A child rights coalition has just launched a campaign urging for child domestic work to be declared illegal, which may seem to some as being an exercise in futility or to others as another example of misguided liberalism. However, they are oblivious of the compulsions of poverty and ground realities as they exist in Pakistan. NGOs working on child protection issues consider domestic work as a particularly hazardous form of child labour since it takes place in the privacy of homes, where young children are placed under the complete control of employers, often living far away from their parents, making them vulnerable to varied sorts of abuse.
There is a lack of information concerning the exact number of children working as domestic workers and the conditions under which they work. A UN study estimated 264,000 children to be working as domestic workers in 2004. The earthquake which hit the northern areas and the two severe floods which impacted even larger parts of the country have probably made this situation worse. Young children, under the age of 14, working as domestic workers is not a phenomenon confined to far-flung rural areas where feudal domination compels tenants to send their offspring to work for landlords without remuneration. They are just as easily found working in homes in peri-urban areas and in major cities all around the country. Some employers prefer to employ young boys and girls, since they feel more comfortable having them around female members of their own families. Others hire children simply because they can be paid less or because they couldn’t find older help. Poor parents place their children in domestic work to earn additional income. It also helps lessen the cost of meals and frees up some space in their overcrowded homes.
Irrespective of such push and pull compulsions, the media sporadically highlights cases of horrendous abuse and violence of children employed as domestic workers. The death of a 12-year-old girl, working as a maid in an advocate’s house two years ago, for example, evoked much interest and concern, though it dissipated quickly. Since that time, the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child has documented 18 cases of brutal violence and torture inflicted by employers, resulting in the death of 13 children and serious injuries to the others. This organisation has also highlighted the perturbing fact that employers who perpetrated these atrocities escape conviction since they can buy off poor parents of their victims in settlements out of court.
While cases of such extreme abuse are limited, it is impossible to determine which home may inflict varying levels of violence or abuse on child workers and which one wouldn’t. It is due to this basic reason that child rights organisations are demanding immediate steps be taken to ban child domestic labour completely. The International Labour Organisation has lately introduced a domestic labour convention, but Pakistan is yet to sign it. Thus, experts are suggesting that we extend the existing child labour laws to domestic work as well.
If the government takes the step of making child domestic work illegal and punishes a few people violating this law, it may just serve as a reasonable enough deterrent for potential employers and help stifle demand which sustains this phenomenon. Poor families will be hard pressed, deprived of the income provided by their young children currently working in other people’s homes, but the most desperate of them could be provided some form of state support, especially if they agree to send their working children to school instead. We need a zero tolerance approach towards children under the age of 14 being subjected to work, or else the vicious cycle of intergenerational deprivation will prove very hard to break.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th, 2012.
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