The year is 2020. We have rules. We have laws. Yet we have children who live in cages — who are enslaved. The news of a minor domestic worker’s death after being beaten and tortured by her employers for letting “expensive pet parrots escape from their cage” sent chills down everyone’s spine. It also made one’s blood boil over the callousness of the employers who had employed an eight-year-old girl at their house to ‘take care’ of their infant. And then they killed her over a small mistake. Is the cost of a poor minor ‘housemaid’ worth nothing compared to pet parrots no matter how ‘expensive’ they may be?
Zohra Shah’s employers – who were arrested soon afterwards – did not just kill the child but also recorded the girl being tortured on cell phones recovered by the authorities. One video reportedly shows the minor girl locked up in a large birdcage as a form of punishment. Did the couple think locking up a child in a cage was okay at some level? Are we human beings or barbarians?
It shows another side of our society as well: we all know someone who has employed minors at their homes. We usually turn a blind eye to this ‘slavery’ because they are not our own children. They are children of the poor – people who have no choice but to let their children work for strangers just so they can make ends meet. Even if we don’t condone such practices, we don’t condemn them either – at least not vocally. We outrage at the latest incident of a minor domestic worker but soon we will forget her name. Until the next incident. And the cycle continues.
Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari says that domestic child labour should be declared hazardous under the Employment of Children Act 1991, as this is “the quickest way to protect children in the absence of a proper law to protect domestic labour”. This is a short-term solution. We need proper child labour reforms. Declaring domestic child labour ‘hazardous occupation’ may help to some extent but when the law already says that children under 14 years of age cannot be employed and we see children younger than that working around us, how will it benefit the children? How will it ensure that children are not losing their childhood because the state failed to ensure their rights?
Pakistan is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but children from lower-income groups have no rights whatsoever it seems. The impunity with which Zohra Shah was tortured and subsequently killed by her employers shows that the rich and powerful think they can get away with anything, even if it’s taking away someone’s life. How will we ensure justice for an eight-year-old girl who was born to a family so poor that they did not have the money for an ambulance that could take the body back to their village and to arrange a funeral?
‘Justice for Zohra’ does not mean punishing the couple who beat her to a pulp, subsequently leading to her death, but it means that we make sure there are no more Zohras in Pakistan. That we make sure an end to the practice of minors being employed in private households, that we ensure children get their basic right to education and do not lose their childhoods enslaved in cages, both literally and metaphorically.