LAHORE: When Naseema Bibi’s husband finally saw his daughter after eight months, the 17-year-old was a mess: her clothes were tattered, her hair was unevenly shaved, and her scalp showed signs of injury and harm.
For those months, Sadia had been working as a maid for a family living in the cantonment area in Chakwal, but the family’s head— a woman named Rakhshanda— allowed no contact between Sadia and her family. They were not even allowed to talk to her on the phone.
After the torturous six months, Sadia’s father and brother finally paid Rakhshanda’s house a visit, only to find Sadia in a miserable condition. Aside from the bruises on her skin, there was a worn-out plaster covering her arm. When Sadia had left to work at the house, her arm had been healthy.
In the following weeks, Sadia’s brother attempted to get her back home. “He was intimidated with threats of prison by the influential owner,” Naseema Bibi recalls. “The owner paid ‘hush money’ to keep him quiet, and warned him never to come looking for her again.”
Sadia’s story is one of hundreds where young maids are physically and mentally abused by employers. They go unreported because employers work out an agreement with the victims’ families: they pay hush money in exchange for silence.
The concept of ‘hush money’ involves paying a sum of money—usually several lacs in rupees—to an often underaged maid’s family as compensation for their silence.
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The practice of paying hush money as compensation to the underage maid’s family is common in Punjab, explains Fayaz Butt, who is an assistant director at Child Protection and Welfare Punjab (CPWB). “It is especially the case in urban areas,” he adds.
Amira Amjad, a child psychologist and a lecturer of Clinical Psychology at Bahria University in Islamabad, says fear of exclusion and a bad reputation in immediate social circles is often a major factor that makes rich abusers pay hush money. They benefit from the poor girl’s financial helplessness, since they know her family will not be able to afford the cost of the court case.
According to Shabnam Naji, a lawyer and Chairperson Peace Council Pakistan, mutual settlements such as these that are made outside the ambit of law-enforcing institution, are advantageous for the accused party. They can effectively silence the usually poor and downtrodden girl’s family by paying anything between Rs200,000 to Rs300,000 as hush money.
Plus, Naji says, undertaking legal proceedings ends up costing the poor families a lot more. They cannot afford to prosecute the abuser due to high lawyer fees, regardless of whether they win or lose.
“Very few victims are able to have their pleas heard since the family cannot bear the [monetary] brunt of the High Court,” explains Javed William, the president of Faces Pakistan. The girl’s terror-stricken family, then, agrees to ‘hush up’ when offered financial relief by the accused.
Naseema Bibi, for example, doesn’t really know how much her son was paid; he never disclosed the amount. “He also told her not to talk to her [Sadia],” she says angrily. “Otherwise, he said we will lose him forever.”
Cover-ups and intimidation
Out of the countless of cases reported, most are usually dropped before or after the initiation of legal proceedings, which eventually results in the records being buried under several other cases, never to be opened again. Naji is currently dealing with three cases of abused prepubescent maids as petitioners; one each from Multan, Sahiwal and Faisalabad.
Naji explains that from the 20 cases filed in the LHC last year, most involved some sort of cover-up by the abuser; in 13 cases, the girls were thrown at their parents’ doorsteps with a false story claiming she was accidentally injured while working; in seven cases, the girls were accused of theft. All 20 girls were aged between eight and 14 years old.
Only four cases lasted the trial. However, a high-ranking law official, on the condition of anonymity, says that all four maids succumbed to their injuries while at the hospital. These girls had been physically abused and beaten up with hot iron tools, pliers and sticks.
The remaining cases were dropped by the girls’ families, some after they had recorded their statements. Naji alleges they might have received financial support from the accused party.
Amira Amjad, who provides therapy to maids who survive abuse, cites another case that cannot be taken to trial. A sixteen-year-old girl’s family from Vehari is under pressure from various fronts: “The most major pressure comes from intimidation,” Amira says, “Which is the family’s own perceived status of helplessness amongst society.”
They are helpless and terrified: “They fear their influential abusers.”
Living with assault
Nazia and Muqaddas are two underage girls who were rescued, but both are living with uncertain futures. Hundreds of others are in similar situations where their survival depends both on the intensity of their injuries, and their mental health in the aftermath of assault.
Six-year-old Muqaddas, for example, is suffering from severe abuse and has wounds on her body that still cause pain. Originally from Dholan Chak, a village near Okara, Muqaddas was rescued by CPWB from a house in Iqbal Town. Her employer, a woman she calls Aunty, hit her on her head and face. “She abused me twice with extremely hot pliers,” Muqaddas says.
Nazia, too, is a safe distance away from her old employer—who she still calls ‘baji’—but still suffers from severe injuries due to repeated assaults; her right arm is fractured, and her scalp has a fresh, pink wound. Baji thrashed every part of her body, but especially her head, neck and chest.
After the thrashing, Nazia says she could not work with all the pain. But baji would abuse her for that as well: to prove it, she shows a plaster on her chest. “I was often tied in a room and beaten with sticks until I felt as if all my bones would shatter,” she remembers.
But even though Nazia is receiving treatment for her injuries, her mental health needs more attention. According Zaib, the manager at Child Protection Institute for Girls (CPIG), Nazia does not mingle with the other girls at the hostel. “This is not a good sign,” Zaib says. “She appears to be frightened and distressed most of the time.”
A common practice
Naji feels that a feudal mentality is at the root of the problem. “Employing prepubescent maids is a common practice, even in comparatively less urbanized cities of Punjab such as Kasur, Multan, Faisalabad, Sialkot and Mianwali,” she says.
According to a survey by conducted in the federal and provincial capitals of Pakistan by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi have the highest ratio of maids employed at homes. 62 per cent of these maids are young, prepubescent girls.
Tahir Allah Rakha, Program Manager Child Care foundation of Pakistan, says that two out of every four maids are at the very least bullied, or assaulted with different tools.
That might sound like a far stretch, but CPWB Punjab has rescued over 2,600 underage maids since 2005 from various houses in Lahore. Last year, they rescued 12 maids involved in various kinds of labour, though almost all were found employed in households. An additional 142 girls—some of whom were physically assaulted—were rescued from the six districts of Punjab including Lahore, Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Multan, Rawalpindi and Sialkot.
The story of one girl whose ex-employer, a woman, repeatedly abused her.
“…They live in Samnabad... it has been some eight or nine months. There's a woman in the house, her husband, and three children. The wife beat me more than the husband. She'd make me lie down, then she'd hit me with batons. She'd tie me up and beat me. They had promised me a salary of Rs10,000 per month. They haven't given me even one month's salary, let alone that of eight months. I had earrings I was wearing, they took those too. They were worth half a tola of gold. She wouldn't let me talk to my father; neither did she give him her address. When my father called, asking to speak to me, she'd shut the phone on him."
Most of these girls, like Sadia, are not in contact with their families. According to a survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 72 per cent child workers have no way to meet their families and 10 per have no knowledge about their family’s whereabouts. It is no wonder then that these cases are relatively under-reported and kept well-hidden.
'The police cannot be blamed'
SSP Investigation Lahore Hassan Mushtaq Sukhera says the Punjab Police does not have a mechanism to investigate unreported cases. First Investigation Reports (FIRs) have to be filed first, as per law.
Once they are filed, the ease of access to forensic mechanism—such as the site of abuse—plays a significant role in the investigation’s success. “In most cases, the end of the investigation is compromised by the victim’s party either through hush money or through intimidation,” Sukhera alleges.
He feels that the Punjab Police cannot be solely blamed for the plight of underage maids. “Owing to various socio-political reasons, there are other forces at work,” he comments.
Nowhere to go
Nazia’s father, Shaukat Ali, says that his daughter was employed by a man he did not even know. But he panicked when the employer refused to reveal his address, and denied repeated requests by Ali to talk to his daughter. Ali then took a loan of Rs150,000 from a feudal lord in Jaranwala to find his six-year-old himself.
In the audio clip below, Shaukat Ali talks about his search for his daughter.
The search took him four months; he had almost lost hope until he was contacted by Punjab Child Protection and Welfare Bureau. A month and a half ago, Najia was partly unconscious after a beating, when a woman and three guards from the CPWB showed up and rescued her. She was hospitalised for almost a month, and was discharged only two weeks ago.
“Her medical check-ups are being carried out in CPWB’s hospital,” explains Miss Faiqa, a senior child psychologist and the principal at Child Protection School of CPWB. But even though Najia is living comfortably in the CPIG hostel, there is a new problem.
Now that he has found her, Nazia’s father says he cannot take her back home. While his daughter wants to leave the hospital as soon as possible—saying she misses her mother and siblings—Ali says money is tight and he is helpless. “I cannot bear the expenses of six children,” he says. “I want my daughter to live here.”
This piece first appeared in NewsLens Pakistan, and has been republished in Dawn.com with permission.