Dawn Editorial 26th July 2023

Bahawalpur scandal

SHOCKING allegations have emerged after a number of administrative staffers working for Bahawalpur’s Islamia University were apprehended by law enforcers. Police say that drugs were recovered from the varsity’s chief security officer, while obscene media was found on his phone after the individual’s recent arrest. Narcotics and similar material were also reportedly recovered from the university’s treasurer and a transport officer. Moreover, a police report — details of which were published in this paper — claims that a “group of teachers” was involved in the sale of narcotics and the sexual exploitation and blackmail of female teachers and students. These are alarming allegations and cannot be taken lightly. While the university’s vice chancellor has rejected any wrongdoing, and one of the accused says he is being framed, simple denials are not enough considering the serious nature of the claims. A thorough probe is needed to determine the veracity of the matter, and if there is sufficient proof that crimes have been committed, all involved must be punished under the maximum penalties mandated by law.

The sale of narcotics has, unfortunately, been reported from numerous schools, colleges and universities across the country. The fact that varsity staffers may be involved in drug dealing makes the matter even more serious. Equally appalling are charges that female teachers and students may have been sexually harassed and blackmailed at this university. Institutes of higher learning — and indeed all workplaces and educational facilities — need to be safe spaces where girls and women can learn/work without the fear of sexual predators and harassers. These allegations indicate that the atmosphere at many institutions may be absolutely toxic. The National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Education has started probing the matter; the university’s VC was summoned to its meeting on Monday, but the official did not show up. The interim Punjab chief minister has also constituted a committee to look into the affair. These probes must be credible and uncover the truth so that the guilty can be punished. Moreover, university officials need to cooperate with the investigations to dispel the impression that a cover-up is underway. Beyond the Bahawalpur varsity, a wider reckoning should assess if universities across the country are providing an environment where students, particularly females, can study without the fear of harassment, while drug dealing and other destructive activities need to be curbed.

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2023

Wrong move

AT a time when Pakistani democracy is facing an unprecedented existential crisis, legislation to improve service delivery for ordinary citizens would have gone a long way towards demonstrating that the country’s leadership is serious about turning its fortunes around. Instead, the record for the past year shows that politicians seem to be preoccupied with their own troubles and power struggles.

The Contempt of Majlis-i-Shoora (Parliament) Bill on Monday became the latest piece of legislation to clear both Houses in record time, with normal procedures bypassed to hasten its enactment.

The proposed law, which seeks to impose criminal penalties on anyone for contemning parliament or parliamentarians, has been bluntly described by experts and observers as a ‘weapon’ that our lawmakers wish to wield in their ongoing stand-off against the Supreme Court.

The bill proposes that anyone who wilfully refuses to comply with an order passed by parliament or any of its committees be slapped with an imprisonment sentence of up to six months, or a fine of up to Rs1m, or both.

A ‘parliamentary contempt committee’ comprising five members, of which three will be drawn from the Lower House and two from the Senate, is to determine if anyone is to be charged with contempt of parliament, hear the matter, and also issue a punishment if left unsatisfied.

In this, the law has been criticised, and rightfully so, for arrogating to parliament the power to act as judge, jury and executioner. Critics have pointed out that Article 66(3) of the Constitution, under which it has been proposed, directs that the matter of punishments in case of noncompliance with parliamentary directives be left to a court.

Further, the language of the law — especially how it defines contempt — is also vague and rather expansive, which makes it vulnerable to abuse. As an example, even journalists protecting their sources against a parliamentary order to name them may be charged with contempt under the law if a contempt committee so decides.

Despite all these warnings, parliament seems intent on having this bill enacted. Parliament and public representatives do deserve to be accorded due deference and respect, especially when discharging their duties. However, they cannot be handed quasi-judicial powers to enforce their writ.

Unless all members of the committee are trained legal experts as well, it is unlikely that the trials they hold will be in accordance with the universal standards of justice.

This has grave implications for constitutional rights, especially as there is a possibility of a criminal sentence at the end. The government must reconsider this move. It may tighten existing rules or legislate to ensure better compliance with parliamentary directives, but it must leave the determination and imposition of punishments to the courts.

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2023

Vulnerable child workers

THE brutal torture of a teenaged girl allegedly by her employers in Islamabad serves to once again remind us of the harsh and unsafe conditions in which thousands of other children are forced to live and work. The case of 13-year-old Rizwana — who was brought by her parents to a hospital in her hometown, Sargodha, on Sunday, with fractured arms, legs and ribs, as well as head and body wounds — is the latest among a growing number of incidents of barbaric treatment at work to which little children engaged in domestic labour are subjected. While some cases of extreme violence and sexual abuse get noticed by the media, forcing the authorities to reluctantly take action, most incidents go unreported. The statistics compiled by rights groups in January 2020 showed that 140 cases of abuse, torture, rape and murder of child domestic workers were reported by the media over 10 years. That highlights the dangers these child workers constantly face. Their poverty-stricken parents rarely go to the police against their abusive employers. That the Islamabad Police were delaying the registration of a case against Rizwana’s employers, one of whom is a civil judge, speaks volumes about the indifference of the authorities supposed to protect children like her.

Hiring minors and underage children as domestic help, especially girls to look after newborns and young children, is common in urban Pakistan, and the trend is growing due to rising poverty and hunger. This is so, despite an apex court order in the Tayyaba torture case to keep a benchmark of at least 16 years for all domestic workers. Nonetheless, children below this age continue to be employed, and the number of cases where domestic workers are facing physical abuse and exploitation is increasing. The situation for child domestic workers is dire in every possible way. It will not improve without criminalising the practice of employing them, especially without direct parental supervision.

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2023

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