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Invisible abuse

September 21, 2017

THE death on Saturday of a teenager who worked as domestic help in an upscale housing locality in Karachi continues to throw up distressing questions. The 17-year-old was found hanging from a fan in the home of her employers who claimed that she had committed suicide. This assertion was upheld by the first post-mortem carried out by a medico-legal officer at a large public-sector facility. The family of the girl, however, maintained that it could not have been suicide, and launched a demonstration against the police until the authorities ordered a second post-mortem. Consequently, it emerged on Tuesday that the child had been strangled to death. The four-member medical board, which included an additional police surgeon, also found marks of torture on the body, and has sent samples for chemical analysis so that it can be ascertained whether, as the family alleges, she was also sexually assaulted. Meanwhile, an FIR has been lodged under the clauses of the Pakistan Penal Code relating to premeditated murder, and the child’s employers have obtained pre-arrest interim bail.

The law must now take its course and a thorough investigation should be carried out. Additionally, it is important to find out why the first autopsy produced an inaccurate report. There may have been technical deficiencies, but given Pakistani society’s realities, another deeply disturbing dimension cannot be overlooked: those who work as domestic labour in this country are among the poorest of the poor, with rights only on the statute books, and next to no capacity at all to seek justice — particularly since such workers tend overwhelmingly to be women and children. This category of persons, because of social custom and their own powerlessness as society’s most vulnerable members, must toil on, often in conditions that resemble modern-day slavery than a situation with proper terms of employment. They suffer high levels of abuse that rarely come to light. In recent years, however, several cases from across the country have emerged where domestic help — mostly children — have been abused to the point of death. It is tragic that only torture or death makes it to the news; abuse that does not prove fatal or falls short of torture is simply accepted. Laws regarding labour workforce rights must be extended to this unrepresented though numerically large section of the population. Further, some sort of enforcement and redressal system must be devised immediately.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2017