Some time ago, while we were paying a call on our neighbours, I saw something which left me feeling rather sad; though it is a common enough sight in many homes. As we were sitting and chatting, a little boy, barely ten years old, tottered in, laden with a tray heavy with tea, coffee and biscuits. I suspect our host saw the shocked surprise on some of our faces, because he remarked: “He’s a good boy, works really hard. And he’s quiet too. We treat him well, like a member of the family.” The thought came unbidden: ‘member of the family?’ Their own children were fast asleep as it was rather late in the evening, while little Shakir was needed to run about throughout that sprawling house, catering to the adults.

“We send him to school; he’s now in class four”, continued our host. He gets paid each month; in fact, his father comes each month for his salary …. kya karein? So great is their poverty — his father has four other children, his wife and his mother, at home. The father lost his job recently; now the only money they have coming in is Shakir’s salary.”

The conversation moved on to other, less provocative subjects, but that particular incident never really left our minds. Eyes started automatically moving towards similar incidents of child domestic labour visible all around us. It’s a common enough sight; a little girl or boy minding the baby at restaurants, made to sit at a separate table while the adults continue with their conversation and a tasty lunch or dinner. At the end of it, a few leftovers are sent to the child minding the baby. Rarely does he or she get a specially-ordered meal. Why? Would that be unaffordable?

Or, at a lunch or dinner served at home, the hostess happily seeks the assistance of a similar little child to carry in heavy dishes of food, clear up and maybe even wash and put away the dishes — and forgets the time when little children are supposed to be asleep in bed.

Much later, after the guests leave, the child is doled out a meagre quantity of food, minus choice morsels of course. What if the child’s still hungry? Why can’t such workers at least help themselves? The adults are generally all parents themselves, who can afford to put that child through school — and the cost should not be housework in exchange for education.

This is just one example of the many ways in which children are exploited; made to work as if they were little adults, forced into positions which are too burdensome for their little shoulders to bear. Reprehensibly, even today, Pakistan is a prime example of this, with the employment of child labour on small and large scale. It is not too long ago that the export of Pakistani carpets to many western countries plummeted to low levels because child labour had been used in their weaving.

Barely half of Pakistani children are fortunate enough to attend school. Certainly, school enrolments are increasing, and hopes are high, particularly with the additional contribution of philanthropic efforts, that school enrolment will continue to grow.

But sadly, apart from these, the remaining children are forced into paid work — as car mechanics, carpet weavers, truck cleaners, factory workers and domestic help. The current critical state of the economy adds to their predicament. Families unable to provide sustenance for their (usually large) broods, unable to get employment, turn to the next option — remove the child from school and let him or her seek employment, adding to a situation worsened by the fact that sexual abuse, and therefore, sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS are proliferating. Parents are not always aware of the risks their children are exposed to.

Women’s culturally enforced, restricted mobility precludes their employment for many, and thereby reduces chances of contributing to the family income. Poverty necessitates difficult choices, but should children be the ones used?

In 1959, 193 countries, including Pakistan, signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, granting children a series of civil, political, economic and social rights. Briefly, the recommendations spell out the rights of children, with particular reference to protection and care, the right to be with their biological parents, be assured of their basic needs for food, care and nurturing, health care and universal state paid education (a perennially missing factor on Pakistan’s education horizon). Children must be kept free from mental, physical and emotional abuse, and safeguarded and protected from the many dangers that surround them.

Despite these wonderful and far reaching recommendations, it is our misfortune that such little change has been forthcoming in either child rights or relevant laws. Whatever laws exist rarely reach the point of strong, effective and unswerving implementation. What has been done, consistently at national level, to ensure all this? Almost nothing; a few changes, in a few pockets of progress, are not enough. The steady political commitment to achieve this remains the missing factor.

It is unacceptable that children should still be open to exploitation, violence and abuse, exposed constantly to avoidable infections, malnutrition and stunted growth. Has this country failed its children?

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