Each night, after a 12-hour shift of domestic drudgery, Neelum, 11, and Pari, 13, leave their employer’s million-dollar mansion with its manicured lawns in Karachi’s glitzy Defence neighbourhood and return to their servant lodgings. There they sleep on thin, termite-infested mattresses, under-nourished from their diet of leftovers. Behind the glistening glass doors of the country’s most opulent neighbourhood, thousands of children work as maids and servants. Across Pakistan, an estimated 264,000 children are employed in such work, and claims of abuse by employers are commonplace. In January, 16-year-old maid Uzma Bibi was allegedly tortured and murdered by her employer in Lahore for helping herself to a small piece of meat. After tweets about her case went viral under the hashtag #justiceforUzma, three people, including her employer, were arrested and are now in custody awaiting trial. There was similar social media outcry in 2018 over pictures of 10-year-old Tayyaba’s bruised face and hands. She had been working as a maid for a judge and his wife. The couple were cleared of assault allegations but convicted of neglecting an injured child and sentenced to one year in jail.
Yet despite this rising tide of public outrage, activists say the problem is only intensifying. “The situation is actually getting worse,” says Ume Laila, Executive Director of rights group HomeNet Pakistan. “Children are employed with no protection and unless there is a holistic legal framework for the protection of domestic workers, the situation won’t improve. Awareness and practical actions are required. No amount of outpouring of support on social media on an issue of this kind translates into any far-reaching positive results in Pakistan,” says child rights activist Fazela Gulrez. “The most that happen is a law is passed with much fanfare, which looks very pretty in the state reports presented in the UN or other platforms but changes nothing on the ground. The immediate reaction could be intense but remains temporary. So, in reality, nothing has changed.” A major obstacle is that child work is so normalised in Pakistan. But stricter child protection laws are not in the interests of many of those hiring children as their servants. “It’s not only the wealthiest and most powerful who are employing child domestic workers,” says Gulaz. “They are employed across the board, whoever can afford to employ them. Many people prefer young workers, because they are easier to control, and exploit. And poor parents are ever ready to offer their children for employment because it at least promises two meals and a roof. Nothing else matters.”
The Punjab Domestic Workers Act, passed this year, includes an emphasis on discouraging child labour. Yet there are no similar laws in other provinces, and campaigners say that unless laws enhance accountability among employers, children will continue to be exploited. Humaira’s story is typical of the abuse that can take place behind closed doors. A child when she started domestic work and now in her 20s, she says she was burned by her employers and then hidden away so that no one would know. “I was 10 and severely malnourished. I could barely lift the children, who regularly abused me – sometimes verbally, other times physically.” She says that the parents, through positive reinforcement, encouraged their children’s “playful” behaviour. “One time, while I was playing with the children, boiling water was thrown my way, scorching my entire upper body. I couldn’t walk properly. My employers panicked but refused to take me to the hospital. I was hidden for days and not allowed to speak to anyone.” Eventually, Humaira was rescued by a neighbour, offered medical help and reunited with her family.
Despite the well-documented risks, extreme poverty means parents are still tempted to send children away. Agents entice them with talk of the financial benefits, often offering false reassurances about how they will look out for the children while they are away from home. “With poverty-ridden homes and more mouths to feed than food on plates, my fear is that parents [are] eager to send their children to work in homes, even at low salaries and despite the abuse that they may suffer at the hands of employers,” says Gulrez. In many cases, she says, the alternative would be to leave children on the streets to beg for daily wages, at risk of succumbing to drug addiction and being lured in by criminal gangs. Without proper worker protection, in cases of abuse, dissent is often silenced through “hush money.” This happened in the case of Bano, a 13-year-old girl working in Bahria Town in Rahim Yar Khan. She was thrown out of a window by her employer and her backbone was irreparably damaged, leading to her death six months later. Instead of pursuing the matter in court, her father agreed to a settlement with the employer worth 300,000 Pakistani rupees (£1,490). Campaigners are not hopeful that change will come any time soon. Eleven-year-old Neelum is resigned to her fate. “There was a time I’d dream … Will I be the one to change our lives, could I become a pilot? Of course, I followed my mother’s footsteps and became a maasi [a maid]. It has altered me forever – when I look at myself in the mirror, I can never see the same person.”
Credit: Saba Karim Khan for The Guardian, 13 August 2019.