By Naghma Sherin Afridi
Nobody knows what happens behind closed doors
8-year-old Zohra Shah breathed her last after she suffered terrible injuries, cut marks on her arms and legs, scratch marks on her torso and torture marks on her genitals by her employer for setting birds free. She was taken to work by an aunt without the family permission, with more likelihood that her father was behind the arrangement. As reported by the police, the girl had wounds on her thighs which were consistent with sexual assault, and was also bleeding from her genitals.
Tayyaba, a 10-year-old, working as a maid for an additional district and session judge (ADSJ) and his wife, was tortured. Photos of the tortured Tayyaba began circulating on social media in 2018. The ADSJ and his wife were cleared of assault allegations but were sentenced to 1-year in jail for neglecting an injured child.
Uzma Bibi, a 16-year-old house maid, was brutally tortured and murdered by her employers, leading to an outcry on social media. Uzma was regularly beaten up and made to sleep on the floor of a bathroom at night. Because she ate some meat from the curry, she was strangled to death and her body was dumped.
Humaira, a 10-year-old child, while working as a house help was burned by her employer. She was abused, both verbally and physically. While playing with other children, boiling water was thrown upon her, leaving her with burns all over her upper body. She was isolated and not even taken to a hospital. She was rescued by a neighbor and reunited with her family.
According to a survey conducted by the Federal Bureau of Statistics and the National Child Labour, approximately 19 million children below 14 years of age are working as child labourers in Pakistan. According to International Labour Organization (ILO), 8.5 million people in Pakistan – most of which are women and children- are employed as domestics workers in households.
Pakistan also suffers acutely from the bonded labor system. A survey conducted in 2013 by Insan Dost Association unveiled that in Sahiwal, Okara and Pakpattan’s 730 brick kilns alone, 31,000 children between the ages of 5-14 worked as bonded laborers.
This is indicative of the fact that if the government were to introduce sustenance/support programs for the poor, cases of bonded child labor may decline.
Under “The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act (BLSAA) 1992”, the practice of bonded labour was made an illegal practice and consequently, in 2013 the courts freed 1,871 bonded labors. The majority of these laborers emanated from Sindh and were male. The fact that almost 2 million people are believed to be victims of such a practice and only a fraction of that number have been freed shows how fruitless this act is in practice with respect to eliminating bonded labor.Punjab has introduced this Act whereas Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa still lack any such legislation.
Children are at a greater risk of exploitation, abuse and violence at the workplace, particularly when the workplace is someone else’s home where they are hidden from the public view and labor inspection.
The root causes for child labor are multiple but a major cause appears to be poverty. Parents, as poor as a church mouse, do not have the resources to feed their children. They send their children to work in homes, with less wages and in some cases even no wages, provided only with food and shelter. The alternative for these families is their children begging on the streets, succumbing to drug addiction and sometimes being lured by criminal gangs. In contrast to this alternative, domestic labor is viewed as a better/safer option.
A year since the promulgation of Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019, which prohibits the employment of children below 15 years of age, it is reported that the act has not been implemented. In Pakistan’s most populous province, only 12,500 domestic workers had registered with Punjab Employees Social Security Institution (PESSI). The age limit is arbitrary as per article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan it is mandatory for children to receive education up till the age of 16. This act put in place a laudable system of protection for domestic workers but the question of implementation remains a concern. There is no real power under the act to survey and inspect private households for the purpose of registration.
It is expected that the Punjab government will correct the lacuna and ensure the implementation of the said act and that other provinces will follow suit.
Immediately, after the Zohra Shah case, the Federal Government took a step forward. The cabinet approved the Ministry of Human Rights (MoHR)’s summary to amend the Child Employment Act, 1991 by inserting child domestic labor in part I of the Schedule. Under section 4 of the act, the Federal Government is empowered to add any occupation to this schedule through a notification in the official gazette. The cabinet has also directed MoHR to conduct a survey of child domestic labor in Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) so that the Federal Government can devise a social protection program for the poor families who are compelled to send their children into domestic labor. Furthermore, Zaineb Alert app is being launched in partnership with Prime Minister’s Performance Delivery Unit (PMDU) as a part of the implementation of Zaineb Alert Law.
This applies to ICT and one hopes that the provinces will also make progress on this. This act defines a child as under 14 years of age which is not in line with the stipulations of Article 25-A of the Constitution, which mandates 16 years of education for every child.
It is worth noting that the occupations prohibited under the Schedule of the act are silent about child labor in the agriculture sector. An enormous proportion of children in rural areas are engaged in agriculture sector which is heavily dependent on the use of pesticides. Children’s greater vulnerability to exposure and lower tolerance to toxic substances make it hazardous work environment which should be also be taken to consideration.