Trigger warning: mention of child abuse
Behind the gates of Pakistan’s most affluent neighbourhoods, an estimated 8.5 to 12 million children work as servants. Some of them are treated with kindness like an unpayable favour; second-hand clothes, eating from the same plates and sleeping in the same house. Others are not so ‘blessed’, leaving their employer’s sprawling mansions to rest their bones on cockroach infested mattresses.
Parents, often unable to afford food, send their children to work; ‘no parent wants their young child to go to work…they’re desperate, [they say] ‘I am being thrown out of my house, I haven’t even got 5,000 rupees (£25), take my child and get her some work’. Employers prefer child workers; malleable, easily intimidated and easily abused.
On May 31st 2020 in Rawalpindi, Zohra Shah was cleaning a birdcage and allegedly freed two birds belonging to her employers. Zohra was beaten brutally, resulting in injuries on her ribcage and hands. Zohra also had bruises on her inner thighs, suggesting brute force and sexual abuse. She was just eight years old.
Zohra was taken to the hospital and supported by mechanical ventilation, dying early morning on July 1st, 2020. Upon the arrest of her employers, police seized their phones and found disturbing footage of Zohra being beaten and locked in a bird cage as a punishment, on different occasions. It is believed this material was used to derive some sadomasochistic pleasure.
Her parents woke to a call at 4am, and were told that their daughter, entrusted to her aunt and uncle, had been killed. They had promised she would be educated in the big city, but instead they trafficked her to abusers. Under Pakistani Law, the victim’s family have the right to forgive, and therefore legally absolve, the culprit. In efforts to encourage this, the culprits offered blood money to Zohra’s family (Rs/- 80,000) but they refused. In an unexpected addition, the Amir Khan Foundation pledged to fund her five other siblings’ education and outsource a lawyer, Taimur Malik, to fight Zohra’s case in Pakistani court.
Data by the Child Rights Movement, an alliance of over 25 NGOs shows that from 2010, there were 60 murders of domestic child workers and countless cases of abuse. Child domestic work forms part of an informal economy existing outside labour laws, enabling exploitation. Children beg in the streets for Rs-/10, some sell balloon animals and flower bracelets. Others are forced into underground work. The Pakistani Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari, tweeted on June 3rd 2020 that the ministry had proposed an amendment to existing child labour laws to classify domestic work as a “hazardous occupation”. These laws offer little reassurance, and there is a gulf between federal and provincial law enforcement. The Punjab Domestic Workers Act which is theoretically in place for Rawalpindi, is a non-operational ghost act – because there is no governing body.
Zohra was eight. The age of jumping in puddles just to giggle at the splash, running after the ice cream van and never-ending wild imaginations. Instead, she was cooking, cleaning and fighting off a strange man. Maybe she could feel the pain of being a prisoner, and her end was a strange metaphor for her little lived, caged life.
Zohra is not the first domestic child worker to die, and despite the outpouring of love and support on social media, she won’t be the last. The normalisation of child work is supported by a culture of apathy masked as helplessness; they aren’t going to get educated anyway, so we’re doing them a favour by employing them. Stricter child protection laws serve little deterrence in a country lacking a competent and robust governance system, which rarely enforces the meaningless penance for taking a child’s life.
Pakistan is in dire need of social reform; championing standardised education for all children to produce an educated and skilled future workforce. But for now, a #JusticeForZohra hashtag and social media fanfare, before phones are tucked away and choti is asked to make another cup of chai.
SOS Village – www.sos.org.pk
Bali Memorial Trust – www.balimemorialtrust.org
SanjanNagar Schools – www.snpet.org
Zindagi Trust – www.zindagitrust.org
Idara Taleen O Agahi – www.itacec.org
The PSRD School, Pakistan Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled – www.psrd.org.pk