Every few months, a case of brutality against a child domestic labour is highlighted in the media. From 10 year old Tayyaba, 11 year old Kinza Bashir, 15 year old Mohammad Imran to 16 year old Uzma, each child suffered in the hands of the employer. The employer could be from a middle class family or an influential one, could be male or a female or could be an adult of any age or a child herself. They all had one thing in common - cruelty

These incidents shake the core of our belief. With protests around the nation for a few weeks, we question humanity and how can someone be so ruthless and cruel. After a few weeks, the hype dies down, we get back to our lives and silently await another incident, and out we come demanding justice for another young soul. Unless we identify and address issues in our current system, we will only keep demanding justice from one child to another.

Only last month, Domestic Workers Bill 2018 was passed by the Punjab Assembly. Although the bill regulates domestic labour for all ages, it is the first one to touch on child domestic labour; this bill clearly states that no child under the age of 15 years shall be allowed to work in the household in any capacity, promising an end to incidents such as that of Tayyaba and Kinza Bashir. Moving in the right direction, we appreciate the efforts of the government to move the bill especially Mr. Anser Majeed, Minister of Labour and Human Resource who encouraged and welcomed the input of civil society members for formulation of this document.

Young Uzma’s case highlights deep rooted dynamics of child domestic labour which need to be addressed. Child domestic labour is a modern form of slavery, in which the child’s physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing is significantly compromised. Child maids stay in their employer’s house, day and night, without their parents. He/she is away from the parent, growing up without love, care and support. Without supervision, the child becomes vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and neglect.

At PAHCHAAN-Children Hospital Lahore Child Protection Unit (CPU), every few months we manage young child slaves like Uzma. Most of these children not only suffer from severe physical abuse, extreme medical, physical and emotional neglect but also sexual abuse. With their infected wounds, turning into sepsis, most of the children are unattended and uncared for. While another maid of the house sometimes attends to the child’s needs, the employer and parents of the child are almost always missing. Even if the parent is called in, their anger only lasts for a few hours and they never really want to take any legal action against the employer. During follow-up we have even found out that some of the parents return their child to the same household where they were initially brutally handled. While Children Hospital Lahore is one of the only few hospitals in Pakistan in which doctors and healthcare staff is trained to detect and manage cases of childhood abuse, a vast majority of these cases go unnoticed, unreported and unmanaged even if they manage to reach the hospital. The state needs to develop monitoring and referral mechanisms for children at risk, including child domestic labourer.

Negligence transiting into abuse and exploitation on the part of the employer is only natural as they know there is no one to question their behaviour. Most cases of cruelty are seen when the parent of the child has not seen him/her for months. Abuse and exploitation can be significantly minimised if the child is not allowed to stay the night at the employer’s house without the parent. With the parent’s protective factor in place, the transition of neglect to abuse and exploitation can be minimised.

While sympathising with the family of these children, we as a society justify child labour. We also justify and normalise violation of child rights including health, development, and protection. Most children are severely malnourished and out of school. While the state is responsible for fulfilling their rights, it is the parents’ duty to protect their child’s rights until they reach adulthood. Responsibility of the employer is often highlighted in most of the labour laws and bills in third world countries, but parents are not held accountable for any harm that is caused to the child.

Uzma’s case highlights that a 16 year old, who according to Domestic Worker Bill 2018 would be allowed to work, can also be easily exploited, abused and in this case killed. The bill says that children between ages 15-18 can be employed to do light work. Not only does the bill not harmonise with United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Pakistan has signed and ratified, it also leaves a loophole for exploitation for children in that age group.

The much-anticipated Punjab Domestic Worker Bill 2018 only slightly touches on the issue of child domestic labour. While drafting the rules of business and terms of reference for this bill, it is imperative to elaborate on issues such as monitoring and referral mechanisms, parental responsibility and banning night stay of the child without the parent. By completely banning child domestic labour, under the age of 18, most of the issues will be automatically tackled. With this bill, we have only taken the first step to eliminate child slavery in Punjab. The process of drafting a more comprehensive bill only focusing on child domestic labour needs to be initiated and implemented. We are still very distant in the process of making our society safe for children (like 16 year old Uzma), who cannot even dream of enjoying their childhood without the burden of their parents, family, employer and his family and the society at large.

 

The writer is Director of PAHCHAAN and a Lecturer in the Child Rights Department at the University of Lahore.

 @meheknaeem