Working children

Published February 23, 2021
The writer is a paediatrician at the Aga Khan University Hospital.
The writer is a paediatrician at the Aga Khan University Hospital.

HIRING a child for domestic help is common across Pakistan. Many prefer to employ children because they provide cheaper labour, can be controlled and more easily threatened, consume fewer resources, and are more active and require less space.

The irony, however, is that although child labour is recognised as an abominable infringement of children’s rights across the world, people who hire child domestic help look upon themselves as the saviours of these hapless children.

Recently, at a friend’s house, I saw a 10-year-old girl holding a diaper bag in one hand and her three-year-old son in the other. I immediately told my friend that child labour was unacceptable. Her hollow justification sidestepped the issue: “Her parents are so poor that they cannot afford a single meal; I give her three meals and clothing.”

Clearly, my friend, like many others in Pakistan, has no qualms about employing children to perform household chores. The contract is usually verbal and informal and work hours vary — the work can be part-time or round the clock. There are no set rules for remuneration, clothing and food to be provided, recreation and vacation; all this — and respect — is totally dependent on the generosity of the employer.

People hiring child domestic help think of themselves as saviours.

Historically, our governments have shown little interest in raising the living standard of our poverty-stricken classes. It is the government’s responsibility to provide food, shelter and other essentials of life so that parents can send their children to school instead of work. Pakistan is signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This convention prohibits child labour and encourages protection against economic exploitation that harms a child’s physical, mental, moral and social development, while also interfering with his or her education.

Pakistan has also ratified the International Labour Organisation’s Minimum Age Convention, 1973, and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999. Furthermore, we have federal and provincial (except in Balochistan) laws prohibiting child labour. Punjab took the lead in passing the Domestic Workers Act, 2019, banning children younger than 15 years from working as domestic help while allowing those between 15 and 18 years to only engage in light work.

And yet, despite all these laws, millions of Pakistani children are working as domestic help day and night. Living in Pakistan sometimes makes you think laws are not made to be followed. The tragic stories of Zohra Shah, Tayyaba and Kinza are painful examples.

As stipulated by these laws and conventions, every child has the right to live with dignity and in such a way that childhood becomes a period of growth, learning and development. A child employed in domestic labour is invisible to the world and, thus, vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Though not all employers are violent and abusive, the psychological impact of a child living apart from his or her family, experiencing a class divide, and being overburdened with responsibilities is immense for the impressionable young mind. These children can lose their confidence, while also develop feelings of low self-esteem, hopelessness, guilt, anxiety, depression, and/or aggression leading to them to indulge in anti-social behaviour.

Consequently, the hindrance in their education also limits the potential of these children for personal and financial growth, thus, perpetuating the cycle of exploitation.

Studies have shown a higher ratio of girls employed as domestic helpers as compared to boys in Pakistan. This is likely due to the discriminatory culture of only boys being considered worthy of receiving an education in some families.

While poverty, discrimination and marginalisation are major factors contributing to the prevalence of child labour in the country, ignorance and indifference also play a significant role. For poor families, sending children off to work is considered to be the best use of their time as they earn money for the whole family. Instead of educating these parents, privileged families hire their children, exploiting their situation, while the government turns a blind eye to this practice.

Let’s stop deluding ourselves and robbing poor children of their fundamental rights and access to a better life. Let us free ourselves of the colonial mindset of servitude by the ‘lower’ class and let us intervene wherever we can to free children in our midst from domestic or other kinds of labour. Instead of blaming the system, we can help poor children by paying for their education and supporting their families.

If we cannot afford this, we could at least refer their case to a philanthropist or an NGO. But it is critical that we save precious childhoods by refusing to hire children as workers.

The writer is a paediatrician at the Aga Khan University Hospital.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2021

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