“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” - Nelson Mandela
Our society – where children are considered to be a commodity by many – does not appear to have a graceful soul. Children are vulnerable to maltreatment universally but in our case, the circumstances are worse. Children are more prone to abuse and their basic rights are treaded upon unapologetically.
Whether it is domestic labour or beggary, industries or workshops, retail stores or refuse-heaps, children predominate work at all these places and it is no secret that many of them are also forced into prostitution and pornography. If we keep slumbering and don’t care about the ordeal our children are going through, Pakistan will soon be tagged as the worst place for children to live in.
Child labour, in various forms, is found in every nook and cranny of the country. The Global Index Survey 2013 listed Pakistan as the third country, after Mauritania and Haiti, where child labour prevails. According to the World Bank, there are about eight to 11 million children, including both girls and boys, under the age of 10 years who are engaged in child labour across the country. Some experts put the figure at 15 million. This is a staggering number and should be a source of serious concern for the authorities who seem to have turned a blind eye to this worrisome state of affairs. The last survey to be conducted on child labour in the country was in 1996 by the Federal Bureau of Statistics. The findings revealed that 3.3 million children were in child labour out of which 2.4 million were boys and 0.9 million were girls. However, no concrete steps were taken after the survey was issued and since we chose to remain complacent about it, the number of such hapless children increased with time.
Child labour is cheap and productive. Children are likely to be coerced into doing more work than what they are actually paid for. Many employers prefer children to work for them for selfish reasons: children don’t cry out against the substandard working conditions, awful food and lousy accommodation.
Most of these young labourers face violence on a daily basis and are more susceptible to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their masters, neighbours and guests. Children born to low-income families are forced into labour for survival: they cannot afford to go to school and are forced to earn a living for their families. This leads the affluent to exploit them with impunity.
The cases of mass child sexual abuse surfaced last year from different places; from Kasur in Punjab to Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A temporary hype was created and then, as usual, the whole issue was consigned to oblivion.
Every bus stand, bazaar and mosque etc has its own team of beggars that comprises a large number of children. Many of them are allegedly incapacitated by criminal gangs and forced into beggary. Millions of children are denied their basic constitutional right to education. It is also extensively believed that hundreds of our children have been recruited by various terrorist organisations as they are easy targets of brainwashing and indoctrination and can be used as human bombs.
Children are considered to be the future builders of a nation, however, most of them are living in miserable conditions in Pakistan. It is time that we adopt stringent measures for the protection of our children. To gauge the pervasiveness of child labour and work towards its abolition across the country, updated data is critically important. If we haven’t diagnosed a problem and have no idea of its severity, we will not be able to solve it. Fresh surveys regarding child labour should be conducted so that an accurate appraisal of the subject matter is established. Pakistan signed the Declaration and Agenda for Action against commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children adopted by the World Congress in Sweden in 1996. This document should be implemented in its true spirit and the Convention Against Torture – to which, regretfully, we are not a party – should be embraced. To pull domestic workers (a lot of whom are children) out of the brutalities they encounter, Pakistan should also ratify Domestic Workers Convention.
The Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Bill 2017 which slapped a ban on the employment of children under 14 years was passed by the province recently. This is a laudable step and all the other provinces should soon follow suit. A complete ban on child labour ought to be imposed all over the country and in this regard all pending legislations need to be passed by the National Assembly as well.
Had the children of our parliamentarians endured such misery or misfortune, their parents would have never shown laxity in approving such legislations.