Religious orthodoxy, superstitious beliefs, coupled with mass illiteracy can pave the way for exploitation in society. One such startling case of child abuse, fuelled by religious dogmatism, comes from the Islamic State of Pakistan. Children suffering from microcephaly, a rare neurological disorder, are reduced to the status of animals in Pakistan. Often referred to as ‘chuhas’ or rats by people, these children are characterised by abnormally small heads, round jaws, and disfigured foreheads.
In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the microcephalic children find refuge at the shrine of Shah Daula in Varedia, Gujarat. They are revered as divine creatures and simultaneously stripped of their human dignity. Reportedly, infertile from across the country flock to the shrine in the hopes of having a normal baby. Other pilgrims bring in their sick infants and hope of their bright health conditions in the future. The shrine of Shah Daula is considered as the abode of fertility for women.
Child abuse under the garb of magical ‘fertility’
Prayers are supposedly answered only under one atrocious condition – the women must donate their first child to the shrine. It is believed that otherwise subsequent children will be born with deformities. Hence, the first child must serve as one of the ‘rats of Shah Daula’. As per reports, these children are not allowed to meet their parents. They are then subjected to ‘artificial microcephaly’ wherein an iron band is placed on their head to prevent the normal growth of the cranium.
These unfortunate children are draped in green cloaks and forced to beg around the shrine. Since pilgrims live under the notion that ignoring them may invite doom, they fill the begging bowls of children with cash and coins. The children, devoid of education and parental patronage, are left at the mercy of the administration of the shrine. Reportedly, criminals in Pakistan have also been creating ‘artificial rats’ with the sinister objective of minting money. The children are coerced into begging on the streets, with begging bowls in their hands.
The History of the Shrine
The historical background of the shrine sheds light on the practice of child abuse that continues to this day. As per reports, Shah Daula who was supposedly fond of animals would put helmets on the heads of children for decorative purposes. He had a penchant for abnormal children and believed that they were human beings of different abilities. Following the death of the Sufi saint, the deformed children were associated with him and fabricated tales were weaved to justify the practice.
Keeping aside the tradition of abuse, a scientific assessment of the abnormality leads us to the religious practices in Islam that dictates the way of life in the conservative society of Pakistan. The root cause, as understood, behind the problem is the rampant rate of inbreeding or cousin marriages. An alarming absence of medical care, institutions to serve differently-abled children and the associated ignorance have trapped the children of Shah Daula into a life of misery.
Pakistani and International Laws
As per Section 328 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), deserting a child below the age of 12 years by parents is a crime. At the shrine of Shah Daula, the first child of such devotees are abandoned on the first or the second day of their birth. Besides, Section 332 and 335 punishes disfiguring a functional organ of any individual but the business of ‘artificial microcephaly’ goes unabated under the pretext of making infertile women fertile. Moreover, forcing children into begging is punishable with a maximum of 5 years of imprisonment and a fine of PKR 1,00,000 under Section 36 of the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act 2004.
Although Pakistan is a member nation of the United Nations and liable under Sections 23 and 37 of the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child 1990 (UNCRC) to prevent the child abuse going unabated under the garb of ‘tradition’, little or no efforts have been made in this regard. Lack of consciousness amongst the public regarding human rights abuse, the complicity of governmental bodies, and the Council of Islamic Ideology needs to be held accountable.