Welcoming the extension of a juvenile justice law to Pakistan's northwestern Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), child rights activists have called for the further promulgation of the law to all parts of the country.
"Though there are still many complications, at least the death penalty for children under 18 has been ended with this extension. Secondly, they can avail themselves of free legal aid at the expense of the state and get release on probation as well," Arshad Mehmood, deputy national coordinator of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), told IRIN from Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
The Juvenile Justice System Ordinance (JJSO) was promulgated in 2000 to protect and promote the rights of those under 18 years of age who come into conflict with the law. The law was applicable to the whole of the country except Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), northern areas, Pakistani administered Kashmir and Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) coming under NWFP province.
However, the law was extended to PATA last month through an official notification by the provincial governor of NWFP, where juvenile suspects had earlier been treated the same as adults.
"To extend the juvenile justice law to PATA is commendable but it would be great if it was extended to FATA as well where there is a dire need for a proper law to protect the rights of children coming into conflict with the law," Qais Anwar, manager of the child protection programme at Save the Children UK, told IRIN in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
Anwar said that PATA already had a basic judicial set-up like Shariat courts and other infrastructure. "But FATA is still being administered by century-old oppressive tribal laws of FCR [Frontier Crimes Regulation, 1901] where there is no concept of any court of law and the entire family and sometimes tribe is held responsible for the criminal activity of one person, and the political agent [representative of federal government] is responsible for all decisions," Anwar added.
According to legal experts, FATA needs a complete overhaul in terms of structural legislative reforms, though this would be difficult in the current security situation.
"Without introducing large-scale reforms, the extension of one act is definitely a difficult task. But government should try to implement it as a part of any package. It is vital and should be done as early as possible," Anwar said.
"Government is working to extend juvenile justice law to FATA in due course. But to amend a century-old law, and introduce a new one will certainly take time," Khurshid Ahmed, deputy secretary at the Law Ministry, told IRIN in Islamabad.
Ahmed explained some other initiatives of the government that are aimed at introducing changes in existing laws such as criminal, panel and civil areas. "All of this will ultimately benefit people but everything takes time," Ahmed stressed.
After the extension of JJSO to PATA, rights activists have asked the government to properly implement the law as soon as possible.
"Government should notify the separate juvenile courts and judges should be trained on the JJSO. Probation officers should also be appointed in all the districts of PATA," Mehmood said.
On the other hand, the slow pace of the implementation of the JJSO within the four provinces of the country also makes rights activists suspicious.
"Though the law has been enacted since 2000, the public and judiciary still need to be informed about their roles," Anwar of Save the Children UK said, adding, "Few organisations are working in this sector however. More coordinated efforts are required to improve the situation."
Civil society organisations have their own constraints, said Anwar. "They need funding, but sometimes funding comes with the donors' priorities that are not compatible with society's requirements," Anwar added.
Mehmood of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child is hopeful about the positive change despite its slow pace.
"After the implementation of the JJSO, there is now realisation of establishing separate borstal institutes for young offenders. There were only 20-25 children on probation in 2000 before the implementation of JJSO in NWFP, but now the figure is approximately 150," Mehmood said.
Rights activist added that the number of jail inmates is also falling. "By early 2001 there were around 1,000 children in NWFP jails. This has now fallen to 310," Mehmood said.
Activists agree that a huge awareness campaign should be launched to apprise the judiciary and lawyers' community on the JJSO regulations. The prison authorities also need to be sensitised and made aware of children's rights.