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Saturday 24 March 2012

Little helpers

18 employers inflicted extreme violence against child workers, 13 resulted in deaths and 5 in serious injuries in the last two year. 91 percent of female domestic workers say they have suffered sexual abuse
One of the many middle-class delights of Pakistan is the cheap and easy availability of domestic helpers. Most of these helpers are under-18. A younger maid offers many benefits. She can run after the children few years older to her, eat less, sleep in a nook or corner, does not attract attention of the male members (hopefully) and is easier to discipline than an adult.

In 2003, UNICEF reported that eight million under-14 children were labourers in brick kilns, carpet weaving units, agriculture, small industries and homes while a 2004 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report that around 264,000 Pakistani children are labourers. The ILO has introduced a domestic labour convention but Pakistan has yet to sign it. However, Pakistan’s ratification will not make much difference because Pakistan has already signed a record number of labour conventions, blatantly violated every day.

The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), an NGO, reports that 18 employers inflicted extreme violence, 13 resulted in deaths and 5 in serious injuries in the last two year. According to the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA), 91 percent of female domestic workers say they have suffered sexual abuse.

These under-age servants, particularly the girls, are exposed to a lot of dangers. Heinous tales often erupt in newspapers, stories of violence and crimes committed against these children. Under the Child Labour Act of 1991, employment of under-15 children is illegal. Clearly, this law is far from implementation at the moment. But here is the catch. All those ladies and gentlemen working in our homes, are not actually labourers but the informal sector. And this deprives them of benefits like healthcare, minimum wage and more. There have been repeated calls to amend this, especially during PPP times which has a natural (and socialistic) appeal for labourers, but to not much use. Bills were passed against domestic and workplace harassment in 2009, but these laws are again not resolutely implemented. And Pakistan’s corrupt, slow and expensive judicial system does not assist the poor families of the victims.

In the last few years, cases of rape and violence have become more common. Recently, a new motivation has been unleashed behind these crimes - religion. Christians in Pakistan are in general very poor and a large portion of the community serves as helpers. Most employees are Muslim, and they sometimes violate these children out of prejudice or with an intention to blackmail them into conversion. Sometimes, the girls are even married off to other Muslim servants.

In Sheikhupura, Kiran George was burnt to death, but confessed before dying that her employer’s son Ahmad Raza and his sister had been torturing her. Her family flamed up tyres   and blocked roads in protest. There is virtually no prevention or cure for this problem, at the moment. In January 2010, a Christian girl named Shazia Bashir was allegedly killed by the wounds (rape and torture) inflicted by her employee, Chaudhry Muhammed Naeem, a lawyer and former president of the Lahore Bar Association. An NGO called Sharing Life Ministry Life, the girl’s family and the Christian community took up this issue very seriously. The case became very high-profile but the lawyer was later acquitted.

The little boys who work are not very safe either. Taqi Usman (12) was clubbed to death by his boss and another 12 year old boy in Islamabad, named Mohammad Ali, was found dead in his employer’s house who claimed it was a suicide. But the victim’s family is in dismay and refuses to believe it.  Muhammad Zafar, 14, was rescued by police after neighbours reported that the boy had been kept shackled by his employers.

According to IRIN, these women and children are at an increased risk of being trafficked by employers or middlemen who roam the villages and lure these girls and their families for domestic labor but sell them instead.

There is another dimension to this sad story. Poverty, discrimination and a criminal streak has driven many domestic servants towards heinous crimes and theft. This has further strained their reputation and they are treated with more brutality and fear. Television and cable network has increased their exposure. Most people suppose that these girls tend to steal, are easily seduced and even runaway at the first incentive. Perhaps any child with so much exposure and vulnerability would give in, but this worsens the servants’ case and complicates the situation.

Most of these young servants never enter a school. This aggravates their personal problems, as well as many social and policy issues. A few hours of education and occupational training can help these children immensely. However, teaching a servant is easier said than done because studies require time, adult supervision, focus, interest and above all an understanding that this will benefit one in the future. No child, even the most privileged one, can study without all these. Media in the last few years have done a good job in reporting, but much of this news was sensational doodling about the criminal details of the case. Hopefully, more detailed, accurate and ethical child rights reporting will emerge over time. Only education, awareness, a stringent legal system, above all, poverty elimination can rescue these little helpers.

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