Originally published in the monthly “Women’s Own”.
By Farahnaz Zahidi
We see the horrific details of atrocities committed against child labourers on media, but we want to switch the channel and move on to something more entertaining. Yet, as conscientious civilians, it is our responsibility to be aware and spread awareness, and for beginners stop snuffing out underprivileged children’s childhood by making them our servants.
His father is a labourer, his mother a maid scouring floors for the rich and famous. He is barely 12, but touch his hands and the coarseness is like that of grown man’s. Something about his facial expressions makes him look eerily grown up….as if a withered soul is encased in a child’s body, though his stature is much smaller than his peers, due to malnourishment. He no longer dreams of going to school; there is a resigned acceptance in his eyes about his today and tomorrow. He works as a domestic helper in a saab’s house. He is more trained to respond to words like chokra, ae larkay, chotey and a plethora of abuses, rather than his name. His day starts early and ends late. He earns a meager Rs. 3000, but keeps hearing taunts that he isn’t worth this much. He is titled sly, street smart…..titles that are true….titles that are descriptive of what this job since the age of 8 has taught him. We needn’t know his name. He is just another child labourer of Pakistan….one of the many shoved into the work field at too tender an age.
Horrific stories of the exploitation and violation of children who are made to work surface time and again. They are an unaccounted for, invisible part of the world’s, and Pakistan’s, workforce Staggering statistics tell us that over 132 million children aged 5-14 years old work in agriculture – up to 70 per cent of all working children. Many are exploited in homes, in orphanages, on streets, in slums, in refugee camps and war zones, in detention, and in fields and factories. One such recent story is of the alleged murder of thirteen year old housemaid Shazia Masih, who worked as a maid for a former president of Lahore Bar Association. The autopsy of Shazia Masih tells horrendous details of the marks of physical torture on her body. Shazia’s case has triggered discussion on not just the issue of child labour, but also protection of rights of minorities. But is it enough that leaders and politicians promise that justice will be meted out, and that a compensatory payment is made to the family in return for a priceless loss? It is time that the Pakistani law defines the rights of the child and these laws are enforced.
A “child” is defined in Pakistan as a person younger than fifteen and the legal minimum age for employment is 14 for shops and commerce, industry, and work at sea, and 15 for mines and on railways. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan prohibits slavery, forced labor, the trafficking in human beings, and employment of children below the age of 14 years in any factory or mine or any hazardous employment. The Factories Act 1934 prohibits under-14 employment in factories, the Mines Act 1923 in mines and the Shops & Establishments Ordinance 1969 in offices and restaurants. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 20, 1989. The scope of this convention extends to persons up to the age of 18. Pakistan has ratified this Convention in 1990. Article 32 of CRC reads “State Parties recognise the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing 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”. This landmark treaty guarantees children the right to be free from discrimination, to be protected in armed conflicts, to be protected from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, to be free from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, to receive age-appropriate treatment in the justice system, and to be free from economic exploitation and other abuses, among other rights.
ILO’s Minimum Age Convention 138 was adopted by ILO in 1973. It states that minimum age for employment may not be set lower than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any event not less than 15 years (initially 14 years in the case of developing countries). Although spirit of this Convention is reflected in several Pakistani laws, it has yet to be formally ratified by the Government of Pakistan.
Yet, how many of us reading stories about child labour can testify that a child has never been employed in our homes? In a write-up in “Dawn” (dated 27th January 2010), Anees Jillani writes, “Millions of households all over the country are employing children under the age of 18. Are they not all guilty of the same crime, although many continue to justify it on the grounds of helping a poor child? Child labour is generally legally permissible in the country, due to major loopholes in the relevant legislation. Employment of all children in the age group of 14 to 18 years is allowed in all sectors whether formal or informal.”
The reasons why children are popular choices as domestic servants and labourers are the following:
• The remuneration given to them is much lesser than grown-ups and so they are a much cheaper commodity
• Any complains they voice either to their parents, employers or law enforcers are not taken seriously. As such, they mostly cannot protect themselves against the inhumane treatment they are subjected to
• Children are quicker in learning and grasping menial tasks and are more active
• They are often forced by their parents and families, on the pretext of poverty, to slog as something similar to bonded labour
We justify employing children as labour by saying that they get a better quality of life, more security and food in our homes as compared to their own homes. Yet, are we honestly making efforts to send them to school? Do they eat like our children and enjoy that afternoon nap? Do they get a chance to enjoy physical recreation like normal children? The economic disparity that the poor witness when working in our homes builds up pent up anger in them. As adults they grow into bitter people, harbouring enmity against the affluent. Nothing justifies usurping the right of a child to education, health and security. It is time that the laws are revised and enforced to protect the rights of the child, and the perpetrators of crimes against children are taken to task, so that the Shazia Masihs of this nation are not violated in the future.