Modern Slavery: Horrors of Child Labor in Pakistan
“Children should have pens in their hands not tools” – Iqbal Masih (1983-1995)
Slavery can take on many forms. If you think it’s gone for good in present-day Pakistan, then think again! You might only have to look in your backyard or your neighborhood!
On June 1 2020, Zohra Shah, an 8-year-old girl employed as a domestic worker in a private household in Karachi, was violently beaten to death by her employer. Why? She accidentally set his parrots free from the cage. Her employer took the unconscious child to the hospital but left her there when he realized that Zohra might have already succumbed to the injuries.
The case of Zohra is not a first. We will, unfortunately, find plenty of them in recent history.
In 2016, there was an outcry on social media as pictures of a 10-year old Tayyaba, beaten and wounded, surfaced the internet who was physically tortured by a judge and her wife in Islamabad. I can go on and on about such horrific stories made true by our own people, but here’s the thing…
June 12 2020 marks the World Day against Child Labor, and while ideally it should be highlighted and talked about all year-round, today I would specifically like to highlight the horrors of child labor that are rampant in Pakistan under broad daylight. Their condition can often be likened to slavery in the olden times, and this by no means, is an exaggeration. Just look around yourself and try to acknowledge social inequalities that exist in our everyday lifestyles.
According to the report of International Labor Organization (2015) , around 5.7 million children within the age bracket of 10-17 years old are employed as laborers in Pakistan (this is just on record, imagine the number that goes unreported). From working as domestic staff in private households to cleaning tables at the dhabbas, to stoking furnaces in brick-kilns, to hand-stitching soccer balls in Sialkot, most of these under-aged kids are deprived the right to proper education, a healthy lifestyle, and security.
Although ratified in 1990 , Article 19 and 32 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) guarantees protection to children from “…all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse…” (Article 19) and “..any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development” (Article 32), but clearly Pakistan’s domestic law fails to comply with the international standards of child protection.
Our legislative bodies are filled with corrupt officials, our laws are inadequate, they lack coherence and transparency, they lack effective implementation… you name it. Although according to the Article 25-A of Pakistan’s Constitution, the State is responsible to “provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years as may be determined by law”, but it comes to us as no surprise that these laws are rarely drafted, and even if they are, they are only good enough to shine on a piece of paper and to be presented in international conferences while the ground-reality on the scourge of child labor stays. Until and unless, our government devises a holistic framework with coherent policies for child protection, AND ensures its strict implementation, this menace won’t come to a stop, let alone decrease.
Can you believe that in Punjab, under The Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Act 2016, domestic labor is not included in the list of “hazardous work”? This reflects the dire need of having laws to enact more accountability and strict check and balance on people who hire child-maids in their homes.
Needless to say, child labor undeniably highlights the failure of our government in providing protection to the poorest tier of our society. With the rising prices of fuel and food, most families, out of economic necessities and desperation, are forced to send their children to work. To them, nothing else matters but a two-day meal and a shelter.
The Blood of Iqbal Masih
The story of Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old boy who was shot for advocating against child exploitation, continues to remind us about our longstanding struggle against modern slavery. At the age of 4, Iqbal was sold to a carpet weaving industry by his father in exchange for debt relief. At the age of 10, he managed to escape his employer and joined the Bondage Labor Liberation Front and helped around 3000 child workers from forced labor at various industries. However, his voice against child exploitation was soon silenced as he was murdered in 1995 near Lahore. Although the young activist has received numerous awards such as the Reebok Youth in Action Award (1994) and The World’s Children’s Honory Award (2000), but I say this with great sorrow that, as a nation, we continue to let the blood of Iqbal go in vain as our industries profit from child exploitation.
With child labor so prevalent, it is equally incumbent upon us to help fight this normalized culture. If our upper-middle-class continues to hire child-maids in their private households, then no one but we ourselves are to be blamed for normalizing this insensitive behavior. While we can only hope for the government to play its part in safeguarding child rights, in the meantime, we must not forget that our silence against child exploitation shows a moral decay of our society and contributes towards increased vulnerability to child abuse.
As we enter an age of dynamic progress in IT, Entertainment, and Digital Technology, staying silent on a matter that reeks of modern-day slavery is tantamount to committing the crime itself.
The Children of this nation are our future, they deserve our protection, they deserve the right to play, to learn, and to feel protected. You are guilty if you remain silent – being a bystander is no longer an option.
Hiba Shoaib is a student of social development and policy at Habib University. She is currently working as an Undergraduate Research Fellow at Center for Transdisciplinary Design and Innovation Lab. As an aspiring policy-practitioner, she aims to address socio-economic concerns. She uses her research and critical-writing skills to empower people and advocate for social justice.