14-year-old Rizwana was allegedly subjected to brutal torment over a sustained period of some six months by her employer in Islamabad. When her parents received Rizwana, the child was in critical condition. They went to the police station to lodge a first information report (FIR) against the employer, the wife of a civil judge . After showing reluctance, Islamabad police registered the FIR on July 26. Initially, the police booked the employer for criminal intimidation and wrongful confinement, without mentioning physical abuse in the FIR. However, eight more sections, including murder, were later added to the FIR.
On August 7, 2023, the district and sessions court in Islamabad finally rejected the bail plea of the alleged perpetrator in the case pertaining to the alleged abuse of a child domestic worker, Rizwana. The suspect was subsequently taken into custody by the capital police from the court’s premises. On July 27, the Lahore High Court had granted protective bail to Rizwana’s employer until August 1. Then district and sessions court Islamabad approved her pre-arrest bail until August 7.
The victim is currently under treatment at Lahore’s General Hospital for serious medical conditions including multiple internal diseases and psychological issues apart from physical injuries. The girl was shifted to the hospital with fractures in her ribs and upper limbs, severe infection on her skin and eyes and serious head injuries. Her condition deteriorated further after being shifted to the hospital as she developed pneumonia, sepsis and infection in her lungs owing to complications caused by long-standing injuries. She has improved a bit after deteriorating to a critical level.
A five-member joint investigation team (JIT) was formed to probe the much-highlighted case of physical and mental abuse on August 4. Later on August 7, three members were added.
Prevalence of child domestic labour
The incident of violence against Rizwana sparked outrage and concern across the nation. But this incident is not a first of its kind. Such brutality has occurred many times before.
In February, an 11-year-old child domestic worker, Rafiq Qabool, was beaten to death by his employer in Karachi. On June 1, 2020 a seven-year-old child domestic worker, Zohra Shah, was beaten to death by her employers in Rawalpindi. In February 2019, the body of 16-year-old Uzma was found dumped in one of Lahore’s drains. Domestic worker Uzma was tormented and killed by her employers.
In another infamous case, child Tayyaba was rescued from a judge’s house in Islamabad on December 28, 2016 with severe injuries. And no one can forget Shazia Masih’s tragic and cruel murder in January 2010 in Lahore.
In July 2022, a qualitative study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) determined that one in every four households in Pakistan employs a child in domestic work, predominantly girls, aged 10 to 14 years.
“More than 140 cases of abuse, rape and murder of child domestic workers were reported in the media during the past 10 years,” according to a report published in January 2020 and compiled by three civil society organisations namely the Hari Welfare Association (HWA), The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), and Institute for Social Justice (ISJ). The report further reveals that 96 children were raped and 44 murdered over the 10-year period. 79 percent of cases reported were from Punjab, 14 percent from Sindh, six percent from Islamabad and one percent from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Data collected by Women in Struggle for Empowerment (WISE) during the period of January 2019 to February 2021, 74 cases of violence against child domestic workers were reported in Punjab. In all 74 cases, the victims were girls as young as 7-16 years. There are about 675,000 domestic workers in Punjab according to the commissioner of Social Security.
Child Domestic Labour is rampant throughout Pakistan due to which children are silently but gravely abused and exploited inside boundary walls. Most cases of this nature are not reported in the media, instead, they are swept under the rug. This can be due to several reasons, including society has normalised not only the employment of minors but also their ill treatment, whether in homes, schools or workplaces. In the case of sexual assault, the case is hushed to save face given its taboo nature.
International and national law
To avoid such cases and ensure the protection of children in Pakistan, the first step the Government of Pakistan should take is to align domestic law with international commitments. Protection of children is enshrined in Article 19 and Article 32 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), ratified by Pakistan 33 years ago.
Article 19 reads, “States parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse…” Article 32 further protects the child by prohibiting any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.
Moreover, in 2001 Pakistan ratified the ILO’s C182 — Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, which recommends immediate and effective measures to prohibit and eliminate the worst forms of child labour. CDL is recognised as modern slavery which falls under the worst forms of labour. Its elimination by 2030 is part of Goal 8 (Target 8.7) of the Sustainable Development Goals of which Pakistan is a party. The ILO further defines the types of worst labour which, by its nature or circumstances is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children. Despite being party to this convention, Pakistan has not recognised CDL as a hazardous or worst form of work in national law.
Article 25A of the Constitution of Pakistan reads “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to 16 years in such manner as may be determined by law.” Yet, according to a study by The World Bank, nearly 23 million Pakistani children aged five to 16 do not attend school, which is the second largest out-of-school population in the world. Regrettably, these children are mostly involved in child labour.
Although Article 11 of the Constitution prohibits slavery and forced labour, CDL is pervasive which is the worst form of slavery. Due to a lack of seriousness on the part of the federal and provincial governments, the issue of CDL has not gained attention in the legislative assemblies. CDL should be added to the schedule of banned occupations under the Employment of Children Act, 1991 through official notification.
In Punjab, there is a list of hazardous jobs under The Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Act, 2016; but CDL is not included in hazardous working practices. According to the Child Rights Movement, about 70 children were killed by their employers in the last 15 years while there were not as many deaths of children in any other hazardous industry. So, the recommendation from child rights activists is an evidence–based reform, which advocates adding CDL to the list of hazardous occupations.
Section 3 of The Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019 says, “No child under the age of 15 years shall be allowed to work in a household in any capacity.” Yet it allows work for children above 15 to 18 years. Data shows that children older than 15, especially girls, are abused massively in CDL. The government should not try to regulate slavery and the worst form of child labour; it should be fully banned as envisaged in our constitution.
The Prohibition of Employment of Children Act, 2015 of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa states that “No child (under 14 years) shall be employed or permitted to work in any establishment.” Similarly, the Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act, 2017 states that “No child (under 14) shall be employed or permitted to work in any establishment.” Looking at various laws related to child labour, age limits are often contradictory in regard to Article 25A of the Constitution.
Criminalising Child Domestic Labour
Child Domestic Labour is not just an issue of child labour, it is a violation of children’s right to protection. Children need to be protected from abuse and violence; they are neglected and exploited when they work as domestic help.
Not only are the present laws inadequate, they also suffer from a lack of implementation. There is a need for stronger legislation which clearly lays out rules, procedures, budget allocation, offences and punishments to discourage the practice of CDL. The situation will not improve without criminalising the practice of employing them. The process of formulating law on CDL should be consultative and encourage recommendations from CSOs. It should be inclusive and participatory, engaging with child domestic workers as agents of change.
The state should work harder to improve complaint and case management system, safeguarding mechanisms and to promulgate child protection policies to protect the children of Pakistan. Unfortunately, there is no Child Protection Policy in any province – a long-awaited demand of civil society. Inter-departmental efforts are required; education, health, social welfare and labour department, and child protection bureaus and authorities need to work in coordination.
The minimum wage level for adults should be increased and ensured. Social protection programs need to be linked with the education of children. Article 25A of the constitution should be implemented in letter and spirit. There must be a rigorous campaign against child marriages and advocacy for family planning.
An extensive awareness campaign by the federal government, provincial governments, and civil society groups would help reduce the number of incidents by alerting communities about the consequences of employing innocent children and risking their lives. Banning CDL will make employers and parents realise that child labour is against the law and deter participation in fear of legal repercussions. Authorities will be able to take action against offenders.
A cultural understanding and sensitivity to children’s rights is certainly required. As we demand justice for Rizwana, we must not forget that our denial of children’s rights, in general, has contributed to their increased vulnerability to abuse. Our silence in response to these brutal cases would indicate the moral decay of our society and the inability of the state to fulfil its mandate under the constitution.
Lastly, it is not just the government’s duty to ensure the safety of the children of Pakistan. It is, in fact, the duty of each and every citizen to ensure that the children of this country can enjoy their rights with no exceptions. For the holistic development of children, all forms of child labour should be completely prohibited.
Written by Ms. Nabila Feroz Bhatti is a human rights activist and columnist. She tweets @NabilaFBhatti and can be reached at email@example.com
Acknowledgement/ Reference: Published in Daily Tribune on August 13, 2023