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BEYOND PRIVILEGE

BEYOND PRIVILEGE

SADAF, a 17-year-old domestic servant, set off for work on July 3. Barely an hour and a half later, her elderly mother received a phone call from her daughter’s employers: Sadaf had committed suicide “by hanging herself from a door.”

The girl had been working at a house on Jhang Road for almost a year. Her family had fallen into dire straits since Sadaf’s father passed away four years ago. With bills piling up, Sadaf took up a job. Her relatives remember her as incredibly courageous.

It was with disbelief that her mother Mukhtar Bibi and her family rushed to the house where Sadaf used to work. Their grief quickly gave way to anger, they argue, because she couldn’t have committed suicide: the door she had allegedly used to hang herself on was six feet in height, and Sadaf’s knees were touching the floor.

The Saddar police registered a murder case against Imran, the owner of the house, and his wife, and arrested them. Sadaf’s brother-in-law, Haji Mahmood, told Dawn that the victim, her mother, and another sister lived at his house. “There was nothing unusual when she left home that day,” he emphasises. “She did not appear anxious or frustrated.”

The case is not an isolated one. According to data shared on the website of the NGO Child Rights Movement, at least 41 cases of violence against underage domestic servants were reported between 2011 and 2013. According to the website, 19 of those children died from critical injuries. This year, five cases of violence against underage domestic servants have been reported in two and a half months from Faisalabad alone. Yet punishment for the perpetrators is rare.

The Punjab government has been working on a law to protect domestic servants, says Punjab Minister for Human Rights Khalil Tahir Sindhu, so that the state becomes the primary complainant rather than the victim’s family members.

Ume Laila, executive director of NGO Homenet Pakistan, says the government and various stakeholders have been working on the proposed law since 2014. It will be relief for domestic workers, she says. “But mere enforcement of the law will not resolve the long-standing issues of domestic workers. Strict implementation through an effective agency is mandatory,” she argues.

On June 8, Amna, a seven-year-old girl working as a domestic servant at a house in the Hajiabad area, broke a glass. Sidra, her employer, started beating the child. The ‘punishment’ did not end there. Sidra, a well-educated daughter of a schoolteacher, then switched on an iron, tied Amna to a bed and placed the hot iron on the girl’s belly. When the child screamed, Sidra threw her out of the house.

An FIR was registered and the Sargodha Road police took Sidra into custody but she secured bail.

Amna had been sent to work at Sidra’s house for Rs2,000 a month after her father died a few years ago. She claims that she has not met her mother, Rani Bibi, for over a year and a half. “My mother, who also works as a maid, collected my salary from the school where Sidra’s mother teaches,” she explains.

Sidra was found by Ahmed, a shopkeeper, who called the police. According to them, she was battered and bruised. Capital Police Officer Afzal Kausar says that when they registered the case, they requested Rani Bibi to be the complainant but she refused because she was scared of losing her own job. So the police became the complainant. Amna will now be sent to a children’s shelter managed by the Rescue 1122 in Lahore.

The fancy façades of many houses in Faisalabad’s posh areas hide hundreds of children employed as domestic servants. Many of them have been placed there by Janat Bibi, who has been supplying domestic servants for almost 15 years. She collects a commission on these placements — Rs1,500 from the servant and the same amount from the employer. “I don’t know whether my business is legal or illegal; what I do know is that I am, in a way, serving humanity and making an honest living,” she says.

The employers provide these children jobs, food, salary and accommodation and ease the lives of poor people, she says. The majority of her pool of underage domestic servants are from the city’s slums and surrounding villages. However, she adds, many children are brought here from towns and villages in the peripheries of Faisalabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Multan and Sheikhupura — many of them even come from as far as Sindh.

Nine-year-old Shazia, daughter of Mukhtar Abro, came from Shikarpur, Sindh, to work at a house in Faisalabad’s Gulberg area. Last month before Eid, the parents pooled money together to rent a coach and travel to Punjab. “We pooled in money so we could collect our children’s salaries a couple of days before Eid,” the father explains.

Janat Bibi says most of their parents are illiterate and poor, and poverty forces them to send their children to work. But she brushes aside complaints of the abuse of children. “If parents are allowed to beat their children as a part of their upbringing, why shouldn’t they discipline their servants?”

DAWN

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