Feature

Pakistan: When child labor becomes child abuse

A 12-year-old housemaid was killed “after severe physical and sexual torture” in the home where she worked for the family of a prominent lawyer.

The “gruesome murder” of a 12-year-old housemaid has slapped Pakistan awake to the brutality of child labor, said the Islamabad News in an editorial. Little Shazia Masih was killed “after severe physical and sexual torture” in the home where she worked for the family of a prominent lawyer, Naeem Chaudhry. The doctors who pronounced her dead said she had multiple broken bones and a broken jaw, and that her body bore signs of other abuse. Chaudhry, a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, has been arrested for her murder, along with his wife and sister-in-law. The victim’s father says the girl had not been paid a penny for her work, and was not allowed to visit her family. In effect, Shazia was kept as a slave. Her sorry end “should shame all of us.”

In death, Shazia has gained the sympathy of the nation, but what of the millions like her? said Anees Jillani in the Karachi Dawn. Households all over the country employ little girls as nannies or maids. Many justify this despicable behavior on the grounds that they are “helping a poor child” earn money for her family, but nobody is being fooled. And shockingly, it’s all perfectly legal. The 1991 Child Labor Act has “major loopholes” that allow kids under 14 to work—“totally unregulated”—as domestic help or farm laborers. No one is checking to see that these children are being adequately paid or even fed. Pakistan’s leaders will have to do more than “giving checks to Shazia’s parents and hugging her father in front of the cameras.” What we really need is a new law regulating domestic service and protecting children from exploitation.

How sad that it takes a law to make us behave decently, said Tanzir Zahid in the Islamabad Nation. It’s such a common sight to see “these little helpers sitting quietly on the side in expensive restaurants," nibbling a piece of bread while the families that employ them feast. Who knows how often they are beaten? “It has become a practice in this society to be as mean as possible to those who have nobody to side with them and are defenseless.”

Beating children is simply considered normal behavior in Pakistan, said Chris Cork in the Islamabad News. When I first came to this country from Britain to teach 15 years ago, I was horrified to see that “classroom violence was part of the daily routine.” Children are thrashed with sticks “for the slightest infraction of a myriad of rules.” As the death of Shazia shows, this travesty is not confined to the schools. It will take more than a new law to protect the children from abuse. Pakistan, it pains me to say, is “a culture where violence runs in the blood of many of its inhabitants.”

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