Friends who had followed the case of the child-maid so dreadfully tortured by the couple who were her ‘employers’ said in advance of the hearing last Monday that they expected it to be over in minutes. The usual whitewash, they said. And I believed that to be the likely outcome as well. I expected the people who had abused a child by beating her with assorted objects and burning her on several parts of her body with a hot iron, to have their appeal against their sentences granted, to walk free. And that is not what happened.
The judgment, all 46 pages of it were read out to a packed and stunned court. This was not what the boys in black were expecting. Those who had campaigned for Tayyaba were slack-jawed in amazement and some wept, hardly able to believe what they were hearing. To amazement on all sides justice was delivered. It was fair, scrupulous, named names and ended with the fines of the accused being increased and their jail sentences extended from one to three years. One of the accused was a retired member of the judiciary, the other, his wife, had decamped to Saudi Arabia and will now be subject to arrest if and when she returns. The retired judge was led away smiling, seemingly unfazed by the judgment.
There was jubilation among my friends and colleagues, even I did the happy dance around my office delighted that the child whose face shone out from a BBC documentary last weekend (big props to Secunder Kermani for a solid piece of televisual journalism) had got the outcome she so richly deserved — and then it all went very very quiet.
One of the most important judgments in terms of the protection of children in Pakistan very quickly slid down the news agenda. This newspaper was perhaps the first to report the judgment, others followed suit by the end of the day and then it all went very very quiet. The story was covered by all the major international TV news channels, several of them delivering in-depth analysis. The BBC documentary was frequently referenced. But in Pakistan Tayyaba and her torturers were shuffled into the undergrowth, stifled by the political theatre that dominated the rolling news agenda 24/7.
It took a couple of days and some detailed consultation to understand just why it was that this truly historic judgment had been buried, and light eventually dawned. The judgment was profoundly counter-cultural. It ran against the grain of society at just about every level and for sure cut right across the sensitivities of the burgeoning middle class who are the employers of the hundreds of thousands of Tayyabas, and for whom the judgment will have gone down like the proverbial lead balloon.
There will have been employers of children sitting in the courtroom as the judgment was read out. They better than most will have been aware of the legal precedence that was being set.
Children male and female but probably predominantly female, labour in households that can afford them — and they are cheap — everywhere. I see them in the supermarkets and the cafes and the shopping malls. Usually holding a small child, occasionally pushing a child in a stroller and — painfully — standing to one side as a family eat and drink in an upmarket eaterie. They eat and drink with their eyes. They are rarely well dressed and often look shabby and neglected — which they almost certainly are.
Child labour in the home is an embedded part of the culture and entirely acceptable to the majority of the population, who labour under the delusion that they are somehow doing the parents of these children a considerable favour by giving security and employment. They are not. They are supporting a pernicious culture that deprives children of an education, leads them into exploitative relationships — and who wants to change that? Upset the social order? Well… not many. And certainly not enough to explore how replacement mechanisms can be grown or protective legislation, some of which does exist already — to be created or enforced. Tayyaba now has a future. She is protected. And millions like her suffer in invisibility and silence.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2018.