Victims of poverty & apathy

By Lubna Khalid
Tue, 07, 20

There are a number of young maids who are being exploited by unscrupulous employers throughout Pakistan. People are questioning the judicial system of the country that lets the scoundrels off the hook. You! takes a look…

faiza was 15 and unfortunately for her, very beautiful. She started going with her mother, a part-time maid, as her helper since she was five or six years of age. Her mother, Hamida, had been working for a family in an apartment complex in an affluent area for more than 10 years. Hamida was very happy with her employers because her ‘baji’, D, was very generous, and often gave her extra money when Hamida needed it. So, when D’s mother-in-law fell in the washroom and fractured her clavicle, Hamida agreed to leave Faiza at her house for two weeks to help her out. D assured her that Faiza would only have to fetch stuff for her mother-in-law and sleep in her room at night. Faiza was initially very happy: she could watch TV with baji’s mother-in-law and was given treats like chocolates and ice cream to her heart’s content. Hamida continued to come daily to do her work, and was satisfied – even happy – that her girl was having such a good time.

One day, however, Hamida found Faiza in tears. She had bruises on her face and as soon as she saw her mother, she asked her to take her away. When Hamida asked her what was wrong, Faiza’s answer horrified her; she had been beaten and raped by D’s husband. Hamida was furious and devastated at the same time. She confronted D, who laid the blame squarely on Faiza, accusing her of leading her husband on. She threatened to report Faiza’s behaviour to police, which frightened poor Hamida into silence. She took her broken daughter with her, crying bitterly at the injustice of her employer. It did not end thus; Faiza became pregnant, and to hide her pregnancy from her father and brothers, Hamida married her off to a relative almost her husband’s age. Young Faiza is now a mother of three children. She is 19 years old, but looks 30. Her husband owns a small tract of land, and she is an unpaid worker there. In addition, she looks after her children, and her parents-in-law. “I lost my childhood when I started going to work with my mother when I was only six years old; I lost my honour at 15, and lost my will to live when I was married to an old man. I now work from dawn to dusk, and in return only get verbal and physical abuse at the hand of my husband and mother-in-law. Life has been very tough for me; I live for my children only,” says Faiza.

12-year-old Neha works for a rich family in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi. Her job is to look after her employer’s two children who are four and six years old. “I help them get ready for school, but I feel sad when I iron the uniforms of the children as I want to go to school too. These days they have ‘corona’ holidays. I also get to eat their leftover food. My begum sahiba told my mother that my duty would only be to stay with her kids, but little by little, she kept on giving me more work. I now do dusting, make beds, clean rooms and sometimes wash clothes, too. I have been working for two years, and my begum sahiba is a good woman. She does not beat me badly like the begum sahiba of my elder sister…just a couple of slaps when she is angry,” narrates Neha.

“When I go home once a week, I don’t get enough food and there is no electricity most of the time. My father does not work, and my mother is a masi. I have to work as I have to look after my eight siblings. But at least I am lucky in the sense that I don’t go hungry at my begum sahiba’s house,” adds Neha.

Ismat is a 14-year-old young girl from a village in Punjab. She was studying in the local government school in sixth grade, but her life changed when D, a man from her village, offered her father to get her a job as a housemaid in Karachi at a handsome salary, which his parents would receive in advance. He assured her parents that his seth would pay well and even give money for her dowry at the end of one year. D told Ismat’s father that he works for the seth as his driver, and would look after Ismat as his own daughter. The dowry provision was a great attraction for Ismat’s parents, who are poor and have three more daughters. Ismat’s parents thought that D would look after her, and so she was sent to Karachi with D chacha, to work as a housemaid. D, however, worked for a gang that runs brothels in posh areas of Karachi. Young Ismat was brought under false colours and had to work as a prostitute. She was kept strictly under guard by the gang members, and compelled to act cheerful when D let her talk to her parents. After three months, Ismat sneaked to the roof at night when her minders were drunk to get fresh air. She saw a man on the roof of the adjacent house talking on his cell phone. Ismat went back, found a paper and pen, and wrote what was happening to her at this brothel. She attached the letter to a stone and threw it at the man on the adjacent roof. The result was a police raid on the house. All people in the house were apprehended by police, but all girls don’t get away like Ismat. God knows how many Ismats are brought from remote villages and forced to work as prostitutes.

There are thousands of Faizas, Ismats and Nehas who are being exploited by unscrupulous employers throughout the country. The irony is that most of them, like Neha, consider themselves lucky to have ‘kind’ employers who are not ‘too harsh’ with them. Some horrific cases highlighted by media resulted in the arrest of the perpetrators, but the accused are not always convicted and sentenced.

Eight-year-old Zohra Shah was beaten to death by her employer Hassan Siddiqui and his wife Umme Kulsoom because she accidentally freed expensive parrots from their cage. However, the autopsy revealed old scars all over her body. The little girl was abused and raped by her employer in return for accommodation and food. Her father allegedly took Rs 50,000 from Siddiqui. Another story is of Bano, a 13-year-old girl working in Bahria Town in Rahim Yar Khan was thrown out of a window by her employer and her backbone was irreparably damaged, leading to her death six months later. Her father settled with the employer for Rs300,000. Furthermore, Uzma Bibi was tortured and murdered by her employer in Lahore for helping herself to a small piece of meat.

The list of domestic workers tortured or killed is unending, and people are questioning the judicial system of the country that lets the inhuman scoundrels who torture young women and children off the hook. People want the judges to mete out exemplary punishments to the culprits, but are frustrated and disappointed when cases are dismissed and the accused released.

Speaking about the alarming rate of violence against domestic workers, noted women rights activist, Anis Haroon, stressed on the need to change people’s mindsets. “Basically, we need to change the mentality of people. Women are not given importance and their complaints usually fall on deaf ears. Violence against domestic workers is increasing because even when cases are reported and perpetrators apprehended, the long-drawn-out legal process makes it impossible for most families to follow cases in court. Conviction rate is three to five percent, so when almost 95 percent criminals get scot free, what’s to deter people from committing such crimes? Sometimes families are so poor that they settle out of court and sometimes they give in under threats and pressure. Only state can change the system, because NGOs do not have the resources,” she laments.“Unfortunately, safeguarding women rights is not a priority for the state. Politics come into play, province and party cards are used to score points, so nothing gets done. Domestic workers have no protection at all. They don’t have set working hours or wages. Or even a job description; most are hired for one job and are made to do all sorts of work,” regrets Haroon.

Sarmad Hani, a dynamic lawyer,(of Sarmad Hani & Co. Advocates & Legal Consultants) is a practising Advocate of the High Court. Hani spoke about the limitations on the honourable judges. “Judges decide cases on the basis of evidence recorded. Most culprits are not sentenced because they tend to compromise with the family of the deceased as generally, they come from a poor background. Maids are retained usually by influential people, and when abuse cases come to light, parents of these maids exercise their right to forgive in the name of Allah’, which is permissible in our law,” he explains.

Hani cited the example of Tayyaba, a 10-year-old girl whose employer was himself an Additional District & Sessions Judge, Raja Khurram Ali Khan. The former judge and his wife, Maheen Zafar, were arrested for torturing Tayyaba. According to Tayyaba, she was tortured for losing a broom! Neighbours alerted the police, and Tayyaba was brought to Pakistan Institute of Medical Science (PIMS) with severe injuries, including burns to her hands and feet. “Tayyaba’s father ‘forgave’ his daughter’s torturers after reaching an agreement with the former judge and tried to drop the charges against the couple, but was not allowed by the court to do so. Initially, they were sentenced to one year in prison after being found guilty. Later, Islamabad High Court increased the sentence to three years,” informs Hani.

“Another issue is that these children are usually from rural areas and don’t know their rights. Their parents accept money because they are so poor that they feel that what has been done cannot be undone, but money would feed their family. If bribes don’t work, threats usually do,” he shares.

“We need to strengthen our laws, make such offences non-compounding (that which can be pardoned or settled out of court). This makes it possible for the perpetrators to offer money to the parents of the victim in return for ‘forgiveness in the name of Allah’. So that the accused has no chance of compromising with the family of the deceased. Our Criminal system is outdated and in dire need of reform. Judges only interpret the law and have to act in accordance with it. It is in fact the Parliament’s job to legislate. Nothing substantial has been done in this area,” stresses Hani.

“Unfortunately, our system is malicious; the police are politicised, and complainants so poor that they can be easily threatened and overwhelmed. Investigation results are changed when brought in front of court. Judges have to decide each case in the light of the evidence submitted. We need to depoliticise police and improve investigation process,” highlights Hani.

According to acts passed by the Punjab (2018) and Sindh (2011) assemblies, children less than 15 years cannot be employed as servants. The recent cases of children who have been brutalised by their employers clearly testify that these acts are not worth the paper they are written on.

According to our law, a person who employs a child, under 15, can be fined a princely sum of Rs 250. The parents are also liable to a fine of Rs 50. Seriously? Rs 250 could have been a hefty fine during the British

Raj, but after 70 years our legislators have not done anything to change such obsolete laws. The judicial system is crying for reforms, but the Parliament has more important things to consider; like increasing their own perks and emoluments.