Let’s be realistic about child protection
The prime minister made some tough statements at an event at the Bangabandhu International Convention Centre, making it clear that those who harm children will not get away. After asserting that those involved in child oppression and murder would be punished, she added: “Every child will get to live a meaningful life. That is our only aim.”
This is a worthy goal. But it helps to be realistic about where we are if we are to move towards this goal in any meaningful way.
And we are not in a good place, because child protection has not been a priority for us before, and it does not look to be so right now.
Firstly, we must move past the tradition of simple outbursts of shock and horror when bad things happen and work towards a rational appraisal of the matter, and a workable solution. That does not in any way reduce the gravity of the crime, but rather, treats it with due solemnity.
Let us take a recent case as an example. In Sunamganj, a five-year-old was murdered by his own father. There is no doubt that this is one of the most twisted things that could happen, and often our reactions are in the form of astonishment.
How could someone do something like this? We ask. They are monsters, not human. We exclaim. There is rage, there is sadness, there is disgust.
But there is still very little by way of addressing the problem in a way that prevents such things from happening in the future. There is the routinely neglected matter, for example, of mental health.
Plenty of people, to put it bluntly, are not right in the head. They act out in crazy and violent ways, and by the time they are caught, the damage is done. Saying they are monsters, or that they are not human, ignores the root causes of this phenomenon, like the possibility that after decades of neglect, this country is seeing something akin to a mental health epidemic.
It is hard to even bring up the subject in Bangladesh, because mental health is often seen as the domain of the rich and spoiled. After all, we are a poor country with very real problems -- we get outbreaks of nasty things like dengue and chikungunya which aren’t all in your head; we have to deal with poverty, broken infrastructure, toxicity in our air and water, and dozens of other things of higher priority than mental health.
Yet this is why our priorities keep getting messed up, and nothing gets fixed.
We think something is a small matter, not urgent for a poor country like Bangladesh, and yet those little things are what distinguish a developed country from one that is going down the tubes.
Little things like mental health, the rights of children, the rights of helpless animals, the way we treat those in a lower social position -- these things are not less important to all the development we are aspiring to; they are at the very foundation.
To build a strong foundation, we have to get past mere expressions of shock and surprise, and acknowledge the sick reality for what it is, and work towards a cure. Our eyes need to be open, and we don’t get to act all noble and ignorant, because that is a cop out.
Child protection measures need to be in place, there needs to be a mechanism for children to reach out to the law when they feel threatened, comprehensive reforms in mental health should be made, and most importantly, culprits should never, ever, get away, no matter who they are, who their uncle is, who they know, what kind of bribe they can dish out.
The law should be the law, and not a single human being should be exempt from it. Close these loopholes, and see how crimes against children go down.
The PM is right: We do need to do a better job of protecting the innocent. But how?
Like a doctor, we need to look at the numbers, the details of the cases, and carefully, dispassionately, logically assess the situation. We need to have the patience and courage to stick to the prescription, and follow through with regular check-ups. No one said doing the right thing would be easy.
But first, we have to admit, like any good patient, that we are very, very, sick.
Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.