The attitude in Pakistan towards child labour is a hypocritical one; everyone collectively (and rightfully so) raised a hue and cry when ten-year-old Tayyaba was found physically abused in the home of the additional sessions judge Raja Khurram Ali Khan, yet daily we encourage these innocent souls to keep on servicing us through various means. These children of a lesser God have been providing comfort, an ego boost and embellishing the status symbol of the middle and upper classes by performing menial jobs for them for decades.
Whether it is the chotu helping lift groceries upstairs for someone, the flower seller running from car to car on a traffic signal, or the girl-child nanny taken to weddings to tend after rich babies and babas, their mere existence makes us all a part of the system that continually abuses their younger years and robs them of their innocence. We are all guilty of the charge, having contributed towards their despair every time we have made a payment for any of their services.
The general attitude in society towards the offspring of the economically downtrodden is a discomforting one; these kids are viewed primarily as unwanted creatures whose parents couldn’t exercise self-control and neither have the means to provide for them. “Bachay Allah ki dein hotay hain”(Children are a gift of God) is a phrase we often hear in Pakistan but the lower classes, and their offspring are exempt from such blessings. Homes with child-maids will ensure that the under aged domestic worker does not spend too much time watching TV; she will be sent to the store frequently as the kids of the house watch endless hours of cartoon network. Most people believe in human rights but only when it concerns them or their own. Child labour is often seen as a necessary evil, but these are just excuses to hide our own laziness, to move around the house. Hence people do not hesitate to ask a poor kid to dust their cars off every day before they zoom off to the office.
Live-in under aged domestic workers get no time off; there is always something to be bought, chopping to be done, scum to be scraped off waiting for them. Not every house that employs them abuses them physically, but these homes invariably become training grounds that teaches child labourers a stern lesson in the class division. The unequal distribution of money is what keeps our society going, and in these homes, these little angels learn to kill their dreams one night at a time and submit to their ‘fate’-living forever with a sense of inferiority.
Very few Pakistani homes can claim that they let their house staff (adult or otherwise) use the same cutlery as the members of the family. When these workers sit down to eat, at the end of the day, in some corner of the kitchen, they pour their daal and rice on old plates with fractures and dented steel glasses. This is a common practice that people do not object to, it establishes and reinforces boundaries between us and ‘them’, besides imparting a feeling of superiority in the maalik (owner).
It is no secret that domestic child labour is rampant in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia. Countries that offer little or no fundamental human rights are dotted with residential spaces muffling the cry of a child who should have been in school and not washing dishes by the basin. The easiest way to exercise personal power is by oppressing the powerless; the wife of Additional sessions judge Mrs Maheen Zafar unleashed her frustration on Tayyaba in a similar fashion. The scars on her face may heal, but the psychological injury will not subside easily. Tayyaba and millions of Pakistani kids will always walk around with the knowledge that they are not equals, not in our society, not in this country, built ironically on the basis of Islam which has no room for prejudice or a human hierarchy.
Some of these child-maids will grow up in the household and remained unmarried, serving family members endlessly who become too dependent on them. If by a stroke of luck, they do get married, their kids will then be expected to be subservient in the house of the ‘maalik’ forever. The children of the once-child maid will now be expected to sit on the floor, fetch a glass of water or move things around. There is no escaping this kind of bonded labour; as a child, I recall (regrettably so) being mean to the kids of the maid who accompanied their mother while she cleaned our house. On some days, they were my playmates and on other days I ordered them around, that made me feel better about my own inadequacies at that time. I was able to get away with it because no one blinked an eye and also because it is ok to be a little mean to the those with less moolah in their pockets and more burden on their shoulders.
Tomorrow, when a new story hits the stands, we shall forget about this Tayyaba and the woes of child labour, reserving our outrage on the issue for another Tayyaba of the future. It is a privilege to be alive; so many toddlers don’t make it beyond fiveyears of age. The onus lies on us to make sure every kid realises his or her potential and does not languish in situations detrimental to their well-being. In today’s Pakistan, we aren’t just preparing a force of future doctors, engineers and businessmen in our homes, we are also readying a large group of servants, that will serve us at the snap of a finger.
The writer is a freelance columnist with a degree in Cultural Studies and a passion for social observation, especially all things South Asian. She tweets @chainacoffeemug