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Pakistani Activists Take Aim At Toy Guns

A Pakistani boy plays with a toy gun during Eid al-Fitr celebrations in August 2012.
A Pakistani boy plays with a toy gun during Eid al-Fitr celebrations in August 2012.
Toy guns don't kill people, people kill people.

Nevertheless, campaigners in Pakistan are aiming to get imitation Kalashnikovs and Glocks off the streets, saying they help breed a culture of violence among children.

The campaigners have targeted Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of Ramadan (August 7-9) to launch their effort, knowing that children will be eager to buy new toys with the pocket money they traditionally receive during the festivities.

Nongovernmental organizations, poets, singers, and peace activists plan to fight back by staging walks, petitioning the authorities, and talking to parents and shopkeepers in the hope they minimize interest in the toy weapons that traders stock up on during Eid al-Fitr.

Sana Ijaz, a peace activist in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, explains why toy guns pose a threat in the restive northwestern province.

"If we expose our children to these things from a tender age," Ijaz says, "it will not be difficult for them to fall into the hands of extremists when they are teenagers. The extremists can easily trap them into conducting a suicide bombing or being trained for other similar violent acts. Childhood exposure to toy guns can make them easily adapt to using weapons [when they grow up]."

Researchers Divided

The jury is out on whether a connection can be made between childhood war games and adult violence. Researchers around the globe are divided on the subject, with some seeing no scientific link and others arguing that there is, indeed, a causal relationship.

Countless studies have concluded that violence is a learned behavior and that violent video games, action figures, and television and films send the message that violence is acceptable. Groups have sprouted up in the United States and elsewhere that promote toy trade-ins and peaceful play.

Pakistani children play with plastic guns in a street near Osama bin Laden's former hideout in Abbottabad in 2011.
Pakistani children play with plastic guns in a street near Osama bin Laden's former hideout in Abbottabad in 2011.
In a reversal from that line of thinking, British authorities in 2007 advised schools and nurseries not to discourage boys from playing with toy weapons, telling teachers that it could foster healthy development.

Whatever the truth, Pakistani activists are pushing forward in the belief that the foundations of a peaceful society are formed at an early age.

"All buildings reflect the way they were planned and their foundations," says singer Amjad Shahzad, a leading proponent of the campaign. "If we base the rearing of our children on violent toys, their future personalities are likely to be violent and destructive toward society. We need toys for children that can help them gain knowledge and improve their educational prospects."

Misplaced Effort?

His message resonates 1,000 kilometers away in Pakistan's biggest city, Karachi.

Mohammad Arshad Khan, who heads the nongovernmental Raana Development Trust, says volunteers from his organization have put up banners and posters and are visiting schools, mosques, and community centers to get the word out.

Janan Buneree, one of the volunteers, says that even shopkeepers involved in the city's estimated $2 million toy-weapon trade have been receptive.

"At first the shopkeepers laugh us off. But on a serious note, they appreciate our efforts and tell us if we are able to convince people to ditch toy weapons, they will be happy to take them off their shelves," Buneree says.

Peshawar-based sociologist Khadim Hussain is skeptical, however. He sees little value in a campaign against violence that focuses on toy guns.

"I think they need to extend this campaign to talk about the real weapons used in this region," he says. "And more significantly, they need to target the thinking that turns this area into an arms market. If they don't move in that direction, it will mobilize people but will not fulfill the real aim [of achieving peace]."

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Raham Zaid, a lecturer of child psychology at Abdul Wali Khan University near Peshawar, agrees. He says real guns and societal acceptance of violence should be the focus.

"The fundamental issue here is the availability, public display, and use of real weapons," he says. "In addition, society tolerates [violent] acts."

"We don't have the power to end the current violence," counters Shahzad, the singer in Peshawar. "But we can work toward preventing our future generations from burning in this inferno."

Shahzad says he plans to hold a protest in front of the national parliament and to send a letter to the Chinese Embassy in the hope that Beijing will restrict the export of toy guns to Pakistan.

With additional reporting from RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Baz Mohammad Abid in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and Ghulam Ghous in Peshawar
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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