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January 25, 2021

Monika and our broken society

Opinion

January 25, 2021

The chilling case of the rape and murder of seven-year-old domestic worker Monika Larik in Khairpur, Sindh, reflects much of what is wrong with our society. The poor child went missing after she had gone to work at a palatial haveli justone kilometer away from her home. Because the girl would often spend nights there, the family did not go looking for her for two days as they thought she was at work. Two days later, when the family finally went to the haveli to look for her, they learnt to their horror that she was not there. The family, with the help of a few relatives, began a frantic search on their own and finally found her lifeless body in a banana orchard.

The harrowing case was highlighted on social media and attracted shock and outrage for some days, but like many other similar cases, it was soon forgotten. However, this single incident brought into focus many inter-related issues plaguing our country: the problem of abject poverty, the sorry state of our criminal justice system, class divisions and the inequitable distribution of wealth, the intersectional question, the apathy of the government and the hypocrisy of religious leaders. A brief look at the tragic story of Monika’s short life sheds light on and raises many questions about these issues.

Monika was forced to do domestic work at the tender age of seven because of poverty; her family was extremely poor. Her father made a meagre living by providing a taxi service to people on a rented motorbike. With the national poverty ratio nearing 40 percent and around 80 million people living below the poverty line, it is obvious that instead of sending their children to school many parents are forced to send them to work. Given their poverty, they often have no option but to send their children to work in poor conditions, leading to their economic, and in many cases, sexual exploitation. With inflation touching new highs and the poor and middle class under huge stress due to economic conditions, it is feared that more children will meet the same fate as poor Monika.

Monika’s story also sheds light on the inequitable distribution of wealth between classes in society. The people Monika worked for as a domestic help often kept her at their home for long periods and paid her only 300 rupees per month – with three chapattis as a bonus. Hence, Monika not only brought home a little money but some food as well. Tragically, the utensils in which she brought home food were also found lying next to her dead body.

It is beyond belief that for a month’s toil, this seven-year-old, who was often forced to spend nights at the haveli she worked in, was paid only 300 rupees. What is the value of 300 rupees today? It is gross exploitation and nothing else.

Meanwhile, every year May1 is celebrated as Labour Day and is a national holiday. But what is the meaning and significance of May Day for the millions like Monika? According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), around 8.5 million people in Pakistan are employed as domestic workers. Domestic work is rightly characterized as the worst form of employment with the lowest wages, no bar on working hours and no legal protection. Despite this, why is there no legislation regarding domestic work in Pakistan - Punjab being an exception? Even the Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019 remains largely unimplemented, with domestic workers, employers and even the police largely unaware of its existence.

As for the police, their performance in such cases is often extremely disappointing. As usual in Monika’s rape and murder case, the police initially refused to register an FIR. They finally registered an FIR and apprehended nine suspects only when political pressure mounted on them. Why is it that a police force that often resorts to violence unnecessarily itself had to be whipped by public pressure to perform its own job? The police initially ignored Monika’s father because he was poor. But little did they know that the case would become a top trend on social media and pressure from people would mount on political leaders, who in turn would pressurise the police to do its job.

Even though there are laws on child protection, they remain largely dormant. If one asks police officers about the Sindh Child Authority Act 2011, most of them wouldn’t know of its existence. Hence, the issue runs deeper. Mere legislation is not enough to eradicate the issue of child sexual abuse or child labour. The entire criminal justice system needs to be revamped.

Even though Monika’s case was highlighted on social media, it did not receive the overall media attention it merited. Is this because she belonged to an extremely poor family, worked as a domestic help and resided in a small village, Laung Khan Larik in Pir Jo Goth in Khairpur, Sindh? Here, intersectionality is a factor that should also be considered. Belonging to an impoverished family, and from a small and remote village in Sindh, her case received different treatment from similar cases in the urban areas. The attention to the case would have also been totally different had Monika belonged to some influential family in a large city.

To add to the injustices in this case was the apathy of the provincial government. It was only after voices were raised against the Sindh government and the inefficiency of the police on social media that the government was forced to finally take some action. Eventually, a special assistant to the chief minister pressurised the police to register an FIR. Some government officials also paid a visit to the aggrieved family and paid some money as compensation and promised to offer a job to Monika’s father. Is that what we expect from the government and state? Is paying compensation for rape and murder to grieving families their only job? Does this solve the issue of child labour and how it exposes children to other forms of violence such as sexual abuse? Is it not the responsibility of governments to effectively enforce the laws that exist? Was seven-year-old Monika not supposed to be in school rather than working in someone’s home? Whose duty is it to make that possible?

To add to the overall callousness and apathy, the hypocrisy of religious leaders in this case was also noteworthy. While they are always the first to raise a hue and cry each time issues such as family planning are raised, they remain silent when large families with limited resources are forced to resort to child labour to survive. Monika was one of eight siblings. Including her parents, she came from a family of 10. Her brutal murder, tragic and horrifying as it was, also brought to the surface many of the underlying problems in our society. All stakeholders must come forward and urgently address the issue of child labour and other evils associated with it before society is forced to carry the burden of lifting another small yet heavy coffin.

Twitter: @BJ_Socialist