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January 13, 2017

The Tayyabas of Pakistan


January 13, 2017

Our society has suddenly discovered Tayyaba, a ten-year-old girl who was brutally tortured by the wife of an additional sessions and district judge of Islamabad. It is uncertain how many times she was tortured and for what reason.

It is easier to explain why she was tortured: Tayyaba is poor and it is the right of everybody who is anybody to make people like her suffer. Of course, nothing happens to the tormentors.

Is this the first time that such an incident has taken place in Pakistan? Thousands of child domestic workers are beaten every day in our households, and millions of children work while we hardly give a second thought to them. Many of them have been tortured to death by their employers but not a single tormentor has been prosecuted, let alone punished for committing the offence.

The Tayyabas of Pakistan deserve better. Millions of households all over the country are employing children under the age of 18. Aren’t such employers guilty of the same crime even though many of them continue to justify their actions on grounds of helping the poor child?

Child labour is generally permissible in the country due to big loopholes in the relevant legislations. The employment of children between the ages of 14 to 18 is allowed in all sectors, whether formal or informal. There are a few areas within the formal sector that prohibit children under the age of 14 from working. In a other sectors, child labour is legally permissible with certain restrictions. Other matters, such as domestic child labour, agricultural labour, and the problem of self-employed children, remain completely unregulated.

The media has thankfully picked up on the Tayyaba case, as it has done with similar cases in the past. It will hopefully continue to focus on the issue until something positive comes out of this tragedy. A section of the civil society has also been galvanised. The chief justice of the Supreme Court has taken notice of the matter. One only hopes that something good will come out of the attention that Tayyaba’s case has received. 

It has repeatedly been pointed out to both the federal and provincial governments that the scope of child labour laws needs to be urgently broadened and the big gaps in legislation need to be plugged. All kinds of projects dealing with domestic child labour have been launched and reports based on surveys prepared. All these initiatives are now gathering dust.

The child labourers of this country do not need more of these projects. What we desire and need is action on the part of the federal and provincial governments.

Ideally, Pakistan should have a law governing not just domestic child labour, but domestic labour in general. This is the most neglected field as those employed in people’s households are secluded and do not exist as a group. As a result, they are difficult to approach and cannot be accounted for. They perform domestic chores – including cooking, looking after children and running errands – earn meagre salaries and work totally unregulated hours with no weekly days off.

Quite a few domestic workers, particularly children, live in deplorable conditions. They are the invisible workforce of Pakistan and it is time that a national law or – if the political will is lacking – at least provincial laws, should be enacted within this year.

Pakistan’s constitution only prohibits child labour below the age of 14 years in factories, mines, or various forms of hazardous employment. The term ‘hazardous employment’ remains undefined but we can argue that child domestic work falls into this category. Additionally, the Factories Act 1934 prohibits children under the age of 14 from seeking employment in factories. Similarly, the Mines Act 1923 and the Shops and Establishments Ordinance 1969 prohibit children under 14 from being employed in mines and in offices and restaurants, respectively.

The Employment of Children Act 1991 has a schedule with two parts that lists 38 sectors where the employment of children under the age of 14 is prohibited. Domestic child labour can easily be added by the federal and provincial governments to this schedule to make it outlawed. The contravention of this ban in the 1991 act is punishable with a prison sentence that extends up to one year or a fine of up to Rs20,000, or with both.

It is about time that all the concerned authorities and relevant stakeholders – including employers, parents, children and the media – realise that a child who is employed represents a future that is destroyed. Poverty may be the major cause of child labour but poverty is also caused by child labour.

A child who fails to go to school will end up working menial jobs without learning any major skills all his life and will consequently remain poor. The vicious cycle of poverty will thus be persist. State intervention is required to break this cycle. The sooner we do this, the more Tayyabas we will be able to save.


The writer is an advocate of the
Supreme Court.

Email: [email protected]


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