Today, Jannat Bibi realises she paid too heavy a price for the double bed she brought to her house last year, and wonders if it will ever be used.
Dismantled – with its frames and mattress propped up against the wall of her one-room quarter – the bed remains a grim reminder of the ugly face of poverty, which forces people like Bibi and her husband Ghualm Shabbir to turn their children in as domestic workers.
Shan Ali, their 11-year old son, worked as a houseboy for Atiya Al Hussain and Mudassar Abbas, who lived in a posh locality in Islamabad. It was from them that Bibi had bought the bed for 18,000 rupees and repaid the couple in monthly instalment of Rs.3,500, which was also Ali’s monthly salary. Even when the Rs.18,000 had been paid up, Ali continued to work until the fateful day of January 5, when police found him dead, his body bent over and a curtain tied around his neck.
Ali’s employers insisted he had committed suicide.
Police smelled foul play and ordered an autopsy, which revealed that Ali was indeed strangled. During the police investigation, Al Hussaini owned up saying that she had strangled the boy in a fit of rage after he failed to calm down her wailing seven-month-old baby, when she wanted to sleep. The couple is now in police custody.
Ali’s employers – also his murderers – will be in a few months, after being pardoned by the grieving parents.
“We are too poor to fight this case. The lawyers told us it would cost one to two hundred thousand rupees and we don’t have that kind of money. Under the circumstances, it is best to pardon Ali’s employers as we try to put this tragic episode behind us,” Bibi’s eldest daughter, Rubina, tells Dawn.com.
“My parents don’t even want any compensation money offered by his employers.”
Since Ali’s death, neither his father (a daily-wage worker) nor his mother (a domestic help) have gone to work.
The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc) – a non-governmental organisation working on child rights – has documented 18 cases of extreme forms of violence carried out by employers in the last two years. These cases, which were reported in the media, have resulted in the death of 13 children and inflicted serious injuries to five. It is also feared that several cases remain unreported.
Ten-year old Sonia was regularly hit with the heel of her employer’s sandals for not working properly; Firdaus, 12, had to put up with physical torture as well as sexual abuse before being poisoned; Usman, 14, was tortured for not feeding the pet dog; six-year-old Laiba was beaten so badly that she suffered from a fractured arm and head injuries; Khalida, 14, was raped and then killed. The list goes on, each story more horrifying than the other.
“Most employers get away with the crimes (including murders) on the basis of power and influence,” according to Zarina Jillani, who heads the Research and Communication department at Sparc. “Not a single employer,” she says, “has been charged as guilty.”
“The perpetrators usually buy off the poor parents in an out-of court settlement,” said Anees Jillani, an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and a children’s rights activist.
Twelve-year-old Tehmina was pushed off from a balcony for demanding her salary after not having received it for a few months. She suffered spinal-cord injury and was paralysed. Her father was handed compensation and asked to drop all charges against her employers. She died a few months later.
Given the increased reports of violence meted out to child domestic help, Sparc has urged the government to take immediate action and put child domestic labour on the list of 35 occupations that have been banned due to their hazardous nature under the Employment of Children Act 1991.
In fact, Sparc’s Jillani considers domestic work more hazardous than factory work. She ascribes poverty, history of exploitation of the weak, lack of educational and employment opportunities as some of the factors that have led to a rise in cruelty towards child domestic workers.
Employing children, some even as young as six, is a common practice in several wealthy households as there is no law prohibiting child domestic work in Pakistan.
According to advocate Jillani, there are no specific laws dealing with children in Islamabad.
“In Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there is a Children’s Act but even these don’t have specific provisions regulating such affairs.”
“While Pakistan has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child, it has no legal validity in the country,” he says.
Recently, explains advocate Jillani, the International Labour Organisation has introduced domestic labour convention but Pakistan has yet to sign it. “Incidentally, there are no laws in Pakistan regulating domestic labour involving children or adults,” he said.
Eight million children under the age of 14, are engaged as labourers (in brick kiln factories, the carpet weaving industry, agriculture, small industries, and domestic services, etc) according to a nationwide study carried out by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2003.
An ILO report from 2004, put the estimated number of children in Pakistan who work as domestic help at 264,000.
Samar Minallah, an anthropologist and a documentary filmmaker believes that the employees find it convenient to employ children because they do not question working overtime, paying less or in many instances, not being paid because of the myth that they are being supported or fed by the employees.
The worst part, she says, is that it’s the so-called educated people who employ children all over the country. “They are expected to work from morning until late night. Even an adult would not be able to keep up with the demands expected from children.”
A rapid assessment conducted in the country’s five major urban centres by Sparc, in 2004, showed that every fourth house had a child domestic servant, working either part time or full time. “It was highest in Karachi, where almost every third house had a child worker followed by Lahore, Islamabad, Quetta and Peshawar,” said the organisation’s spokesperson.
According to advocate Jillani, the reason why most people prefer employing young children is “the ‘safety’ they feel as opposed to having a male adult servant pottering around the house”.
Pliability, obedience and acquiescence are some of the reasons why many prefer to employ young children for housework.
“Young children are easily controlled. They work for little or no wages. With more females working outside the homes, there is increasing demand for safe domestic help,” Jillani adds.
And that is why, she says, it was important to extend labour laws to domestic labour.
The advocate believes that compulsory education could go a long way in restricting the exploitation.
The author is a freelance journalist.