By: Akbar Bajwa
LAHORE: Ten-year-old Irum was already dead by the time she was brought to hospital. The lady of the house that had employed her confessed to having beaten her to death after accusing her of theft and also, quite conveniently, stated that she was mentally unfit. The employers who had tortured her to death in Askari 9, Lahore, are on judicial remand.
Two days later, another maid, a 16-year-old girl, was found beaten to death at a trader’s house in Lahore on January 6. Police took into their custody men from the family and during interrogation, one of the owner’s sons, Asim Shaukat reportedly confessed to his crime. He allegedly murdered her by choking her windpipe with a rope. The maid’s DNA samples were sent to the Punjab Forensic Science Agency (PFSA) and the results are yet to arrive.
In another case, a 14-year-old maid, Fiza Batool, died after allegedly being assaulted by her employer, Salman Rashid, on January 19. This resident of the DHA, Lahore, was a professor of English Literature at Islamia College, Lahore. According to the police, the professor confessed to assaulting Fiza which led to her kidneys and lungs getting damaged.
Three years ago, a Christian girl of almost the same age died at an influential lawyer’s house. Initially, medical reports said her skull was damaged, three ribs were broken, and nails plucked. Besides, several wounds caused by a sharp-edged weapon were found on her body. The accused, a former president of the Lahore bar, was later acquitted by the court when subsequent reports ‘found’ a fatal infection to be the cause of her death.
Child Protection Bureau Chairperson Saba Sadiq said, “This scenario depicts how poor parents are letting their children work as domestic help in order to earn money needed for survival.” She added that a majority of these children work overtime for as little as Rs50 to Rs100 a day. “What is required is that the government must legislate to solve this issue.”
Saba added that the absence of specific laws regulating employment in the informal sector leads to abusive treatment of domestic workers. “The Domestic Workers Bill must outline criminal offences and penalties, specifically dealing with the domestic work situation, to discourage employers from engaging in inhumane and degrading conduct.”
Inhumanity on the rise
“The practice of hiring children from poor families for domestic help is on the rise especially in Lahore and Karachi,” said Umme Laila, member of HomeNet Pakistan, adding that there is no data available to indicate how widespread this kind of violence is.
Interestingly, majority of such cases take place in upscale areas for one obvious reason: only rich people can afford to hire servants.
“The impunity with which the rich can tread in society and the lacunas in law that they take advantage of and get away scot-free is the reason why such cases are rising,” said Umar Riaz, Superintendent Police (SP) Cantt, Lahore. He added that there is a lack of employment contracts to monitor work conditions. “Laws on child labour bar children under a specific age from working as industrial labour, but the law does not specify any rules on house labour.”
Riaz added that the laws ask for appointment of inspectors who can make sure that children are not put to labour; however, no such appointments have ever been made, hence, no enforcement of related laws.
“Police feel powerless when a case of physical abuse is brought to them,” said the SP. “When cases of beating or torture or sexual abuse are brought to police, we take action against the employers on charges of the reported abuse or crime; majority of cases are settled much before the police can step in. Charges are often withdrawn after the accused pay off the complainant.”
Another senior police officer, requesting anonymity, said that “conviction rates are almost zero in cases of abuse of domestic help. During my career I haven’t seen more than a couple of such cases reaching courts.” He added that the police don’t take interest in such cases unless they involve rape or death and in those, too, settlements are a common thing. “Child labour is punishable up to one year under the law.” He suggested that increasing the punishment might help lessen incidence of such crimes.
Almost bonded labour
According to another unnamed police officer, being domestic help equals being in bonded labour as in many cases, parents leave their children with employers for long periods. “On return, they take advance wages from the employers.”
The situation aggravates when the poor parents are left with no choice but to acquiesce to the employers’ demand of not meeting their children until the expiry of the period for which advance wages were paid.
Iftikhar Mubarik, Chairperson Plan Pakistan, said, “Pakistan has still not declared child domestic labour as the worst form of child labour under convention 182.” He added that in 2006 India banned the employment of children below the age of 14 as domestic servants.
“We continue to retain the old feudal mindset where domestic workers are treated like slaves,” said Mubarik. “Most people like to hire children for household chores because they never say no.”
While Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, was quick to express his grief over the killing of maids in Lahore, his government, like other provincial governments, is stalling the legislation to protect minors.
Approximately 3.3 million children below 14 years of age are working as labour in Pakistan. Of these, 73 per cent are boys and 27 per cent girls, according to the National Child Labour Survey
From January 2010 to December 2013, 52 cases of torturing child domestic workers (CDWs) were reported, including 24 deaths.
In 2010, 12 cases of torture on CDWs were reported, including seven deaths.
In 2011, ten cases of torture on CDWs were reported, of which six children died.
In 2012, eight cases including three deaths were reported. 2013 proved to be the worst in this regard as 21 such cases, including eight deaths of children, were reported.