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Child abuse goes unchecked

By: Jamal Shahid

ISLAMABAD: Suraya — a 14-year-old house maid — was pushed so hard by her employer that she hit her head against the kitchen counter. Her only fault was that she had asked her employer permission to go home to be with her parents on Eid day.

This was not the first time she was subjected to physical abuse. Suraya has been punched and slapped, her hair pulled and cursed from the day her father literally sold her to a family in Islamabad, on October 2011.

Her father left Suraya and her two younger sisters with the family for three years for Rs100, 000 in an arrangement last year. Her younger sisters’ were sent for work in different homes of extended families.

“Since then, I have been in a prison,” said Suraya over the phone. She did not say more than a few sentences in fear of getting caught. A year on, she is still a servant in the same house, despite repeated requests to leave.

Suraya’s case is one of the few that have come into notice recently. The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc) pointed out two cases in Islamabad in August 2010, where a twelve-year-old Tehmina was pushed off a balcony by her employer. She was punished for demanding her salary after not being paid for several months. She suffered spinal-cord injuries and was paralysed. Tehmina’s father was given some compensation but in return he was asked to drop all charges against the employer. Within three to four months, neglect, poverty and her injury claimed Tehmina’s life.

The other case was also reported in August 2010, when a couple was arrested for torturing their teenage servant and keeping him in confinement: Mohammad Nadeem, a 13-year-old, from Rahim Yar Khan.

The police had found him tied up in a room in an apartment and confirmed that the child was subjected to physical torture. Nadeem’s family withdrew charges against the employer, after compensation.

Over a dozen child domestic workers have been reported murdered in the media by their employers since January 2010, across the country in Lahore, Karachi and other cities in central Punjab, Sparc said.

“It is difficult to barge into homes where such cases are reported because there is no law to make child domestic labour illegal or a criminal offence. And this is why it becomes difficult to monitor and we have to rely on reports in media,” said Child Rights Coordinator, Sparc, Shaista Kiran, who gave numerous examples where children were made to work long hours in homes, including Parliament Lodges.

Shaista Kiran explained how in the Constitution it was laid down that a child under the age of 14 could not be employed for hard labour.

“But the Constitution does not cater to the needs of children to the right to quality education and health and prevent verbal and physical abuse. Action could only be taken after an incident of violence against child servants is reported. Employers guilty of violence against children are charged under the Pakistan Penal Code,” she explained.

“We have seen how little boys and girls are made to wash bathrooms with chemicals, girls are sent to markets alone, and children are made to sleep on cold floors. In some of the most educated households people do not take responsibility for such children,” Shaista Kiran said as she elaborated on the inhumane and slave like working conditions of child domestic workers and describing it as the worst form of domestic labour.

Mehnaz Qayyum who is a psychologist in a Drop-in-Centre (DIC) for Children in Rawalpindi said that in most cases adults channelled their aggression and stress on children.

“It does not matter if the adult is educated or illiterate. Adults usually take anger out on younger and weaker individuals,” the psychologist explained.

Mehnaz Qayyum was looking after several children at the Abuse Affected Cell. And according to the expert most children in her care had become psychological and emotionally disturbed. Depending on their nature, it could take three to six months to get to know a child.

“In one recent case it took us six months to get a boy to open up because he had been under extreme pressure,” Mehnaz Qayyum said.