One million children of unknown parentage face identity crisis in Pakistan

One million children of unknown parentage face identity crisis in Pakistan
Mohammed Jibran, 12, is one of the children without parentage in Pakistan. He is studying in a makeshift school on the outskirts of Islamabad. He is looked after by a philanthropist, but is not registered with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) as a Pakistani for lack of any procedure for such children. (AN photo)
Updated 30 January 2018

One million children of unknown parentage face identity crisis in Pakistan

One million children of unknown parentage face identity crisis in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: “I do not have a home to live in or any siblings to play with,” said 12-year Mohammed Jibran. He cut a meek figure, dressed in shalwar kameez with a green hoodie on top to protect him from the cold, as he sat in his one-room school with a book in his hand.
“I want to become a doctor and I take regular classes here,” he told Arab News. “An uncle gives me books, pencils and food.”
As dusk settled, around a dozen children gathered in this makeshift school on the outskirts of the federal capital. Like Mohammed, they do not know who their parents are.
Not knowing their parents’ names, they are unable to get a birth certificate. Without a birth certificate, they are unable to enroll in either government or private schools.
And these children make up just a tiny fraction of an estimated one million Pakistani children of unknown parentage. Unregistered, they exist outside of the law, victims of social taboos and of a lack of political will to extend them social welfare and legal protection.
“The data collected from provincial welfare departments shows that the number of children of unknown parentage is around one million,” Mohammed Hassan Mangi, the director general of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights, told Arab News, adding that that number is an estimate based on “rough figures” and that his personal belief is that it could be higher “if properly counted across the country.”
But with only 31 percent of births officially registered in Pakistan, Mangi acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining accurate records. However, he stressed the need to enact proper laws for children of unknown parentage.
“These children lack any identity and are bound to face enormous difficulties in their lives,” he said. “We should not hate the souls who have come into this world. Instead the state should adopt them and make sure they enjoy the same rights as other Pakistanis.”
The current registration process for children of unknown parentage is both complex and cumbersome, and goes a long way to explaining why just 2,318 of them are so far registered with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA).
NADRA’s policy is that if a child’s parentage is unknown, then a software application randomly picks a name for their parents. However, the policy adds that those names “will not be fixed.”
In order to qualify even for that bemusing process, a child has to be enrolled in one of the 49 orphanages registered with NADRA. Any child that does not meet that requirement, said NADRA spokesperson Faik Ali Chachar, is “not our responsibility.”
Federal legislation to provide proper protection and care to children without parentage is only in its initial stages.
Sharafat Ali, a senior lawyer and legal consultant to Ministry of Human Rights, said that once Parliament passes the Child Protection Bill, it will compel NADRA to take much-needed action and to register “every unattended child.”
But in the continuing absence of proper legislation, orphanages, non-governmental organizations and child welfare protection centers cannot officially care for children without parentage, Farshad Iqbal, manager of research and communication at the Islamabad-based Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), explained.
He suggested the government should either establish its own child protection units at the district level or allow trusted NGOs to take care of children of unknown parentage.
“The registration and proper care of children without parentage is a grave human rights issue and we have raised it with the relevant authorities numerous times, but so far nothing concrete has been done,” Iqbal said.
The influential religious cleric Tahir Ashrafi told Arab News that Islam dictates society must look after children born out of wedlock. He urged the government to set up special shelters for children of unknown parentage.
“We should condemn and hate the act itself but not the children who have come into this world,” he said. “It is the responsibility of the state to take care of these children, so that they can become useful citizens.”
Mohammed Ilyas Ansari, Punjab Parliamentary Secretary for Bait-ul-Maal and Social Welfare, told Arab News that the Punjab government is currently amending the relevant laws to ensure the protection and registration of children of unknown parentage.
“These children are our responsibility,” he said. “We are consulting religious clerics, legal experts and human rights activists to deal with this issue effectively.”