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'Baji, open the door, I'm dying in here'

Updated Jan 03, 2017 01:23pm

She is locked up in a cold washroom. Her weak cries for help escape from the windows in the dead of night, and fall mostly on deaf ears. Her miserable life will continue, thanks to the apathy of the neighbours, until the day she will likely die an 'accidental' death.

In the heart of Rawalpindi Cantonment, a young maid of no more than 12 years is a victim of abuse and neglect. She cries for hours for help on some nights.

I listened to her helplessly the first time.

Tonight, I called the police.

I am visiting Rawalpindi these days. I woke up to a child's cries for help before the Fajr prayers on December 24.

It was the 12th of Rabi ul Awwal, a day of celebrations and thanksgiving to commemorate the birth of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). I could hear the pre-dawn canon fire, probably in honour of the special day. But that was not all I heard.

Piercing through the silence of the cold winter night were the cries for help.

"Baji, open the door, I'm dying in here"

I walked out in the veranda trying to determine the source of the shouts. By that time, my hosts had also woken up. We turned on the external lights and stood outside the neighbour's washroom from where the child's cries emerged.

My hosts told me that the crying child is most likely the underage maid in the neighbour's house. The neighbours are tenants hailing from central Punjab. My hosts knew of other domestic workers that had left because of the neighbours' ill treatment. This one was too young to leave on her own, or to defend herself. She could only cry herself to sleep in a locked, cold washroom.

I took my host and the street's night watchman with me and knocked at the neighbour's door on December 24. It was 5am.

Despite my repeated loud knocks, no one came to the door. By that time, the child had stopped crying.

Also read: Child abuse: Cruel numbers, toothless laws

Last night, the same episode repeated. The child started crying around 2:30am.

I called out to the child asking her to respond. She didn't.

I called out to the neighbours. They played deaf.

In the meanwhile, the child continued crying for help.

"Baji, open the door, I'm dying in here"

I searched the Internet for an agency responsible for preventing child abuse. I couldn't find one. I asked my hosts and they also had no information of an NGO or a state agency that we could call for help.

In the end, I called the local police station. Fortunately, the police responded by sending a mobile unit.

I explained the matter to the police and told them it was the second incident in less than a week. They accompanied me to the neighbour's door. The police rang the bell. It was 3:45am.

This time, the neighbour's wife responded. She right away advised the police that there were no males in the house, preempting the all-male police team from entering the house. She further informed the police that it was her own child crying. A child that calls her mother "Baji".

The police advised the neighbour's wife that their household were not registered with the local police station, which is now a mandatory requirement for tenants. The police left without further action, but advised us that they would return during the day to speak with the men in the household.

If this were to be the case in Toronto (my city), the child protection services would have sprung into action. They would remove the underage maid and place her in foster care. Even if the real parents are suspected of child abuse, the state would immediately take custody of the child until the matter has been investigated. If the child is subsequently returned to the parents, a child protection agency would routinely visit the household to determine the child's welfare.

This is not to suggest that child abuse does not take place in Canada. Some children do slip through the cracks where the state and the society fail to protect the most vulnerable amongst us. Jeffery Baldwin was one such five-year-old whose maternal grandparents, his legal guardians, starved him to death. The very system that was supposed to protect him, failed him.

There are hundreds of thousands of Jeffery Baldwins in Pakistan who need the help of both the state and the society.

Underage domestic workers have the worst fortune. They suffer in silence, but in plain sight of the society. They are beaten, starved, and are forced to live in inhospitable conditions. They are brought to cities from villages where their parents often readily give them up for having one less child to feed.

Examine: Hidden workers

Fortunately for Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is also a caring grandfather who has responded with compassion in cases of abuse. Given the widespread abuse of underage domestic and commercial workers, the federal government must launch a national helpline that the good Samaritans could call to report abuse. It should be as simple as dialing 15 or 1122.

While organisations such as Madadgar do exist, they are not known nationally and they don't have the legal underpinnings to have a binding influence on those who abuse children. The new child protection agency should have the means to relocate the child without delay and place in foster care. Edhi's help could be sought to officiate a national programme to rescue abused children. Unicef could be engaged to design the program based on the best practices from around the world.

The young girl who cries at night in the neighbour's house, and many thousands like her, need our immediate attention and care. Our apathy could mean a death sentence for them. She might one day die of pneumonia, but her real cause of death will be abuse, apathy, and neglect.

Take a look: Child abuse scandal

Unfortunate children like her die every day and are transported back to their villages for burial. No one knows that they didn't just die, they were murdered.

Our silence will make us equally guilty. Let's break the silence and call the prime minister to act today to save those children who could still be saved.

For the girl crying in Rawalpindi, I hope that on the 12th of Rabi ul Awwal next year, instead of crying in a locked washroom, she is in the care of a loving family.