Ten-year-old domestic worker Iram Ramzan was allegedly tortured to death on January 2 in a posh house located inside a gated locality in Lahore Cantt. The next day, the lady of the house, Nasira Bibi, confessed before the police that she beat the child for allegedly stealing Rs30,000 from the house.
The family took the girl to the Services Hospital, a public health facility which offers free-of-cost emergency. During the long commute from the house to the hospital, the girl succumbed to her injuries. The hospital confirmed signs of physical abuse on her body. She was said to have been beaten with an iron rod.
“Iram’s hometown was Okara, from where she was hired to provide domestic help for Rs 2,500 per month,” the police investigator Haji Akram tells TNS.
Two days after Iram’s death, police registered another case in Lahore’s Mochi Pura, where 15-year-old domestic worker, Azra, was physically abused, raped, tortured and later strangled by a young man. The family called the Police helpline 15 after her death and termed the incident ‘suicide’.
The suspect and his father are under arrest.
Iram’s widowed mother, Zubaida Bibi, says, “I belong to a poor family but I want justice for my daughter.” Iram was the eldest of five siblings.
The plight of tens of thousands of under-18 domestic workers is worsening in Pakistan. They are hired through parents and middle-men, on monthly and many times on yearly basis. Violence against them is widely reported.
According to press reports, at least 21 child domestic workers (CDWs) were tortured to death in 2013, mostly in Punjab. Except two, all were girls. Another finding states that between January 2010 and June 2013, more than 41 cases of torture on child domestic workers were reported. Some were even poisoned.
Data compiled by the Child Rights Movement (CRM), an alliance of more than 25 non-governmental organisations working on rights, states, “In 2011, a total of 11 cases of child abuse at workplace were reported; shockingly, seven of them lost their lives. In 2012, eight children were abused, two died and six seriously injured.”
“There is no law which prohibits domestic child labour in any province,” says Anees Jilani, advocate and child rights defender. “Even the existing laws of child labour and protection, indirectly regulate child labour.”
He urges the governments to devise policies to protect the vulnerable domestic child labour. “Such cases are not vigorously pursued by the state and end up on a sad note of compensation (Diyat).”
Undoubtedly, the issue needs a forceful collective voice. The General Elections 2013 manifesto of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) promises to “Enact or improve legislation on violence against women and child abuse.” It also assures to “introduce a transparent system of income support programme for needy families with incomes below the prescribed limit with a special focus on widows, orphans and the girl child,” for social protection.
Sajjad Cheema, provincial coordinator of SPARC, says abolition of child labour is a long pending matter. “Government can stop domestic child labour legally just through a notification under the existing law terming CDW as the most hazardous form of labour. But it is not being done — despite repeated demands. It just needs a single stroke of pen.”
To his knowledge, not a single person has been punished for this crime. Also, many cases go unreported.
The international rights bodies call for declaring child domestic labour as the worst form of child slavery and demand a complete ban on it.
Pakistan has not conducted any child labour surveys since 1996.
Unicef reports that one in six children aged 5-14 years are employed as child labour in developing countries. In the least developed countries, 30 per cent of all children are engaged in child labour.
Four years ago, the family of Shazia Masih, a girl tortured to death by the family of a noted lawyer in Lahore, is said to have accepted a few hundred thousand rupees to end the case out of court.
The general criminal justice system needs to overhaul and introduce special laws for such heinous crimes, a senior police official tells TNS, asking not to be named. He says, “in these latest incidents of violence against domestic workers, the suspects have been arrested. In one case, we have recorded a confession too”.
He adds, at most, the police can submit a challan in a murder reference, but in the absence of speedy trial system, a case may take years to end. “The poor family with limited resources will end up accepting compensation or will pardon the culprit either through manipulation or after getting frustrated,” he says.
The history of legislation has been rather unkind to child domestic workers in Pakistan. In the largest populated province of Punjab, a law was enacted in 1952, and later in 1983. Both the laws were not notified to come into force. In Sindh, the Children Act 1955 was notified to come into force in 1974. The first law about children employment in the subcontinent came into force in 1930, during the British Rule. India modified this law and introduced its Child Employment Act in 1986, while Pakistan almost copied this law in 1991. India, in 2006, passed the Prohibition of Child Labour Act banning domestic child labour. After the devolution, the Punjab Government in Pakistan introduced the Children Employment Act 2011. The law prohibits four professions and defines 34 areas/occupations as hazardous for child labour but does not include the form of domestic child labour.
In the light of the UNCRC and its Optional Protocol on Sale of Children, ILO’s Conventions 182 and the Constitution of Pakistan, the federal and provincial governments should immediately declare CDW a form of slavery and include it in the list of worst form of child labour. “They should immediately be banned across the country under the list of banned occupation given in the Punjab Employment of Children (Amendment) Act 2011,” says Iftikhar Mubarik, spokesperson for the CRM.
The ILO finds that the number of child labourers in Pakistan exceeded 12 million in 2012 while Unicef estimates put it at around 10 million.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which sets out the political, cultural, social, health and economic rights of a child (under the age of 18), has been ratified by 194 countries. Pakistan was one of the first 20 countries to have signed and ratified the convention.