The angry condemnations and calls for justice are tapering off about the abuse case of Rizwana, the child domestic servant. It is time to focus on the real problem which is the crimes of child trafficking, child labour, child abuse, and modern-day slavery – there is no need to deny that we are unaware, it is happening all the time around us.
Every time news of abuse of a child (minor) domestic servant (slave) emerges society erupts with rage. But we keep hiring children to work in our homes in exchange for money, food, clothing, a decent place to live, and education. These magnanimous promises are made to the child’s parents or the middle party who deals in providing minors to work as domestic servants.
Society condones hiring children, thinking that they are being charitable in providing a child with better living conditions. Not for a minute do these magnanimous people ever consider that the child is a victim of trafficking of persons, inadvertently supporting a crime.
Hiring children as domestic servants and making them do constant labour; severe verbal or physical abuse from the employers are crimes. Add isolating young children from their families for long periods of time which is not only cruel but an easy way to keep the child vulnerable and servile.
These children are brought to work as domestic servants sometimes by parents but mostly by a middle party for a commission. They openly indulge in trafficking in persons without fear.
Rizwana is not the only victim
Child domestic workers is a term that tries to make this crime sound to be legitimate. There is nothing legal about hiring minors to work and it wouldn’t be wrong if this was included in child abuse and child slavery. Most of these children are mistreated, even tortured, by employers.
Not one of these employers wants to know why children as young as 5-6 years are being separated from their mothers. For them, it is a lucrative deal, cheap labour available 24/7 – low cost and maintenance.
Children like Rizwana are left with their employers for long periods of time without any interaction with their families. The disconnect from family makes the child vulnerable and soft targets until they are allowed back to their family, they escape or are killed, as we have seen in the past.
Tayyaba, a 10-year-old maid, worked as a maid at a judge’s house in Islamabad. The judge’s wife beat and tortured her. Two brothers 11 and 6 years worked as domestic workers in Lahore. The children ate food from the refrigerator for which they were tortured. Kamran, 11 years, died of the injuries, and six-year-old Rizwan survived.
Now, 14-year-old Rizwana has been tortured by Somia, the wife of civil judge Asim Hafeez. No one knows what transpired in the judge’s house, Somia and Asim deny beating the minor domestic helper. However, Rizwana’s injuries tell a horrific story. She is currently hospitalised in critical condition.
Reportedly, Somia Asim said she always treated Rizwana like her own children! Authorities should investigate to ascertain whether the civil judge’s children are all right.
As Rizwana fights for her life, thousands of minor children are working and being recruited as domestic help all over the country.
Child servants in high demand
There is no shortage of minors available for domestic workers/slaves between the ages of 5-16 years. They are cheap and low maintenance, and easily manageable – this as has been seen many times, means beating and torturing them to submission or worse.
The local ‘head hunters’ aka traffickers can easily place minor children in domestic work. With more than 22.8 million (the unofficial number is 30 million) children out of school (UNICEF 2022) there is a non-stop flow of such workers. Lower-income groups are all too willing to place their child in a better house where they think their child will be provided the basics like food, clothing, a roof over the head and even education. Sometimes things don’t turn around as they envisioned, and end up losing a lot.
Many people hire children to work around the house believing they are helping the family, without thinking that the child is too young to work. They are knowing or unknowingly contributing to child labour and abuse.
An ILO study conducted in 2022 ("Paving the way to combat child labour in domestic work') revealed that one in every four households in Pakistan employs a child in domestic work, predominantly girls, aged 10 to 14 years. This may mean there will be more cases of Rizwanas and Tayyabas and Kamrans – some of these stories may make it to the media but the majority won’t. The stream of minor workers supplied as domestic workers will continue unabated.
Ignorantia legis non excusat
Common people are usually ignorant about laws but as the maxim goes ignorance of the law is not an excuse (ignorantia juris non excusat). The cases of Rizwana and Tayyaba are more serious as both children were working as domestic help at the homes of judges who are custodians of the law. It is their job to know the constitution and law.
Surely, the honourable judges are aware of Article 25(1) of the Pakistani Constitution that states “all citizens are equal before law and entitled to equal protection of law”.
Article 11(3) of the Constitution of Pakistan prohibits forced labour; Section 3 of the Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019 and the Islamabad Capital Territory Domestic Workers Act, 2022 prohibits children under the ages of 15 (Punjab) and 16 (ICT) from working in a household in any capacity.
Also, the UN’s Article 37(a) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “no child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. And Article 3 of ILO Convention No. 182 child labour as any work that is “mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or interferes with their schooling by: depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.”
Unpacking the cruelty to child servants
Generally, people believe that violence against children is committed only by men and that women are not as violent as men. However, this is not always the case.
As Dr. Ashar Bedar, a clinical psychologist, said,
“Men generally commit more violence, whether it's against other men, women, children, transgenders, animals or on property. However, when it comes to verbal or physical violence against domestic staff, we are seeing cases of women as abusers too.”
Echoing this, Falak Zehra Mohsin, a psychologist said, “Women generally tend to take out their frustration on kids especially househelp as they are weaker. Women are more emotional and hence not physically as violent but can show the violence to those weaker than them.”
Replying to why so many cases of women beating and torturing children are emerging, Dr. Asha said, “This is because firstly, household functions and responsibilities are generally considered a woman's domain, so she has more dealings and control over domestic staff,” Dr. Asha added. “For many Pakistani women domestic staff is the one relationship in which they have some power, in their otherwise powerless lives. So, all the agitation, frustration and unexpressed anger they feel as a result of that powerlessness finds space here, on helpless (minors + girls) domestic staff.”
“It allows them to feel powerful and to play out their anger and aggression which cannot be displayed elsewhere,” Dr, Asha Bedar said.
Does this mean when anyone gets power, they will misuse it?
Dr Ashar Bedar said, “Well to me the culprit is not in power as such but the interplay between absolute power and powerlessness. It's because the women feel powerlessness in society/other relationships that they feel this uncontrolled rage and which can only be displayed towards someone seen as more powerless than them.”
How to protect Rizwanas and Tayyabas?
There are many laws to protect the rights of Pakistani citizens, the only problem is the lack of awareness to be used to provide relief to the aggrieved.
Commenting on the torture case of 13-year-old Rizwana, Syed Kausar Abbas, Executive Director of Sustainable Social Development Organization (SSDO) said, “Torture of a 13 year by a civil judge’s wife in Islamabad is a serious violation of the rights of children.”
“An FIR registered under section 506, section 342, section 328 A & section 324 of the Pakistan Penal Code which can affect the prosecution & conviction of the case. This case is purely a case of Trafficking in Persons & bonded labour and should be dealt under the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act 2018,” Kausar said.
Kausar added that the police registered the case under Pakistan Penal Code but should also incorporate an FIR of trafficking in persons under Sections 3 and 4 of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act 2018 (PTPA 2018) in Rizwana’s torture case is an important step to ensure justice. “These sections have not been added but the good news is that the Home Department has written a letter to the Ministry of Interior asking that Section 3 be added.” Kausar added.
He added that there are thousands of victims of child labour & trafficking in Pakistan which are unaddressed by the relevant stakeholders in Pakistan. “There is a need to apply Trafficking in Persons laws on these issues.”
He said, “SSDO has offered free legal aid to the victim and will be fighting the case of the victim in court.”
Kausar said the state institutions need to stand with Rizwana and take all proactive measures to protect the victim and ensure strong conviction in the case.
“Despite having laws related to child domestic labour and trafficking in persons, there is a serious concern over the implementation of these laws,” Kausar said.
He said Pakistan has the opportunity to make Rizwana’s torture case as an example to show the world that Pakistan is committed to addressing the issue of trafficking in persons and bonded labour in the country. Calling on the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Kausar said he should take suo moto notice of this case and ensure conviction within days.
Cases like Rizwana and Tayyaba are only the tip of violence against minors in Pakistan. It is important to keep these cases highlighted so that authorities take serious actions and conviction is made to begin the process to protect as many children as possible.