Last week, news about a brutally tortured 10-year-old girl, working as a house maid in Islamabad spread across social media. The case highlights various layers of the problem. From the child’s perspective, the physical and mental growth of child domestic labourers is greatly hampered. They often stay away from their family, being physically and emotionally neglected. At their employer’s home, they are treated in a very degrading manner, only reinforcing the concept of submissiveness, deprivation, inequality and injustice. They are often subjected to the worst forms of violence including sexual abuse and exploitation, physical abuse and emotional abuse. Internalising helplessness and hopelessness through induced fear deeply affects their self-esteem and self-worth.

On the face of it, child domestic labour is a mutually beneficial financial arrangement for both the employee and employers’ families. The child, who may be as young as five, acts as an additional earning hand for the family. As compared to other places of work, a house of a higher income family gives the parents a sense of safety and protection for the child.

Alternatively, the employer has a helping hand for long hours and minimal wage. Psychologically, trying to overcome the guilt regarding social inequality and injustice, the employer’s family treats it as an act of charity. They feel that by keeping the child as a domestic labourer, they are actually doing the child a favour. They are providing him/her with food, clothing and a shelter and they understand that if the child is not employed by them, the parents will send him/her to another household. By assuming that the next household where the child will work could be worse than theirs, they justify the treatment meted out by them.

In this arrangement, one cannot deny that the child is the one who suffers the most. The child’s survival, development, protection and participation rights are violated. Pakistan has various international and national frameworks for elimination of child labour. Pakistan signed and ratified United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children 1989, in which Article 3 4, 6, 19, 20, 27, 28, 31 and 37 relate to the rights and protection of children who may be involved in domestic child labour. ILO conventions including Minimum Age Convention 1973 (No. 138), Worse Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) are ratified by Pakistan. As for national legal frameworks, Article 25-A in the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan,1973, mentions that the state shall provide free and compulsory education to children of the age of 5-16, implying that the minimum age of employment should be at least 16 years. Additionally, Article 11 mentions that all forms of slavery, forced labour, trafficking and employment of children younger than 14 years and working of children in hazardous places is not allowed. The Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Ordinance 2016 puts limitations on the age, timing and nature of work a child can do, but has not taken child domestic labour as included in hazardous work for children.

Domestic child labour takes various forms; a child taking care of younger children, “helping” his/her mother who is a house maid or a child living with the employer’s family has become so common and acceptable, that we as a society have forgotten the implications it has on the future of this country. By supporting child domestic labour, we are reinforcing and implicitly promoting that children are mere tools for adults. Low income families need to reproduce dozens of children to survive and high income families need affordable labour to live a comfortable life.

By recognising that child domestic labour is an act of violence on so many levels, society will understand that there is no justification to neglecting the child’s physical and emotional needs and rights. We need to understand that no matter how many treaties and conventions we sign, if we have domestic child labourers in our houses, we can never work towards implementing these and eliminating this social evil. We need to advocate that child domestic labour is a violation of human rights and hence there should be a complete ban on it. Only when there will be a ban, the vicious cycle of using the child as a tool by both parties will end. The parents will know that that in order for a child to become a productive citizen and an earning hand, he/she needs to be educated and cared for. And society will know that a child, from whichever background, is a human being, who deserves to be treated with love, dignity and respect.