Educated urban people tend to falsely believe that they are providing support and financial help to children by domestically employing them, when in reality they are only perpetuating illiteracy, poverty and injustice, said independent filmmaker Samar Minallah while explaining the premise of her documentary “I Have a Dream”.
The documentary, launched at SPARC’s conference last month and later screened in Dhaka, was screened at SAFMA on Friday.
It opens with Asma, a seven-year-old domestic servant from Mardan, reciting a poem about her dream that is rudely interrupted by the reality of her plight — domestic labour, emotional and physical abuse, and separation from her family.
Asma is not alone. According to the International Labour Organisation, there are an estimated 10 million child labourers in Pakistan. “I was always unhappy, especially at night. I would miss my sister and remember how she would sleep by me at night and remembering her made me cry,” Asma says as she shares other heart-wrenching stories, including once when she burnt her hands on an iron as she had not been shown how to use one. She received no sympathy or care from her employers, and had to nurse her wounds with toothpaste herself.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Director IA Rehman said that even educated people view child domestic labour as charity and not a child rights issue, which skews norms and expectations gravely. Psychologist Dr Ambreen Ahmed explains in the documentary that separation anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and depression quickly sets in for these children.
In addition to the emotional and physical turmoil these children face, there is also the bleak reality of what happens when these children run away from their employers’ homes. They are either recruited by street gangs or terrorist groups, or end up begging.
Despite a tumultuous childhood, a spirited Waqar, 8, from Clifton in Karachi, said in a darkly comedic tone, “They used to slap me as punishment for bringing less grocery. If they told me to bring a kilo of potatoes, I would bring four or five large ones and they would scold me for not bringing more. I would think, my father doesn’t own a grocery store, how do I increase the amount?” Unable to take such abuse, he ran away from his employer’s house.
Ayesha, 8, from Karachi, works in DHA. She said, “They would make me sleep on the terrace at night as I wasn’t allowed to sleep inside. I would tell them I was afraid of sleeping outside but they would scold and hit me. So I would take God’s name and try to fight off my fear.”
Shahnawaz, 9, from Quetta, addressed the commoditisation of children in our society saying, “I dislike this work. I hate washing dishes. I wash while standing. It gives me a backache. I tell my mother I want to go to school. She tells me to earn money first.”
The documentary features a few other children but while each child has a unique story, there is alarming overlap in the exploitation they face at the hands of their employers and parents.
Despite life beating them down on a daily basis, these children have still kept their hopes and dreams intact. Sumbul, 9, from Mardan, with a sparkle in her eyes said, “Education is life. I want to become a doctor. Then I will be able to treat poor people.”
But that day will only come when attitudes towards child labour are changed.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 3rd, 2011.