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SLAVES AT OUR MERCY

SLAVES AT OUR MERCY

THE case of the 10-year-old ‘maid’ who was allegedly beaten to death by her employers in Lahore last week has brought the spotlight back on the plight of the child domestic workers in the country. Iram, who belonged to Okara, was left by her employers at Services Hospital on Jan 2 where doctors “pronounced her dead on arrival” and alerted police after finding numerous “marks of violence” on different parts of her body.

The employers – man, wife and son – were arrested. The wife confessed to having beaten the minor girl to death with steel pipes after accusing her of stealing.

As though this wasn’t enough to shake the conscience of the society, a 16-year-old girl was found raped and beaten to death on Sunday in the home of a trader in Lahore she worked for. Police have taken many men of the family in custody, but the allegations against them are yet to be proved.

Iram’s death revived memories of a similar incident almost three years ago when a Christian girl of the same age was brought to hospital by her employer – an influential lawyer. An initial medical report found “several wounds caused by sharp-edged weapon”. Her right arm and ribs were found fractured, skull damaged and nails plucked out. But subsequent reports surprisingly found ‘some fatal infection’ as the cause of her death.

The lawyer, a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, was acquitted ‘on merit’. Some claimed he had paid half a million rupees to the girl’s family to “buy” his freedom.

These cases sharply underscore the precarious and hazardous environment the child domestic workers, especially girls, are forced to work in just because their “placement with a wealthy family” helps their poor parents get rid of the “burden on the meagre household income”.

“Hiring of children, mostly from the extremely poor families, for domestic help is fast catching up in our cities. These children are often exposed to verbal, physical and sexual abuse and violence (by their employers),” says Umme Laila of the HomeNet Pakistan, which focuses on home-based workers.

Majority of such children come from the families migrating from the rural or semi-urban areas to the cities in search of livelihood. Laila says there is no data available to indicate how widespread this kind of violence is.

The absence of specific laws regulating employment in the informal sector of the economy is often blamed for the abusive treatment of the domestic help, whose majority consists of women and children. There’s no employment contract or mechanism to monitor their work conditions.

Lawyers say Pakistan doesn’t even have laws that bar hiring of under-14 children as domestic help. The Employment of Children Act, 1991 doesn’t apply on children working as home-based workers. There has been a longstanding demand for separate laws to regulate the employment of under-age children for domestic help. The ILO’s convention of 2011, which calls for effective measures to abolish child labour in the informal sector, including the domestic sector, isn’t applied in Pakistan either.

Police feel powerless when a case of physical abuse is brought to them. “When cases of beating or torture or sexual abuse are brought to police, (they) take action against the employers only on charges of the reported abuse or crime,” a former senior police official who doesn’t want to be named says.

“A vast majority of such cases is settled long before police can move. Charges are often withdrawn after the accused pay off the complainant. I cannot recall a case of violence or abuse of domestic help reaching courts in my entire career let alone a conviction.”

He admits that police do not investigate such abuse cases properly unless these involve rape or death or some other serious crime. “Even in such cases settlements are common and evidence hard to collect,” he argues.

Domestic help is often equated with bonded labour. There are cases where parents leave their children with the employers for six months to one year in return for their advance wages. Sometimes, the employers would simply tell the parents not to return to meet their children until the expiry of the period for which advance wages have been paid. The poor never have a choice.

The inaugural Global Slavery Index last year pointed out that Pakistan is home to 2.1 million people living in modern-day slavery out of an estimated 30m worldwide. India has the largest number – 14m – of modern-day slaves. Even though our society is urbanising rapidly, we continue to retain the old feudal mindset where workers, especially domestic help, are treated as slaves. Most people like to hire children for household chores because they never say no and never demand anything and, on top of that, come quite cheap.

The Indian government has of late taken steps and enacted legislation to regulate employment in the informal sector. Some Indian states are reported to have enacted laws to abolish child domestic labour and civil society organisations have helped home-based workers set up their unions.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was quick to express his shock and grief over the killing of Iram. But his government, like other provinces, is stalling on legislating to protect minors like her from abuse and exploitation by the wealthy.

DAWN

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