The case of a 10-year-old girl in Pakistan’s Punjab province, whose employers confessed to beating her to death last week, has highlighted concerns about child rights. The BBC’s Saba Eitizaz reports on a case that shocked the nation.
Human rights organisations argue that Pakistan’s labour laws ignore child abuse in a country where almost half the population is under the age of 18. It is an oversight which often has tragic consequences.
Evidence of that can be found in a small village in the province of Punjab, where a haunting wailing echoes off the crumbling mud walls of a ramshackle home.
It sounds like many mothers crying for lost children.
It is called the “wayne” – the song for the dead and is an integral part of the local funeral ritual.
The village is called Moza Jindraakha which means “the place where life is protected”.
Nasira Mahmood has confessed to repeatedly beating the child with the pipe while her 16-year-old son stood by and watched
But things are different now – a young girl’s death is being mourned.
Iram Ramzan was sent to Lahore to cook for a middle class family – so her own family could eat. Her two sisters are also employed as domestic helps for different families.
But Iram came back in a white shroud – apparently tortured to death by her employers.
Her mother Zubaida Bibi, who has lost her hand in a threshing accident, faced the prospect of bringing up three young daughters without a husband’s financial support.
Zubaida says that she had little option but to send her daughters out to earn money as domestic servants.
She thought they would be safer in more affluent homes rather than on the streets. But she was wrong and has had to go through the torture of burying her youngest child – and now she does not know where to bury her guilt.
“Maybe we should have begged for scraps instead,” the inconsolable mother laments. “How was I to know I was sending my daughter to her tormentors?”
Last year Iram’s family was telephoned by a distant uncle in Lahore telling them to rush to the hospital.
Doctors said she had died on arrival. There were torture marks on her body and rope burns on her wrists and feet.
It is commonplace to see children working on the streets in most Pakistani towns and cities
Her employers, the Mahmood family had brought her in. The police immediately took the family into custody.
The girl had been beaten to death with an iron pipe, which was later found in the Mahmood’s home, along with the ropes used to tie her up.
Nasira Mahmood has confessed to repeatedly beating the child with the pipe while her 16-year-old son stood by and watched.
In jail, Mrs Mahmood is having tea and biscuits. She is almost casual when asked why she did it, saying it was all an accident and that no one expected Iram to die.
“Three times she stole money from me. I got angry, that’s all,” she says. “She said she was getting sleepy so I tied her up and left to make dinner.”
‘Indications of beating’
Police investigators say that Iram died slowly, not accidentally and breathed her last while still tied up.
“Right away, they admitted to having tortured her,” says Police Superintendent Umar Cheema.
“There were marks of violence, indications of beating, swelling, indicating that the girl was tortured with a heavy instrument which later turned out to be a domestic gas pipe.”
Iram’s employers were paying her $23 (£14) a month – a small price to pay for her life.
In the same week that Iram died, another 15-year-old domestic maid, Azra, was found strangled to death in her employer’s home in Lahore, allegedly the victim of sexual abuse before she was killed.
The Society For the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc) say they receive about 20 cases like Iram and Azra’s every year. These are just the cases where a child has died. There are many others featuring assault and abuse, many of which go unreported.
Sparc representative Sajjad Cheema says that whatever legislation for children that does exist is not being implemented because there are no administrative mechanisms in place to regulate child workers.
“The United Nations has sent a recommendation to the Pakistan government to adopt a child protection policy,” Mr Cheema says. “We need to know whether we are going to let these children work like this, to die, or are we going to protect them, and how will we do it?”
Human rights groups say more than 12 million children are pushed onto the streets and the homes of strangers to seek an income.
Without a legal safety net, these children are slipping through the cracks with no one to catch them.
Meanwhile, in the village of Moza Jindraakha, a child-sized mound of earth marks Iram’s resting place.
Right next to the graveyard, is a green and yellow field where she used to play with the other children – before her childhood and her life was cut short by a combination of cruelty, official indifference and poverty.