A bird released from a cage
When little eight-year-old Zohra mistakenly pressed the latch, she not just freed the caged bird but also liberated her own soul from a life of abominable torture and slavery. In a matter of minutes she too, like George Floyd, could breathe no more. Child labour in Pakistan is a despicable continuum of exploitation and cruelty — that is patronised by the rich, disregarded by the state and suffered by millions of helpless and enslaved children.
Replete with voluminous, unfulfilling and mediocre laws and acts, child protection authorities, commissions, committees and scores of helplines, Pakistan repeatedly fails to protect its children. Millions of them are abused and tortured every day, deprived of their right to live with their parents, to go to a school, to play with their friends and to experience a childhood. The dysfunctional child protection departments and the disinterested police only add fuel to the fire.
Does Pakistan suffer from inadequate legislation? No, it suffers from excessive, contradictory and convoluted legislation. Of the 35 national and provincial Child Protection acts, there are no two acts which agree on if and when a child can or cannot be a domestic worker. Many even differ on the basic definition of a child i.e. aged less than 18, 16, 14 or 12.
There ought to be a single law that is consistent across Pakistan. Article 11(3) of the Constitution ought to be replaced by: “No child below the age of 16 shall be engaged in any household, factory, mine, hazardous or non-hazardous employment in any capacity. Children aged from 16 to 18 may work only in non-hazardous occupations, and only under well-defined code of working conditions and hours.”
After ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Child in 1990, it took 27 years for Pakistan to enact the National Commission on the Child Rights Act and another three years to establish the commission. The Sindh Child Protection Authority Act was enacted in 2011 but the authority not established till 2016. The Punjab Domestic Workers Act enacted in 2019 is still awaiting notification of dispute resolution committees. Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Balochistan have not even bothered to enact laws for domestic workers. The care and attention given to stray dogs in Turkey far exceeds the protective measures we have in place for our children.
Pakistan has failed to establish a single national helpline and a single child abuse database. There are over two dozen semi-functional helplines that provide little or no help. The Sindh Child Protection Helpline 1121 has not responded for the last three months. The state is dragging its feet on notifying ZAARA, an agency required to be formed under the Zainab Alert Act 2020. There ought to be a single nationwide child protection helpline and citizens encouraged and incentivised to report cases of child domestic workers below the age of 16.
The colonial and demeaning system of citizens visiting and reporting to police stations must be replaced by the police reporting to the citizens. On receiving a call, it is the police that must arrive at the scene, gather information, initiate FIR, start investigation and execute all other actions necessary to apprehend the culprits. Of the thousands of cases of child abuse, there are only a handful that result in a conviction. Even the rapist and killer of a 100 children in Lahore volunteered his own surrender. Thus, our cursed criminal justice system is designed to ensure a safe passage for criminals. This must end.
A system of such appalling injustice and inhumanity could not survive and flourish without the collusion of the state and its entitled elite. Our children will continue to be tortured and killed as domestic workers, for their hands are tied and the cruel system has its heavy knee on their necks. Let us stand up for our Zohras and Zainabs, just as the world stood up for George Floyd.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2020.