Not many of you will be familiar with the story of seven year old Maria. Perhaps you heard something in the news but can’t be too sure. The name doesn’t trigger a specific image. Let me state a few more prominent names on the troubling list that may ring a bell: Tayyab, Uzma, Kinza. Now you may know where I am going with this.
Far too many young children are unlawfully working as domestic help in Pakistan and suffering brutally at the hands of their employers. Not every story makes it to the news. And not every story in the news concerning domestic abuse goes viral. How many spoke up for Maria, when the minor girl was found on a road with broken fingers after she managed to escape the cruel homeowners in Nisar Colony (Samanabad)?
Maria’s body was covered in torture marks. A case was registered against the accused, Rana Awais and his wife Sonia, under Section 34-2004 of the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act. After the required medical checkup and care Maria was handed over to the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau (CPWB). But not every child has the courage to run away. Many continue to suffer behind closed doors.
Individuals below the age of 18 are considered minors under the Majority Act 1875. Consequently, their responsibility and accountability is restricted. As per the Guardians and Wards Act 1890, a father is the natural guardian of a minor and thus responsible for his or her welfare. If a father then sends his child to work in a home where the child is harmed, shouldn’t the father also be held liable to some extent?
Article 11(3) of the Constitution of Pakistan sets the minimum employment age at 14 years while Article 11 (2) prohibits forced labor. Although the two clauses appear clear and distinctive, their application to the circumstances tends to be more complex. If one day, a 14 year old girl is dropped off by her parents at a strange house in an unknown city, there is little she can do or say to change her fate.
Children don’t exercise their agency in the same way as adults. Parental authority is established from birth; a child must do as they are told. So the little girl cleans and her parents come to collect the cash. Couples living below the poverty line often have large families as more children mean more breadwinners. If six of the daughters work, they can finally afford sending the two young boys to school. It simply becomes a matter of survival.
Low income families tend to view education as a luxury instead of a necessity. ABCs don’t fill empty stomachs. To prevent underprivileged parents from sending their children to work, many development programs in Pakistan offer them financial assistance. On the other hand, institutes like the Bait-ul-Mal National Centre for Rehabilitation of Child Laborers, provide children with alternatives to labor extensive fields which hinder their basic rights.
Given the rising inflation and widening disparity, attempting the implementation of a blanket ban on child labor is impractical- albeit morally bitter. Every child should have the right to childhood but reality is perverse. A child working as domestic help has become an acceptable practice in Pakistan. Perhaps over time we can change this. But the need to protect these children is an immediate one and can be done by formalizing the domestic help industry.
In Pakistan domestic help are not hired in the same way as an office employee. They are not treated with the same respect and dignity. Their working hours and conditions are akin to slavery. The Abbasi Foundation (TAF-VTI) is one of the few institutes working to change this attitude of employers by training underprivileged women as professional domestic help.
TAF’s cooking and housekeeping program teaches women the fine art working in the hospitality sector. They are taught to bake, cook, iron, dust, mop, all according to international standards. These women can even make towel swans and place them on your bed. They are trained such that they can easily replace the Filipino women elite households in Pakistan employ.
This program by TAF-VTI aims to remove the derogatory label “maid” and redefine the way domestic help is perceived in Pakistan. TAF even assists their graduates in finding jobs. The women are hired on contractual basis to work for 8 hours a day for 6 days a week with overtime as per labor laws. Their housekeepers easily earn up to Rs. 35,000 per month. Although initially TAF struggled with employers who found the idea of contracts for domestic help absurd, many agreed and more followed suit.
The government needs to follow in TAF’s footsteps and set up more institutes which work to formalize the domestic help sector via training and contractual employment. The use of a contract will significantly impact how employers treat their domestic help by: 1) making children below 14 years of age unemployable 2) ensuring employees are not overworked like slaves 3) limiting the power and control an employer can exercise over their domestic help. Instead of dealing with the aftermath of tortured children, we can begin at the beginning and ensure it doesn’t happen in the first place.