In January 2020, some would say that dramatic steps towards complete justice for the murder and rape of six-year-old Zainab Ansari were taken. Officially named the ‘Zainab Alert Bill’, the Pakistani government believes the legislation will play a vital role in ensuring the protection of their young children. Pakistan has made history with this act.
The story of Zainab Ansari is a heart-wrenching one. On 4 January 2018, on her way to Quran study, Zainab was abducted by a man who officials identified as Imran Ali. Her uncle, with whom she was staying with at the time, filed a report with the police with little to no avail. He was met with very little help and urgency. Five days later, on 9 January, her body was found and an autopsy showed evidence of extensive torture and rape before her death.
The successful implementation of the Zainab Alert Bill has not been an easy or straightforward process. With its original submission posed to the Pakistani National Assembly in the first half of 2018, the bill was only passed in January 2020. The Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, Dr. Firdous Ashiq Awan claims that this new bill is being passed under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s watch due to the importance he places on social protection within his country. The bill mandates that a ‘Zainab Alert’ be set up along with a Response and Recovery Agency. Furthermore, the Government will work together with the 1099 Helpline to coordinate the hunt for missing children. A Pakistani version of the US Amber Alert will now be sent out to mobile phones so that they can be made aware that there is a child missing.
Something that I find extremely important and impressive is the provision within the bill to combat corruption. It is no secret that countries such as India and Pakistan are battling systemic corruption in a number of areas. Within the bill, there is ‘punishment’ aimed directly at those within the police force that do not comply with or who slow down the reporting and discovery of a missing child, although what exactly that punishment is, is not specified. Culturally though, this is a massive step forward. Corruption in certain countries can be seen as something that has always been there and that unfortunately, will always be there. It runs too deep and it has gone so far, it seldom seems like there is enough communication and willpower to overcome this. This being said, for there to be a provision aimed at this particular issue within the bill, asserts acknowledgement of a problem and a potential solution.
But, one question I find myself asking is what practical danger does this pose to potential criminals? Of course, there is more surveillance and more of a network in place, but this act unfortunately does not possess within it the power to eradicate the possibility of kidnapping, only an improved response once the crime has been committed. Can we wholeheartedly say that this bill is a strong deterrent for criminals, or is it simply decoration?
This is not to say that the Zainab Bill is doing any harm, but rather that do we know yet if it will make any difference. I strongly believe that if more legislation and more government-sanctioned action can be put in place, it should be. In addition to this, the act only applies to Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city. This struck me as rather peculiar. According to the NGO Sahil, child kidnappings are taking place across Pakistan, not just in Islamabad. What is the motivation for creating a Zainab Alert for only one city? It is things like this that make a person question the practical functioning of such a bill. Does it perhaps send the wrong message to criminals that the government isn’t really serious about this?
Furthermore, I know that if I were a Pakistani citizen not living in Islamabad, but say Karachi, I would be wondering why the same safety measures were not implemented in my city. Many Pakistani nationals on Twitter have expressed the same sentiment, using the hashtag ‘Zainab Bill is Not Enough’. Given the lack of complete satisfaction by all Pakistani nationals, perhaps a successful rollout in Islamabad, promoting the reduction of child abductions will lead Imran Khan’s government to amend the legislation to extend its provisions across the country.