes have remained stagnant and, rather, declining, over the years, parents from middle and lower middle class societies have been unable to fulfil their children’s persistently increasing desires. These desires are then exploited by criminal elements, as they entice children through promises, monetary or tangible gifts, luring them in order to take advantage of them.

Conclusion and recommendations

The elaborated causes and drivers of child abductions overlap and are interrelated, which should warn us against prescribing simplistic and linear solutions to such a complicated problem. This means we need to enforce multiple checkpoints, at different levels, simultaneously, to ensure a coordinated and holistic response that is more likely to succeed as compared to a quick fix.

At the state level, there need to be public disclosure of facts and figures pertaining to child abductions on a regular basis in order to keep a check on the performance of the police force. This could be done by the executive branches of the government.

Moreover, police investigation regarding child abductions need to be monitored by the judicial branch so that in case of inaction or failure of the law, timely action may be taken by the authorities. Most importantly, police forces need to mend their image by cooperating with citizens, which may restore people’s confidence in their abilities.

Lastly, the Child Protection Bureau and other relevant agencies’ performances need to be monitored by the government through special Key Performance Indicator’s. The Punjab government’s initiative of a digital child abduction alert system, which maintains a database of abducted children and also disseminates information at multiple government tiers, is a step in the right direction.

At a social level, neighbourhoods committees need to be formed in order to routinely monitor and review activities in a specific area and report them to the police. These committees may be able to raise social awareness behind reasons for child abductions through exposure to those that have undergone this trauma. They can also rally for political support for investments for parks and playgrounds. Through this, a support system can be established for redefining security on a local stage by focusing particularly on children.

On a family level, the execution of family planning programs needs to be improved by involving local clerics for religious legitimacy. The practice has already been deployed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan with success. A supporting narrative needs to be built in order to show that having fewer children translates to more security.

Media campaigns emphasising the gentle treatment of children in homes is currently being run by the Punjab Government. These programs are a significant step in changing the way parents treat their children.

Finally, families and schools need to teach their children to refrain from strangers luring them in with material goods, as this is a large part of abduction schemes. The media has an important part to play here through dramas like Udaari that are based on children being sexually abused. These shows create awareness and highlight evils that are frequently overlooked. Media exposure is also required for child abductions, so that people can see the cruel reality and learn how to prevent it.

Asif Iqbal

Asif Iqbal

The author has a post graduate in Development Studies and is an HR practitioner. He is interested in current affairs, politics and social issues. He tweets as @Asif_Iqbal_86 (twitter.com/Asif_Iqbal_86)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.