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Bombings force Pakistani children into work

Published Oct 28, 2011 04:34am

Zabita Khan serves drinking water to a customer at a shop in Peshawar.—AFP

PESHAWAR: At seven years old, it's a struggle for Zabita Khan to work all afternoon, dodging vehicles, rickshaws and donkey carts to carry drinks for thirsty customers in a hot, crowded Pakistani market.

But two years ago his father was killed in a bomb attack and he has to work to put food on the table for his family.

So after school, he spends sizzling afternoons catering to shopkeepers and their guests for 300 rupees ($3.50) a month in Peshawar.

“I don't like working in the market. I like school, where I study and play hide and seek with friends,” said a downcast Zabita, working the same street where his father was killed on October 28, 2009.

“I don't have friends over here. I come here because my mother sends me and tells me I have to work for my family, for my siblings,” said Khan, who has two younger brothers —Sajjad, 5, and Arif, 3.

His father Khairullah was killed in one of Pakistan's deadliest attacks —125 people slaughtered when a car bomb tore through the packed Meena Bazaar while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was holdings talks in Islamabad.

There was no claim of responsibility but officials blamed the Taliban.

Thousands more have been wounded or incapacitated, living with injuries slow to heal or that make an ordinary working life impossible.

But a hidden tragedy is the children —indirect victims of terror attacks —who are forced to join already swollen ranks of child labour to help keep their families alive after the loss of a parent.

“We closed the shop for two months after the death of Zabita's father Khairullah. When we reopened, his mother sent him to the shop to work on behalf of his family,” Zabita's uncle, Mohammad Umer told AFP.

“It is our tradition that the eldest son becomes the head and breadwinner of the family after the father's death and Khan is playing that role because his mother wants him to work to avoid bad feeling in the family,” said Umer.

Zarina Jillani, research manager at the Pakistani branch of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, estimates there are 10 million children working in Pakistan, out of a child population of 80 million.

Huge swathes of Pakistan are beset by desperate poverty. According to the last government survey in 1996, 3.3 million children were working.

Government statistics estimate the literarcy rate at 58 per cent and say 22 per cent of the population live in poverty, although independent economists say the figure is closer to 30 per cent.

“No organisation has calculated statistics about children getting involved in work after breadwinners die in bomb attacks but we believe these attacks have enhanced the number of child labourers in the country,” said Jillani.

In Tangi, a town some 125 kilometres (about 80 miles) from the capital Islamabad, in the heart of the northwestern region troubled by a Taliban insurgency, 11-year-old Wajiha is the only girl driving a motorcycle rickshaw.

Her father Inamuddin used to be a proud member of the paramilitary but in July 2006 he was badly injured in a Taliban attack on his paramilitary check post in the northwestern valley of Swat.

After two years in hospital, he was discharged from service with a withered leg and bought a rickshaw for 40,000 rupees ($465) with his pension.

At first he worked alone, and sometimes Wajiha would sit up front with him for fun. But when she realised how painful he found his wounded leg, she took on solo shifts to earn more money.

Now she goes to school in the morning and helps her father in the afternoon, when he gets tired.

“I don't like my daughter going out to work, but I am helpless,” said Inamuddin.Wajiha said she likes to help.

“I feel good to help my father, I also enjoy the drive, it is easy to drive motorcycle rickshaw and earn some money for the family,” she said.

“I make 150 rupees ($1.70) from three trips a day,” she said as she parked the rickshaw and ran into her home.