Say no to child domestic labour!

By Mariam Khan
Tue, 09, 23

Let us agree as a society that employing children is fundamentally wrong and ethically reprehensible. Let’s act together to make a difference...

Say no to child domestic labour!

Many people have written on the subject of child domestic workers recently but as the subject starts slipping away from our conversations, I think it is more important than ever to talk about justice for Rizwana, for Fatima, and for many children like them. Perhaps, we wish to look away because the gross injustice and pain are threatening to paralyse our minds into numbness and our hearts, about to burst into a million pieces. But please, pause here and let us have courage to feel their pain. Turn our pain into action against child domestic labour.

Remember the case of domestic help, Rizwana, who is still recovering from unimaginable abuse. According to an Arab News report, “14-year-old Rizwana was brought to a hospital in Lahore on July 24 with multiple head injuries, open wounds and broken bones across her body, and sepsis, a deadly immune response triggered by infection. She was unable to breathe on her own, or eat and speak.” She was severely malnourished, locked up inside a room without food or water. This was not a one-time outburst of rage but according to doctors, after seeing the nature of her injuries, the abuse continued consistently over several months. The accused in Rizwana’s case is a judge’s wife, who used to abuse her on a daily basis. The question also arises, what about those in the house who saw and said nothing? What about the neighbours or the family members who witnessed a little girl, limping in pain, wearing her scars, screaming in pain, made to stand outside in the rain but no one said anything? What is this extreme form of apathy and selfishness creeping inside us?

Say no to child domestic labour!

While we were still in shock because of Rizwana, the case of 10-year-old Fatima emerged, another child domestic worker who was physically and sexually abused by an influential pir. Her body had to be exhumed for post-mortem. Her case also revealed a network of accomplices; from the driver, to the police members, household members, and everyone involved in an attempt to protect the powerful prime suspect. Several videos emerged, demonstrating the horrors faced by the little girl. One video showed her lying on the floor, writhing in pain, unable to get away from the monsters around her. Eventually, she managed to escape by leaving this world. In another video, a barely clothed man gets up to check her body, he lifts her body up with such obvious crass disregard, while two women watch, that you are forced to imagine what he did to her when she was alive. The post-mortem report already lists the horrors; cuts, bruises, and sexual assault.

Rizwana and Fatima are not the first cases of abuse related to child domestic work. Only last year, in Defence, Lahore, 11-year-old Kamran and 7-year-old Rizwan were brutally beaten for allegedly stealing food from the refrigerator and Kamran was killed as a result of this violence. Then there was the case of 10-year-old Tayyaba whose bruised face was all over the internet around 2016, beaten up by her employers who also happened to be a judge’s family. All these cases highlight the urgent need to fight child domestic labour in our country and the need to criminalise it. For this madness to stop, we must fight child domestic labour at multiple levels.

Say no to child domestic labour!

Addressing issues and challenges related to child domestic labour:

During a recent discussion, hosted by child rights activist and actor Nadia Jamil, Valerie Khan, from the Group Development Pakistan, said that the example of Rizwana shows this is not simply domestic work but it is a form of modern slavery. Our constitution says no slavery is allowed in Pakistan. She further pointed out that when the wellbeing, dignity and education of children is being impacted then it is not a decent work scenario (domestic work is allowed after age 15 in Punjab but with the condition that it is decent work in a safe environment.) What we are looking at in the case of Rizwana is the worst form of child domestic labour, which is clearly hazardous work and therefore, we need a criminal law to address this issue and criminalise child domestic labour.

Most of these children were originally from different regions and were ‘brought’ to cities for employment. This means we should also hold people responsible for organising this network and understand the role of trafficking involved. For example, Rizwana was brought from Sargodha but the FIR initially did not even include the child-trafficking clause. It could be lack of awareness or deliberate avoidance because there are stricter punishments under these clauses such as up to 10 years of imprisonment and a fine of Rupees 1 million. Those registering FIR should be aware of this aspect and ensure proper clauses are included to ensure stricter punishment. In such cases, child rights activists also advise that the state should become a party to discourage out of court settlements.

Say no to child domestic labour!

In a recent interview with Dr Faisal Bari, Ayesha Raza Farooq, Chairperson National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC), commented on some of the challenges and why we need to criminalise child domestic work. She said that domestic work is part of the informal sector and regulating and monitoring it is extremely difficult, which means it is important to criminalise child domestic labour by law and ensure the law is implemented, if we want to protect children like Rizwana. She further added that the state has to step up and implement

Article 25-A of the constitution, which is about mandatory education, in true letter and spirit. Commenting on the preliminary report of the latest ILO child labour survey in Pakistan, she said that parents were not willing to send children even for free education because the child won’t be able to earn much after graduation so they would rather send children for begging or to work in a workshop to earn money. Indeed, in a poverty-stricken region where families are struggling to put food on the table, banning child domestic labour is an uphill battle. While acknowledging the complexities surrounding the issue, she said that the NCRC is looking at various models to incentivise sending children to schools.

Parents are willing to send away their children in hope of a roof over their heads and proper meals. Rizwan’s mother has 10 children. One can understand her plight. But sending her children for domestic work should not be the only solution for such parents. The state must step up and develop a framework of child protection in our country. The myriad of challenges around child domestic labour demand that we work simultaneously on both angles - ‘prevention’ and ‘protection.’

Say no to child domestic labour!

Prevention means working on family planning side and empowering women with the necessary knowledge and tools needed for contraception. Prevention also means if parents want to send children where they get meals and learn employable skills then develop a system that addresses these concerns starting from free meals at primary schools and including vocational training and IT skills, later on. The important point is that all the stakeholders in this country must work together consistently on this matter, regardless of which party forms the government. Only then, we will be able to make a lasting change for the welfare of our children.

Rights of the Child...

Pakistan ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in November 1990 and our National Commission on Rights of the Child became functional only a few years ago. While this is a welcome development but there is a long way to go. First, we have the very basic issue of implementing existing laws and harmonising these laws. Defining the age of a child remains inconsistent in various clauses of our laws; for example: clauses related to mandatory education, child labour, and child marriage. Then there is also variation in these laws between our provinces. An important loophole remains that child domestic labour is not criminalised in our country. Several child rights activist demand that we need to make it a non-billable and a non-compoundable offence if we want the law to act as a deterrent.

What can you do?

The legal loopholes and shortcomings represent one battleground but each person should be able to use the power of their voice to bring about a social change where child domestic labour is unacceptable.

Make your home safe where no children are employed for domestic work: All of us can ensure that our homes are safe spaces where no child is exploited or employed for domestic work. Also, ensure that you take out a moment to reflect on why child domestic work is unacceptable so that you are equipped to raise your voice against it.

Raise your voice: Know that your voice matters. You can raise your voice on social media, conventional media, write about it, and talk about it - no matter who you are, your voice is important to bring about change for the children of Pakistan. There are a few familiar faces who are working on the issue consistently and one prominent example is Nadia Jamil who is raising her voice on social media, press-talks, and various group discussions and conferences. She remains an incredible source of inspiration, demonstrating that we can use our collective strengths and influence to raise our voices and bring about change, one step at a time.

Nadia also reminds us that while raising our voices, it is also important to do it in a responsible manner. Be sensitive about how we talk about the matter which protects the victim’s dignity while highlighting the injustices. Safeguarding children is important. We have to give them the right to choose to disclose their identity later in life when they are old enough to do so. Do not plaster their faces on social media. Understand what effect this can have on survivors as they are trying to heal.

Say no to child domestic labour!

Socially boycott people who employ children for domestic work: Recognise people who wear masks of respectability and behind the guise, they may be dehumanising our children, and call them out. If we keep quiet then all of us are responsible for allowing monsters around us to grow and perpetuate violence against children. Stigmatise employment of children around you. Look around and you will find women who will tell you they prefer a child to work in their home; children as playmates for their own children; children as companions for their parents; children as mould-able ‘safe’ choices; children as a charity project to eliminate poverty; but raise your voice against these explanations. All these are excuses allowing a system where children’s lives are gambled away for a few rupees; their childhoods stolen away and they are exposed to abuse and extreme violence, which includes physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Let us agree as a society that employing children is fundamentally wrong and ethically reprehensible.

As voters, ask political parties to prioritise the welfare of our children: We should demand from our political parties to prioritise protection of children and make relevant laws and our justice system should ensure implementation of these laws. Each time we see a child domestic worker but stay quiet, we are enabling a system of abuse. Have the courage to say no. Have the courage to acknowledge that this is not a form of charity and it is fundamentally wrong.

Report and call for help: If you witness any child in distress and needing help, you should immediately report and call for help. The helpline number for the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau Punjab and also for the Child Protection Authority Social Welfare Department Government of Sindh is 1121.

The writer is a LUMS alumna and a community social worker with special interest in public health, philosophy, and human rights. She can be reached at Her X (former Twitter) handle is @mariamibkhan.