For Children, From Youth – An Open Letter To Minister Shireen Mazari
Most conversations about young people are like a pendulum swinging between extremes. Romanticized for our transformative potential and criticized for our passivity, Pakistani youth resides in a tumultuous space where many pin hopes and dreams, but few pause to engage with the complexities. Our inaction disappoints but does not push people nearly enough to understand what makes young citizens so aware and yet so ‘inactive’? A simple answer is perceived disinterest. Though if we dig deeper, we realize it is not so much cavalier disregard but a pragmatic surrender to the things-that-will-never change. This widening distance between leaders and young citizens troubles few because the worth of proximity is unknown. Oscillating between the discomforts of silence and the futility of questioning, young people take the back-seat as they recognize that sometimes to live, we must forget. But some incidents compel us to go beyond the comforts of collective amnesia, resist the languages and truths we know too well, and hope a little more. We write this letter with that little more hope.
Dear Mrs. Shireen Mazari,
We turn to you today to express our concern at the state of children’s rights and child labour in Pakistan. Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of child labourers in the world; an estimated 12 million as of 2018. A long list of incidents and a distressing record of loss reveals the deplorable working conditions and abusive environments child laborers face; in particular, children working as domestic help.
On May 8, 2020, an eight-year-old domestic child laborer by the name of Zohra Shah, was physically abused and subsequently murdered by her employers for mistakenly releasing two parrots from a cage. Prior to this incident, her bodily autonomy was consistently violated, and her abuse was documented by her employers. Although this event generated some outrage, such cases do not feel unusual anymore. It was only in December 2016 that we were last appalled by the case of Tayabba, the 10-year old child domestic worker who was rescued from her residence with severe injuries on her face, hands, and feet. There are far too many names unknown and stories untold that get buried in the abyss of children’s plight in Pakistan. But none of these are isolated incidents.
As the Minister of Human Rights, you have vowed to uphold the dignity of all human life. Irrespective of the devolution of powers and practices to provinces, for young people, the onus to control the narrative is on your Ministry. As we seek justice for Zohra, we must move beyond our tendency to limit accountability to the individual, and pay heed to the system that makes such degeneracy comfortable and on-going. Your commitment to remedying this injustice must also reveal a commitment to ensuring systematic reform that prevents the incidence of such brutalities against children in the future. We cannot keep applying bandages; we must pivot to prevent the cuts.
We offer a few suggestions to traverse issues around children’s protection:
1. Revise Article 11(3) of the constitution to raise the legal-working age and include domestic labour as formal work. An amendment to the Employment of Children Act (1991) will have little-to-no impact on provinces. The multiplicity of definitions of ‘child’ across legislature will continue to complicate implementation and regulation. The constitutional article should be amended to ensure consistency and compliance with a defined code of the working conditions, hours, wages, that are stipulated under a written contract for all workers.
2) Operationalize the National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC) to effectively collaborate with provincial bodies for improved legislation and implementation. No legislative change will matter much till it’s not supported by targeted programs on-ground that are followed and regulated. The NCRC must push provincial labor laws to conform to definitions and parameters, and have operational committees with actionable short-term agendas. While most provinces have passed some child protection legislation, the relevant departments are far from equipped to take necessary measures for children’s wellbeing and safety. A structured and cohesive child protection program that attends to the dire conditions of shelter homes; includes robust accountability checks for inspection officers; and facilitates continuous development of frontline officers, especially those with Child Protection Units, must be at the forefront of NCRC’s agenda. This agenda should go beyond meetings and documents to engage with local governments for effective implementation.
3) Increase Public Service Messaging on TV, print, radio, and internet to spread awareness about domestic child labour and abuse. For issues as deeply entrenched as children’s maltreatment, a sustained commitment to awareness is vital. Short-lived campaigns that do not penetrate long-standing ways of thinking will yield very little. Constant public TV messaging that reiterates a zero-tolerance policy for maltreatment and compels citizens to report all cases of child work and abuse must be adopted. For a country with one of the highest known youth bulge, we recommend engaging young citizens to initiate a country-wide campaign that highlights issues of child maltreatment, and tips the conversation towards education and safety.
There is no cheap ticket to change. But, there must be an impetus to go beyond superfluous quick-fixes; to take on the tough conversations and undertake the frustrating albeit necessary work of changing mores by truly engaging the citizenry. We have little doubt that you will continue to push for Zohra’s justice, but you need to do more. You must push for the kind of justice that transcends one case and propels the kind of systematic change that has the potential to alter our course as a nation. You must push the paper to practice.
The author is a Masters candidate in the International Education Development program at the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked in the education sector and helped manage schools in rural Sindh, Malir, and Lyari, for over four years. Currently, she also works as a part-time education consultant.