Zohra Shah's Murder Reminds Us Why Modern Slavery Needs To Be Abolished in Pakistan

Zohra Shah's Murder Reminds Us Why Modern Slavery Needs To Be Abolished in Pakistan
On June 1, a seven-year-old child domestic worker, Zohra Shah, was beaten to death by her employers. The child accidentally freed some caged parrots, which outraged her employers who worked in buying and selling exotic birds and real estate. The subsequent physical abuse which Zohra was subjected to only came to light after the employers carried her to a local hospital and then left her there. The hospital staff later reported the incident to the police and the employer couple was arrested.

The initial investigation determined that Zohra Shah, originally from Kot Addu, Muzaffargarh, was transported to Rawalpindi four months ago to look after the child of her employers. The Superintendent of Police, Mr. Ziauddin, told that Zohra was unconscious when she was brought to the hospital while bleeding and bearing marks of physical abuse. She was placed on life support but died in the early hours of 1st June.

Ziauddin added that the police have registered a case that include rape charges. Whether or not the victim was raped in addition to being beaten will be determined based on the forensic report.

This incident is not a first. Such brutality has occurred before. In February 2019, the body of a 16-year-old girl was found dumped in one of Lahore’s drains. The girl’s name was Uzma, and she was a domestic worker for a family living in the Iqbal Town area. Uzma was tormented and killed by her employers.  In another famous case, a girl named Tayyaba was rescued from judge Raja Khurram Ali Khan’s house in Islamabad on 28th December 2016. And no one can forget Shazia Masih’s tragic and cruel murder in January 2010 in Lahore.

“More than 140 cases of abuse, rape and murder of child domestic workers were reported in the media during the past ten years,” according to a report (published in January 2020) compiled by three civil society organizations namely the Hari Welfare Association (HWA), The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), and Institute for Social Justice (ISJ). The report further reveals that 96 children were raped and 44 murdered over the ten-year period. 79 percent of cases reported were from Punjab, 14 percent from Sindh, six percent from Islamabad and one percent from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Why things have remained the same is a complex question involving many factors. Child Domestic Labour is rampant throughout the country due to which children are silently but gravely abused and exploited inside boundary walls. Most cases of this nature are not reported in the media, rather they are swept under the carpet. This can be due to several reasons, including the regressive rationale that it is a matter of fact practice. Or in the case of sexual assault, to save face given its taboo nature.

To avoid such cases and make progress on the protection of children in Pakistan, the first step the Government of Pakistan should take is to align domestic law with international commitments. Protection of children is enshrined in Article 19 and Article 32 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), ratified by Pakistan 30 years ago. Article 19 reads, “States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse…”. Article 32 further protects the child by prohibiting any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.

Moreover, in 2001 Pakistan ratified the International Labour Organizations’s C182– Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention that recommends immediate and effective measures to prohibit and eliminate the worst forms of child labour. Child domestic work is recognized as modern slavery which falls under the category of one of the worst forms of labour. It further defines types of the worst labour which, by its nature or circumstances is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

As evidenced in Zohra’s brutal killing, reforms are necessary. Due to lack of seriousness on the part of federal and provincial governments, the issue of child domestic labour has not gained attention in the legislative assemblies. Child domestic labour should be added in the schedule of banned occupations under the Employment of Children Act (ECA) 1991 through official notification.

In the Punjab province, there is a list of hazardous jobs under 'The Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Act 2016'; but child domestic labour is not included in the hazardous working practices. According to the Child Rights Movement, 60 children were killed by their employers in last ten years while there were not as many deaths in any other hazardous industry. So, the recommendation from child rights activists is an evidence–based reform which advocates adding child domestic labour to the list of hazardous occupations.

Last year the Punjab government introduced The Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 but the law proved to be inadequate. It bans child domestic labour upto 15 years of age and allows light work for children above 15 to 18 years. Data show that children older than 15, especially girls, are abused as domestic workers. The government should not try to regulate slavery and the worst forms of child labour. Instead, it should be fully banned as envisaged in our constitution.

Looking at various laws related to child labour, age limits are often contradictory in regard to article 25A of the constitution of Pakistan which safeguards the right to free and compulsory education for all children up to 16 years. Present laws are not adequate or efficient but they also suffer from lack of implementation. Stronger legislation which clearly lays out rules, procedures, offenses and punishments will go a long way towards discouraging the practice. It is the state’s responsibility to improve safeguarding mechanisms and implement child protection policies in place. It is our demand that the present government should make tangible commitments, and build concrete policy frameworks and structures to protect the children of Pakistan.

Banning child domestic labour will make the employers and victim’s parents realize that such practice is against the law and it will give them the fear of legal repercussions. Authorities will be able to take action against employers and parents who have subjected their young children to such form of labour. An extensive awareness raising campaign by civil society groups would help reduce the number of incidents by alerting communities about the consequences of employing innocent children and risking their lives.

Lastly, it is not just the government’s duty to ensure the safety of the children of Pakistan; it is in-fact the duty of each and every employer, parent and citizen to make sure that the children enjoy all their rights with no exceptions. A cultural understanding and sensitivity to children’s rights is certainly required. As we demand justice for Zohra, we must not forget that our denial of children’s rights in general has contributed to their increased vulnerability to abuse. Our silence in response to these brutal cases would indicate the moral decay of our society and the inability of the state to fulfil its mandate under the Constitution.

The writer is a human rights activist and trainer with a focus on UN Mechanism and Child Rights. She works with Sanjog and is Executive Body Member of Child Rights Movement Punjab. She can be reached at nabila_feroz@hotmail.com. She tweets @NabilaFBhatti