REMEMBER Tayyaba? She was the 10-year-old child maid who was badly beaten by her employers — judge Raja Khurram Ali and his wife Maheen Zafar. A case was filed thanks to the intervention of well-meaning neighbours and sentences were handed out.
Remember Kinza? In 2018, this 11-year-old maid fled the house where she was employed by Dr Mohsin Riaz and his wife Dr Major Ammara Riaz. The reason was the same: for two years Kinza had been allegedly subjected to beatings and abuse by the couple. Action was taken when Kinza’s pictures — with marks of violence clearly present on her face — went viral.
I don’t know where these girls are now. I don’t know if Kinza is now going to school the way she wanted to or if she, and Tayyaba, have been handed over to another set of employers by their poverty-stricken families. But what I do know is that they, despite all they have endured, are the lucky ones.
How do we call out our families and friends when we see them employ a child?
I say this because of another set of pictures that recently went viral, pictures of a 16-year-old girl called Uzma. If you have seen photos of concentration camp inmates during the Second World War or the Bosnian genocide, then you will know that Uzma was indistinguishable from these.
Here was a young girl who looked like a wizened old lady, aged beyond her years thanks to the starvation and abuse she faced by her employers. Look at her pictures from just a few months back and you can determine the level of inhumane torture this little girl suffered, the corpse-like features, the hollow cheeks, the dishevelled hair of a girl starving not due to a famine, but due to the evil perpetrated upon her by the women who employed her.
Perhaps it was this starvation that forced her to take a bite from the plate of the child (a 14-year-old) she was tasked with caring for. That action proved fatal for Uzma as her employers (you can see their pictures online as well, well-fed faces glowing under their snapchat filters and virtual flower crowns) , incensed by this act of desperation allegedly struck her so hard that she lost consciousness.
They did attempt to revive her — with electric shocks — but her frail form could withstand no more and she died. In an attempt to cover their crime they invented a back story claiming that she had fled after robbing them and dumped her body in a nearby canal. Thankfully, the police saw through this lie and have arrested the culprits.
Thanks to the efforts of investigative journalist Mukarram Kaleem, a video of Uzma while she was alive also emerged. It showed her sitting in a room surrounded by her laughing employers. Her face remains expressionless, as if the very act of smiling was alien to her, would take more energy than she had. Other facts have also emerged, that she was made to sleep in a bare, unheated bathroom which was locked from the outside.
Take a look: Mistreatment of child maid
We also hear that sometimes her screams could be heard by neighbours and that some of them even approached the police only to be rebuffed. Some were asked to provide some form of evidence, which they were unable to do. One can rage against this, but at the same time we must realise that the police — much as we would like to blame them for inaction — responded largely according to their protocols.
After all, the same police did take action in other similar cases but only when they had a degree of evidence. We can’t really blame the government either, as legislation is in place, and there are calls now for the pending bill against child labour in Punjab to be renamed the Uzma bill, if only to serve as a reminder of what is at stake.
So what we are left with is outrage, and the hope that the women who killed Uzma meet the fate they so richly deserve. We are left not with justice but with only the hope for a bit of temporary vengeance, something that may sate our own guilt. Guilt because at some point we have all borne witness to something that we knew was wrong and have chosen to look the other way. I know I have, and likely will do again.
After all, how do we call out our families and friends when we see them employ a child? How do we sour our otherwise pleasant conversations with unwanted critique?
There are no solutions in what I’m writing. This is a rant borne out of a feeling of sheer helplessness. It’s a shout into the empty void which will be swallowed by silence until the next time the monsters among us show their fangs from behind their polite smiles, until their porcelain skin cracks to reveal the rot beneath. And when that happens, allow yourselves to feel that rage and perhaps transform it into action. And know that the fact that you can do both also means that you, like Tayyaba and Kinza, are the lucky ones.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, February 4th , 2019