Ending Impunity For Child Abuse
After news surfaced of the horrific murder of a seven-year-old child employed as domestic helper in Rawalpindi, many came to know of the case as the “Zohra Shah” case. In reality, the young child who had been subjected to prolonged abuse and was eventually murdered was not Zohra but Zahra. An apt error considering the scale of child abuse in the country, where the practice is so rampant that one struggles with how to keep track.
It is common practice in Pakistan to employ children in domestic help. How many times have we come across the sight of an entire family eating at a restaurant, while their child maid sits outside, or at a separate table, hungry? The practice is so prevalent and accepted here as a cultural norm that many hold the genuine belief that the domestic employment of children is a favour being done to families living in abject poverty.
It is no favour to employ a child for work because that child has a right to education, leisure, development and a childhood in general. Employing children, whether in factories or in homes, is a deplorable and disgusting practice, which should have no place in the 21st century. It is a serious form of child abuse, which simply cannot be accepted as a cultural norm any longer – especially when children employed have been beaten, raped and murdered by their employers.
It is estimated that at least 200,000 children are employed in domestic help in Pakistan. In January 2019, Uzma, a 16-year-old child employed as a maid in Lahore was tortured and murdered by her employer after she helped herself to a small piece of meat. A year prior, in 2018, a 10-year-old child, Tayyaba, was abused and beaten by her employers (one of the employers was Judge Raja Khurram Ali).
These are cases that are eventually reported – the ones that see the light of day. Most cases are hushed up by paying families to stay silent. The same people that exploit the poverty of families to employ their children then also pay these families to keep quiet when their children are subjected to abuse and violence, or even killed. For instance, it was reported that a 13-year-old girl, Bano, who was working in Bahria Town in Rahim Yar Khan, was thrown out of a window by her employer, resulting in permanent damage to her backbone, eventually culminating in her death six months after the incident. The employer paid her father Rs. 300,000 to ‘settle’ the matter.
This is why due attention and public pressure in the Zahra Shah case becomes even more crucial in ensuring that strong precedents are set so that, on a first level, the employment of children as domestic help is brought to an end; and on a second level, those involved in the practice of child abuse are handed down penalties in accordance with the law.
What happened to Zahra shouldn’t happen to anyone, let alone a little child. Employed by Hasan Siddique in Rawalpindi, Zahra was taken to the hospital in a critical condition on 31 May this year. When Hasan Siddique brought her to the hospital, without an iota of shame, he disclosed to the hospital staff that Zahra set his parrots free from their cage because of which he and his wife beat her. Let that sink in – a seven-year-old child was murdered by a couple because some birds were set free.
While the trial in Zahra’s case has commenced, what has been revealed thus far during the proceedings is a shock to the system. Zahra’s family’s lawyers, Raza-ur-Rehman and Jaweria Rehman, informed the Court on the scale of abuse inflicted on Zahra, including the use of an iron rod to beat her. Additionally, Zahra was caged and filmed. She suffered severe injury to her vital organs, including her heart, lungs, voice box, trachea and brain. She also suffered severe head injuries, swelling of both her hands, bruises on her cheeks and thighs, and multiple scars on her back and chest. The medical report lays this out quite clearly and reading the same shakes one to the core considering the severity of torture inflicted on the little girl.
While the accused’s bail has been rejected due to the commitment and efforts of Zahra’s family and their lawyers, it is imperative that civil society keeps a close eye on the proceedings. The next date for the case is 29 October and attendance of as many NGOs and activists as possible is necessary to ensure public attention on the case to secure a strong precedent. This is a test case and accountability must be ensured.
Lastly, with respect to existing legislation across all provinces, there is an urgent need for amendments. Child labour, including employment of children in domestic help, must be explicitly prohibited across the country. There must be a zero tolerance policy for such practices, particularly keeping in view Pakistan’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which it has been a party since 1990.
The writer is a lawyer.