THERE is a Dickensian quality to the latest case of child abuse that has shocked the country — such is the appalling social inequity it depicts. On Sunday, an eight-year-old girl did something many of her age might have done: she let escape some birds confined in a cage. Except, little Zahra was not a daughter of privilege — she was a domestic worker in a Rawalpindi household and the pet parrots belonged to her employers. Her ‘transgression’ allegedly earned the child such a brutal beating by the couple that she succumbed to her injuries soon after being brought to hospital. The suspects have been remanded into police custody. As per the FIR, Zahra sustained injuries to her face, hands, below the ribcage, and legs. She may have also been subjected to sexual assault, though tests are yet to confirm that.
Several of the worst aspects of Pakistani society coalesced in this incident — the grinding poverty that blights large sections of it, the abhorrent sense of entitlement among the ‘elite’, and an exploitative system that perpetuates the status quo either through apathy or complicity. There is also a tacit acceptance of child labour, at least when it is not in a ‘hazardous’ capacity. But, as we have seen time and again, domestic settings are no less perilous to minor workers. In 2016, 10-year-old Tayyaba nearly died of torture at the hands of her employers, an Islamabad district court judge and his wife. In that instance, there was some measure of accountability, though the couple’s prison sentence was reduced from three years to one. Zahra’s murder is only the latest in a shameful litany of cases which illustrate that modern-day slavery is alive and well here. In such a milieu, every man, woman and child does not have inherent dignity: instead, dignity is determined by a sliding scale according to socioeconomic class. Children, being the weakest, are the most vulnerable, sometimes at the hands of their own parents who out of compulsion can put them to work even where their well-being cannot be assured. It is about time that the loopholes in the child labour laws that exist in certain sectors were closed and legislation pertaining specifically to minor domestic workers enacted. Moreover, the government must strengthen child protection laws so that minors can be rescued from abusive or negligent home situations. We must not keep failing young Pakistanis over and over again.
Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2020