KARACHI: Sharing concerns over increasing incidents of child abuse, mental health professionals from across the country passed a resolution calling upon the government to introduce a life skills curriculum in schools, focusing on health, hygiene and emotional education to equip children better to resist and report abuse.

At a recent meeting held in Karachi, they also urged the government to effectively enforce the clauses on child pornography, child abuse and child seduction of Child Protection and Welfare Act.

The resolution was endorsed by Prof Emeritus S. Haroon Ahmed, head of the Pakistan Association of Mental Health (PAMH); Dr Asma Humayun, a consultant psychiatrist in Lahore; Dr Ambreen Ahmad of Rozan, an NGO working for child protection; Prof M. Iqbal Afridi, head of the psychiatry department of Jinnah Postgraduate and Medical Centre; Dr Uzma Ambareen, vice president of PAMH-Karachi; Dr Naim Siddiqui; Muniza Yaseen of Aahang, a Karachi-based NGO working on sexual and reproductive health and rights; Dr Ayesha Minhas; Dr Rubina Kidwai (member of SMHA); Prof Raza ur Rehman, former head of Civil Hospital Karachi’s psychiatry department and Dr Khalid Mufti of Horizon Welfare.

“Since 50 per cent of such acts (physical and sexual abuse, kidnapping, rape, murder etc.) are committed by trusted relatives, family friends and domestic staff, it becomes difficult to propose protective mechanisms. Having said that, it is extremely important that children are helped to become more aware and be actively educated about ways to protect themselves,” a statement released by the PAMH says.

It also calls for legislative and societal reforms along with sensitizing parents and teachers so they could effectively communicate with children in ways that encourage trust and openness and respond appropriately, if a child were to share an experience of being abused.

Referring to the Supreme Court’s suo motu notice of Zainab, a seven-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered early this year in Kasur, it also says that the tragedy still haunted health professionals.

The association highlights some stats on childhood abuse in Pakistan which is ranked 149th out of 174 countries by “End of Childhood Index”, it says.

“It is estimated that 12 children are abused every day and this is a fraction of unreported cases. Sahil, an NGO, reports 2, 332 child abuse cases in the first six months of this year in the country,” the statement says.

The experts believed that children should be provided information about abuse, including sexual abuse, from an early age, keeping in view cultural and social sensitivities and religious values.

“Before making any change, the relevant syllabus must be widely circulated for consultation and consensus with different sections of society that must include current educational establishments in Pakistan, both private and public schools,” it says.

Suggesting how to create awareness on the subject, experts suggest that parents, teachers and young people should be educated about the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness and its efficient and appropriate management.

“Parents and teachers should be assisted to help children and adolescents for building life skills so that they can cope with everyday challenges of life in a constructive manner.

“Psychosocial support should also be provided in schools and community settings through training of mental health workers to enable them to detect and manage mental health disorders. Health activities should be promoted in schools,” they say.

Experts also suggested conducting awareness campaigns about healthy lifestyle in the media which, they said, should cover vulnerabilities, risk factors and identification of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect.

“The process to register such complaints at police stations should be simplified, ensuring confidentiality of the victim and his or her family members. The police should be trained on how to conduct interviews with victims and their families, in a sensitive way. The service for counseling, legal aid and children protection should be provided by the government.

“All provinces should have fully functional forensic laboratories with unified and standard protocols for different tests, including the DNA test. The culture of blaming the victim must be discouraged at all levels, including those of family, media and legal community,” they say.

They also underline media’s role and say that they should develop their own code of conduct for responsible and ethical reporting while commenting on those sensitive issues.

All TV channels should allocate time for public service messages on health promotion.

“It should be noted that the Australian prime minister offered national apology to child sexual abuse victims and their parents on the front lawn of the parliament last week. We in Pakistan, however, have failed our children.

“We expect our prime minister to feel and take notice of barbarous acts so prevalent in our midst and fulfill his promise to the children of Pakistan,” the statement concluded.

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2018

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