I want to share the good news first: social media activism works. The proof of this is the pictures circulating on social media of Tayyaba, the child maid allegedly tortured in Islamabad, which led to the suo motu notice taken by the Supreme Court.
It is heartening to see the various kinds of activisms that made this happen. The civic activism of the neighbours who first filed the complaint, the social media and mainstream media activism that maintained focus and raised public awareness, and ultimately, the judicial activism that brought this case to the Supreme Court.
Now, it’s time for the bad news. It won’t make a difference to the thousands of Tayyabas that labour across Pakistan in plain sight. Some of them have scars less visible than others. They can be found in our homes, in the workshops we frequent, and the factories whose products we consume.
It’s a fundamental economic law that where there is a demand, there will always be a supply network or chain. Regardless of how the Tayyaba case ends, this supply chain will continue to feed the demand.
Here is how it operates: agents, sometimes from the same village or area as the targeted child, usually approach the parents with an offer to find work for their child in one of Pakistan’s major cities.
Many of the children come from the poverty-stricken Seraiki belt of southern Punjab, where parents with large families find it impossible to make ends meet and welcome the chance to earn a little extra money.
Sometimes a lump sum payment is made to the parents, or a deal for monthly or even quarterly payments is reached. Usually, the middleman pockets a healthy finder’s fee and the child is left to fend for herself or himself.
This scenario is how it happened with Tayyaba too.
According to the testimony from Mohammad Azam, the man who claims to be Tayyaba’s father (several sets of parents have come forth claiming she is their child), he was approached by a woman named Nadra from his neighborhood who promised to find Tayyaba employment in Faisalabad.
Her salary was fixed at Rs 3,000 per month and Azam claimed that he was given an advance of Rs 18,000. He also claimed Tayyaba was taken to Islamabad without his knowledge and they spoke only twice on the phone in the intervening months.
A similar chain of events led to 12-year-old Shazia Masih being employed at the house of Chaudhry Naeem, the former president of the Lahore Bar Association.
Like Tayyaba, she was also brutally abused. But it was too late by the time her case reached the media’s attention. She died as a result of the injuries and sheer neglect.
As with the case of Tayyaba, many attempts were made to subvert the course of the law, albeit successfully in this case.
Shazia’s death was ruled to be due to ‘natural causes’, despite the fact that the preliminary medical report recorded 17 injuries to her forehead, cheek, and scalp.
This is also perhaps the sort of outcome those accused in the Tayyaba case would like to see.
According to Mohammad Azam’s testimony, the lawyer of Raja Khurram, the judge who was nominated in Tayyaba's torture case, provided the car that brought Azam from Jaranwala to Islamabad and gave him a house to stay at in Burma Town.
Then he was told to affix his thumbprint on a legal document that he (being illiterate) was unable to read, after which the child would be returned to him. This was the so-called sulahnama which was used in an attempt to get the accused off the hook.
Azam was taken back to the house where he claims a ‘uniformed person’ took the SIM card from his mobile phone.
If the Chief Justice of Pakistan hadn’t taken a suo motu notice, this case would have ended like Shazia Masih’s, or like countless other tragic cases that go unnoticed.
The powerlessness of the poor is such that they cannot afford the pursuit of justice or navigate the labyrinth of the legal system due to being unable to withstand the pressure of authorities.
In some cases, the parents are not blameless victims of society either.
In 2013, a man named Allah Ditta contacted the Roshni helpline in Karachi saying his 12-year-old son Amir had gone missing while working in a factory.
Thanks to the media coverage and the efforts of Roshni workers, the child was located. They found out he had fled the factory after being subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
Roshni helped reunite the father and son, and escorted them back to their native Sadiqabad. The father returned the subsequent year to complain that his son had run away again from the same factory.
That’s right: after returning to his hometown, Allah Ditta promptly sent his son back to the same factory where he had been beaten and assaulted.
One hopes that Tayyaba will find justice, and perhaps she will.
Maybe the guilty will be punished and this will set a precedent or act as a deterrent for other such abusers.
The more likely scenario is that the spotlight will move on and her family will rent her out again.
The countless other Tayabbas will continue to remain invisible in plain sight.
Do you know any household help who are suffering from abuse like Tayyaba did? Are you an activist? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org