Domestic child labor: a crime of a broken society

Growing up I have always seen a masi coming to our house to clean and do laundry. As a matter of fact, most of our Punjabi language skills mature by passively listening to these massis talking. Our masi, let’s call her ‘Cheemaan’, gave birth to a child every year. She often brought her daughters to work with her. Each year when she was gone to deliver a new baby we had to go with a new masi.

Most of these women have young children, often daughters who go home after home and work with them. After a while we moved to a new area and new faces came to clean houses. Then people started to hire full time live-in maids. These maids are young girls who were making money living in people’s house and sending it back home to their family. Some of these kids’ families live in a far away village some lived just a few miles away. All these children started work before they turned fourteen.

In Pakistan and India, it’s very common to have a live-in house maid or a domestic laborer. It is an industry on its own. A typical domestic worker’s house will have a good for nothing husband who in most cases doesn’t work, sleeps all day, smokes pot or heroin at night, beats his wife to get money for drugs and often rapes her. Women are the main bread winners of the family and they often have to put up with all kinds of domestic abuse. They bare a lot of children for the reasons as I am told; the more children they have the more people in the house will be earning.

Most of these child domestic female workers are either sexually abused or lured into giving  sex to the owner or his son  going through puberty in exchange of an imported shampoo. Older men aren’t far behind these horny young boys.  I remember a little girl of one of those masis working in the neighborhood got pregnant as a result of possible rape from the boys in one of the houses.  She was barely in her early teens. She didn’t know any better except that she is throwing up a lot and very sleepy all the time. I still remember her half passed out weak body in a corner while her mother making excuses of her “sickness.”

I recently saw this news aired by Dunya TV about an eleven year old child named Umme Rubab who is a domestic laborer and was reportedly severely beaten and tortured by a government official’s wife for only five thousand rupees per month. She was tortured repeatedly so much that her eyes were closed shut due to swelling. Last year, another ten year old Iram was beaten to death. Fizza and Batool are two other female children who were sent to houses as maids and they were reportedly tortured and abused. Some of these kids died as a result, some taken back and sent to new houses. Pakistan 2013 Human Rights report by US State department confirms abuse on children working in the houses.

What happened to Umme Rubab isn’t just a random crime that just happened to happen and was caught by the media. It has been happening for years. The Institute of social justice reported 29 child house workers’ deaths in 4 years from torture.

Constitution of Pakistan prohibits child labor: “no child below the age of fourteen years shall be engaged in any factory or mine or any other hazardous employment.” Supreme Court of Pakistan has declared child domestic labor illegal and unconstitutional as a form of slavery. There also have been a few attempts by some of the provincial cabinets to adopt some regulations against the issue time and again when civil society raised their voice but nothing concrete has been done to protect these children. A report by United States Department of Labor shows worst form of child labor in many different industries including domestic workers. According to the International Labor Organization "Child labor refers to the employment of children in any work that deprives children of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful.”  A situation that is screaming illegality from every angle is so common in Pakistan that it seems legal. More than half of Pakistan is involved in this heinous crime.

Kids are being sent to strangers for work by the parents and are getting employed by people in exchange for monthly salary. Both parties are the partners in crime. The parents of these domestic workers have an excuse of poverty. Being poor is not an excuse to send your kids away to get abused and raped or even do every day chores. They wash dishes, do laundry, iron the clothing and they are the first ones accused of theft if anything is lost including a cup of sugar or flour. 

There is a simple solution to this: do not make so many babies that you cannot feed. Kids are working in the houses, baking bricks in the kilns, tightening nuts and bolts in some auto workshop, weaving rugs and carpets with their tiny little hands. Such abuse of children and laws can only happen in Pakistan. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The society feeds on power and control over others. There is power and control through fear and submission everywhere. From religion to buying a pair of shoes, every single action by the people is conditioned upon Saza and Jaza (Punishment and reward).  It’s time we except the fact that this concept has failed miserably and instead we live in a society where rape, domestic abuse, murder, forcible marriages, (dis)honor killings are common every day news. The society today is not suitable for children of any age.

When we talk about abuse against child domestic workers, we don’t discuss the reasons behind such abuse. We condemn the act while the maid is ordered to bring a garam garam cup of chai. Each domestic worker employed in the house, whether a child or a good ole’ massi ji, it is  made sure that it’s very clear to them that they are less of a human being and that it is ok to treat them differently.  We pay them to work of course and give them left over food but they cannot sit with us or eat in our dishes. I asked my mother this question and she said “beta because they are dirty.”

But mom, dishes can be washed, and they wash our dishes. The problem we can’t seem to get rid of is that we do not treat other people as we like ourselves to be treated.  It has become a second nature; even house workers are used to it and they know the rules.  There is simple formula “would you ever treat your own child that way or would you want your child to be treated the way Umme Rubab or other kids are treated?”  

Fredrick Douglas said “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” We as a broken society are raising irreparable broken men and women and each and every one of us is guilty of this crime.

Mona Hassan is HCMA (Humanist & Cultural Muslim Association) Communications Manager and Human Rights Activist; Author “Barely Legal”. Follow her on Twitter

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