Eleven. The number of stitches on Sobia’s head.
Her crime? Accidentally spilling milk meant for her employer’s children.
Eleven-year-old Sobia’s traumatic story opens in a posh locality in Lahore, where she used to work full-time as a maid, living in a small, dingy quarter in the premises, largely looking after the employer’s children. Together with her eight-year-old brother, Abbas, who was also employed at the same house, they used to make Rs12,000 a month for their family.
Sobia lets her mother tell her story. The abuse started off verbally and gradually became physical and more intense. One day, in a fit of rage, the baji of the household, smacked Sobia with a wooden ruler, and shoved her against a wall causing a head injury.
Sobia’s mother rushed to the scene. “Even while her head wound was bleeding, baji didn’t flinch. Nor did she pay us. I had to take Sobia to the hospital to get stitches but baji was yelling even when we were leaving,” she bitterly recalls.
Alina* was the same age as Sobia, when she experienced gruelling violence at the hands of her former employer, a school teacher at the other end of the city in Shahdara.
Even four years later, she is cautious as she shares her story. “Another girl used to work there with me too. Once, she was making chapatis and they didn’t come out quite right. Baji liked her chapatis round and cooked to perfection. She would be out the entire day so she was very particular about her food,” she pauses as her voice trembles.
What happened next is easy to guess. “She hit both of us with the tongs we used for chapatis. It stung more because they were still hot,” she reveals.
Often, she would think of her life back at home with her younger brother who would play pakran pakrai with her. Here, in contrast, her routine allowed no time for her to just be a child. She would get up at 6am and sleep at 2am after massaging her baji’s feet for hours on end suffering through physical and verbal blows all the while.
Baji, Urdu for elder sister, is normally used by domestic workers to address their female employers. Across the border, in India, Didi is more common. Stanford cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky’s work based on research conducted across cultures in the world, emphasises the causality between lexicon and the way reality is constructed and experienced. “Research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality,” she emphasises.
Addressing one’s employer as one would address an elder sister leverages the trust and sense of protection that serves as the basis of familial bonds to the relationship. The employer is seen as extended family. And inside most Pakistani homes, ‘light’ forms of physical abuse to children by elders is misguidedly considered normal, at times even necessary for effective disciplining. When it happens to child domestic workers at their workplaces, however, the trauma is amplified by dissonant cognitions: the employer is not related to them by blood, this is a professional relationship but baji is supposed to love them like family.
In reality, the common practice is that the employers and employed do not share kitchen utensils and bathrooms. They do not get a seat at the same table. And even this flimsy façade crumbles unceremoniously at the mighty blow from the benefactor’s hand.
“I treated them like my own children. They would get my children’s [old] clothes and eat the same food as us. But these people are so thankless and disrespectful. They are literally starving at their homes, they leave this place [my home] fattened. I have trained young boys and girls so many times, but by the time I can finally put up my feet, they want to go back,” says a 33-year-old professional and a mother of two who is a recurring employer of children as domestic help.
“I have never hit them but I think no one wants to work these days. They always want to leave for greener pastures,” she adds. Her 14-year-old maid quit recently and she has been struggling to hire new help. Her criterion remains the same: a teenage maid, between 12 to 18 years of age. “Those are easier to train because they haven’t fully matured yet,” she remarks.
According to ILO Convention – Worst Forms of Child Labour, 1999 (No. 182) — and article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the term child applies to all individuals under 18 years of age. Having ratified core ILO Conventions related to child labour: the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), the government of Pakistan is expected to pursue “a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour and to raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment or work to a level consistent with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons”. The minimum age specified by the ILO in pursuance of this goal is 15 years.
However, Pakistan’s own law is largely inconsistent when it comes to the definition of a child – this holds true across federal and provincial legislation. Even within a province, the definition of ‘childhood’ is inconsistent for legislation pertaining to education and that for child labour.
The state’s definition of what is viewed as ‘labour detrimental to the physical and psychological well-being of a child’ is also parochial. The law does not allow children to be working in an ‘establishment that is unsafe’ – the definition of which has not yet been expanded to reflect that in recent times, there has been a surge in reported cases of child workers being tortured to death by their employers in private households. In the most recent one that has come to the fore, Akhtar Ali, a 16-year-old domestic worker was allegedly tortured to death by his employer, Fauzia, the daughter of Shah Jahan, a PML-N member of Punjab assembly.
Coincidentally, Shah Jahan is a member of the standing committee on labour and human resource in the assembly.
“From 2010 to 2017, more than 40 child domestic workers have died. What number of deaths will propel the government into action?” asks Rashida Qureshi, the provincial coordinator of the Child Rights Movement, a group of civil society organisations established for child rights advocacy.
“Article 11(1) of Pakistan’s constitution bans slavery and all its forms. Article 25-A gives children the right to free and compulsory education. Then there is the Punjab Free and Compulsory Education Act 2014 which ensures that every child in the province will be in school. In the light of existing constitutional rights, child domestic labour is completely unjustifiable. It has to be banned,” she reiterates.
While children can physically be seen if working at brick kilns and necessary action can be taken against employers under the Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns Ordinance 2016, safeguarding the rights of children behind closed doors of private homes poses a much greater challenge. Recently, it has become clear that most have to die for the prevailing modern form of slavery to even figure in the debate.
“This is because child domestic workers are virtually invisible. They only become visible to the public eye in most cases, when they have been tortured beyond recognition. All these realities make such labour the worst form of child labour,” says Qureshi.
Iftikhar Mubarak, spokesperson for the Child Rights Movement, brings out another complexity of the issue. “At the moment the only national level data is from the 1996 National Child Labour Survey conducted by the Federal Bureau of Statistics which reveals that there were an estimated 3.3 million child labourers in Pakistan. Without knowing where we currently stand, it is impossible for the government to draw legal and structural frameworks to help safeguard the rights of children.”
Limited resources and capacity are often also given as excuses when justifying the state’s inaction but for Mubarak, the fact that the statistics are not up-to-date is representative of the state’s apathy. Concerns of lack of expediency and implementation of laws in the private sphere are often cited as reasons for not banning child domestic labour.
“There is a hesitation about piercing through the private sphere but reported cases of violence against domestic child workers coming to the fore is a good development,” says Noor Ejaz, a law associate working at AGHS Legal Aid Cell.
Reflecting on the state’s apparent hesitation regarding outlawing the practice for fear that it invades the private sphere, Ayesha Alam Malik, another law associate at AGHS talks about the state exercising checks and balances on content shared on social media. To draw yet another parallel, there is the law criminalising violence against women where the state overcame its hesitation and made the uncomfortable intervention into the private sphere.
Though, the implementation of the recent violence against women law leaves much to be desired, there is at least a legal framework in place. Mubarak draws an analogy here. “Murder is punishable by law, but that does not mean that murders have stopped altogether,” he maintains. His argument is rooted in the belief that law is representative of the state’s narrative, of a higher value system or sensibility.
“A law needs to be in place to protect children especially female children because as we have seen, they are at the brunt of violence against child domestic workers,” iterates Ejaz.
A deeper look into the mechanisms and protocols employed by rescue institutions such as the Child Welfare and Protection Bureau reveals that the definitions of violence and torture are arbitrary and lacking in imagination. “We cannot apprehend people for the kinds of torture that does not leave a mark. There is no way for us to verify whether a child has been slapped for instance. But yes, if there are broken bones, then we can really take action,” says Waseem Ahmed, the PRO at Child Protection and Welfare Bureau.
He goes on to explain that a medical examination of the child is conducted to check how recent the wounds or injury was and then the process of going to a district judge, getting custody and rehabilitation of the child starts. According to the bureau, in Lahore alone, as many as 82 cases of torture on child domestic workers have been reported since 2014.
“For instance, in the Tayyabba case, the wounds were fresh. There was no doubt about what had happened. The child couldn’t have fallen and been that injured,” he elaborates. The case involved a 10-year-old child maid being tortured by her employer, a judge’s wife.
“There is a need to respond to the violence and risks that child domestic workers face by categorising it as hazardous work determined by the age and gender of the child as well as the fact that the work is conducted outside parental supervision, which makes children more vulnerable to abuse,” opines Malik from AGHS.
The only way that children can assert their agency is either by running away or changing employers if they can.
“What other option did I have? I ran away when baji beat me up for breaking a vase. She threatened that she would not let me go home or meet my parents. My father is now looking for a new home for me where baji won’t beat me up,” says 10-year-old Bilal who was hired to run errands and look after children in a house in Gulberg.
*Name changed to protect identity.