In recent months stories in the Pakistani media of horrendous abuse suffered by some children engaged in domestic work have focused attention on their plight.
In Karachi, the capital of the southern province of Sindh, this month, 14-year-old Muhammad Zafar was rescued by police after neighbours reported the boy had been kept shackled at the home of his employers. He had also not been paid wages for some 19 months.
“His employers told us he had stolen gold items, and we could not see him or take him away till these had been paid for,” Zafar’s mother, Parveen Bibi, told IRIN.
She said the boy had been sent out to work as the family was very poor.
At a busy fast-food outlet in Karachi, several small girls watch over children they are paid to “mind”. Their charges are in many cases barely a few years younger than themselves. In houses across cities, it is common to see children sweeping floors, washing dishes or performing other kinds of work.
They are a part of the child labour force, which consists, according to official figures, of three million children under 18. Of these, according to a 2003 survey in six major cities by the government’s Commission for Child Welfare and Development, 8 percent are engaged as domestic workers.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) puts the number of children working in the domestic sector at 264,000, according to a 2004 report.
“The abuse of children who work as domestic labourers is under-reported. These children are often trafficked from rural areas of Sindh and the Punjab, and brought to cities to work. As such they have no one to watch over them and are vulnerable to violence,” Salam Dharejo, national manager at the Child Labour for the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child NGO, told IRIN.
He said this year they had documented six cases of death among child domestic workers as a result of violence inflicted on them.
It is believed that rising inflation is forcing families to send their children out to work. “Hardship for almost all families is increasing because food is more expensive,” Sikander Lodhi, an economic analyst, told IRIN.
According to the Consumer Price Index of the Federal Bureau of Statistics, annual inflation was running at 15.37 percent in November 2010. Food price inflation is a key factor in this trend.
“Poverty is a huge factor in people sending children out to work, or selling them to those who use them as labour. The recent floods have also brought an increase in child labour, as people who came into cities after being displaced from poverty-stricken districts in Sindh and the southern Punjab saw opportunities to obtain employment for children in urban households,” Dharejo said.
“My ten-year-old daughter now works in a big house, looking after a two-year-old and doing some cleaning chores. I worry about her constantly,” Saadia Bibi, 40, told IRIN.
Torture, sexual abuse
She has good reason to worry. Last month, in the southern Punjab city of Multan, a child the same age working as a maid was brutally tortured because her employers believed she was possessed by evil spirits.
There have been other allegations of torture involving child maids although in the high profile case of 12-year-old Shahzia Masih, whose employer was accused of her murder in January this year, a court in November acquitted him of the charges.
Mistreatment of child domestic workers, according to the limited research available, is widespread.
Sexual abuse is not uncommon either. According to the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA), comprising a group of organizations working against the harassment of women in the workplace, 91 percent of female domestic workers say they have suffered sexual abuse.
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