The people of Pakistan were shaken abruptly by the news of Zohra Shah, an 8-year-old domestic worker who became a murder victim after being subjected to horrifying abuse by her employers, after she set their expensive parrots free. This tragic incident has come as an awakening for many Pakistanis, who have begun questioning what the legal minimum age should be for domestic workers. However, the real question we should be asking is whether we have done enough to bring justice for Zohra or whether we’ve let the dust settle on this case, like so many others before it.
Pakistan has child domestic labour deeply embedded within its culture; dozens of upper-class families hire children as young as 6 years old to do household chores or to take care of their own children, most of who are only a few years younger than the domestic workers. Under the guise of employment, these families exploit these children as it’s undoubtedly much easier to underpay and expect full obedience from impoverished children who are forced to seek work. Most of these children, who are encouraged by their parents to take up work due to their family’s circumstances, are mentally, physically or sexually abused by their employers, all of which more than often goes unreported due to these children not being fully aware of their rights, or due to fears of losing employment.
As a young person living in Pakistan, I believe that it is necessary to spread more awareness about child labour laws, namely the Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Act 2016 and the Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019. Under Section 3 of the latter, no child under the age of 15 years shall be allowed to work in a household in any capacity, and only children aged 15 to 18 years are allowed to do ‘light work’ (part-time in nature and unlikely to harm health, safety and education of a domestic worker). Despite the introduction of these laws, many Pakistanis are unaware of these regulations safeguarding the rights of children and hence, the exploitation of children as young as Zohra has continued to take place in many houses all over Punjab. In many cases, these employers simply refuse to acknowledge these laws, turning a blind eye to the laws in this country, in their efforts to continue violating the fundamental human rights of these children through such immoral practices.
Thus, it has become increasingly important to educate the citizens of Pakistan about these laws, as well as the rights the children have, including the right to be able to work under ‘dignified working conditions and occupational safety and health measures’ (Section 4, Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019). According to the Constitution of Pakistan, it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that all children under the age of 16 receive free and compulsory education. The government cannot possibly achieve this aim if it continues to allow individuals to employ child domestic workers during school hours. There are many cases in which children are kept as full-time workers, hindering them from being able to pursue education and directly violating their rights as both, children and workers.
This issue is worsened by the fact that most employers of children, when questioned about their choices, will try to justify their employment by arguing that they ‘treat the child like one of their own’, or that they’re ‘keeping the child out of poverty’. However, it is clear that these are mere excuses used to allow the upper class to take advantage of young children. Rather than being beneficial, the employment of young children can actually lead to lower self-esteems, fewer ambitions and a greater mental strain on them.
`Granted that these are challenging times due to Covid-19, I hope that Pakistan will still be able to fight for justice for this little girl, and with this case, will be able to highlight the dangers of child domestic labour. These vulnerable children, who are told to sit at different tables at restaurants and made to eat the families’ leftovers, have the right to live like actual children. They have the right to have access to free education and time to play, rather than have their time occupied by worries about other people’s children, houses, and parrots. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to what is present in plain sight; as Pakistanis, we need to take the responsibility to educate our friends and families about the horrible system of exploitation that child domestic labour has allowed. How many more Zohras will it take for the Pakistani nation to put an end to child domestic labour? When will Pakistan’s upper class stop exploiting children? When will our laws be enforced? When will there finally be true justice for Zohra and all those like her?
The writer is about to start her A’ Levels and has an interest in law and media studies. She has been working in community activities for the welfare of child domestic workers since 2016.