Though no official statistics are available, conservative estimates suggest that Pakistan hosts over four million orphans. Frequent incidents of ethnic and sectarian killings, terrorism and natural calamities like floods and earthquakes have contributed to this number.
Unfortunately, there is no national policy nor protective legislation in Pakistan for the protection of orphans. At the provincial level dating back to the 1970s the focus is on administrative, rather than human needs. Consequently, issues such as healthcare, education and state patronage hardly get any attention.
To correct the situation, Punjab introduced the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act, 2004. Whatever the real intent, the act ended classifying orphans with street children. For example, an orphan living as part of an extended family might face discrimination which is markedly different from discrimination towards a street child. The new legislation is also silent about an orphan’s guaranteed access to basic rights.
The state has taken advantage of the absence of any binding document to take measures for the welfare and protection of orphans. Who is caring for an orphan, is the child going to school, is the orphan being properly cared for, both physically and psychologically?
Consequently, orphans are a vulnerable segment of our society. Suffice it to mention here that a good number of Pakistani children have been repatriated from the Gulf States recently, after serving as bonded camel jockeys, where their guardians exploited them as saleable commodities. Evidence also suggests terrorist outfits have exploited many of these children.
The situation warrants immediate action. Countries all over the world, western nations, Scandinavian countries and African nations have developed orphan-centric policies to protect the rights of orphans.
With over four million orphans, Pakistan must follow such precedents. It can begin by documenting the basic information and data about orphaned children. Without meeting this requirement, no real progress can be made. Next is developing and implementing a fool proof and self-propelled system to register and safeguard the inherited property and assets of an orphan. Under present circumstances, this is at the disposal of the guardian.
Opening and running orphanages also merits immediate attention as it has a direct bearing on the life of an orphan. The existing laws are exceedingly lenient and loose which permits the most crooked elements in society to establish an orphanage and run it as they please. The administrator of an orphanage is not required to tend to issues relating to the mental and physical health of a child.
In the absence of any criteria, children at orphanages are mostly fostered by Bajies who are themselves rudderless and apathetic. This scribe was recently stunned to witness homeless and absolutely illiterate women fostering orphans at a well- known orphanage in Mansehra, KPK. In such a case the women were providing shelter but obviously at the peril of the mental and psychological health of a child.
It needs to be realized that Pakistani society has traditionally absorbed orphans within its extended family system. Despite many omissions, it anchored the nation in the aftermaths of successive natural calamities over the past decade. However, it can’t absolve the state from its responsibility to take due measures for the welfare and protection of more than four million children. Leaving such a large number of children at the disposal of stressed guardians or, for that matter, ill qualified institutions requires state action.