Torture & young domestic workers
They are everywhere and they are nowhere. If you step into a home in an affluent or even almost affluent suburb in Karachi or Lahore or Islamabad or Multan, you will likely be handed a drink by one of them, see them sweeping the floor or washing the dishes.
If you shop at a mall or at a market, you will see them, trailing beautifully dressed and impeccably coiffed women and holding their babies or pushing strollers.
If you go to a restaurant you will see them sitting by the family that employs them, a family that is usually laughing and chatting and eating. They will be simply watching even if they themselves are never seen. The little girls who work as maids in Pakistan’s households do the dirty work of the country’s wealthy, pacing endlessly with their crying children, delivering fresh chapattis their guests like to eat, cleaning the bathrooms, collecting their garbage.
For these favours they are paid a pittance, money that they never see, that is delivered into the hands of fathers or brothers who have, for all intents and purposes, sold them into service.
None of this is new or news and when the actual suffering and real tears of these children have failed to awaken a nation, this column cannot hope to do so. As 2016 drew to a close, we heard the terrible tale of Tayyaba, one young domestic worker who had been tortured at the home of a judge in Islamabad. The judge’s wife had allegedly burnt her hand over a missing broom and then locked her into a storage room. By a small miracle, and I call it that because it happens so rarely, a neighbour of the judge called the authorities, telling them about the mistreatment of the child.
Quite a case must have been made because the police, usually so apathetic, showed up and lodged an FIR against the judge. A case was registered and hearings began and then Tayyaba’s luck ran out. A man who was Tayyaba’s biological father appeared in court and told the judge that he ‘forgave’ the judge and his wife for torturing his child and that he had no objection if they were released on bail.
To some who read about it, this act was astounding but it should not have been. Men who sell their children into the service of villains are unlikely to be affected by the evils visited upon them. It is a financial transaction and a little girl is worth nothing if her employers are in jail.
Last week, new cases of tortured female domestic workers, one in Multan and another in Islamabad, were revealed. In the case from Islamabad, a 12-year-old girl alleged that she had not been permitted to go home for a visit for four years, that she was tortured with hot knives and beaten with leather belts. A case was registered against her employers.
In the second case from Multan, a 10-year-old girl who worked as a maid ran away from the house of her alleged employer to a vocational institute in Shalimar Colony. As in Tayyaba’s case, this child also allegedly worked in the home of a public servant, a Union Council chairman. The women at the vocational training institute where the child ran to, called the area councillor who asked them to keep the child with them until the parents came to collect her or the employers promised not to hurt her.
The second will likely be quite easily procured. Promises mean little in Pakistan; promises involving little girls working as maids are worth nothing, easily made and even more easily broken. They are the sort of details that give cover to a vast conspiracy of hypocrisy that enables the continued abuse of children, particularly female children, at the hands of the educated class.
What is happening in the homes of judges and council members is occurring also in the homes of doctors and engineers, feudal lords and urban businessmen. In many homes, the birth of a child means the purchase of one of these girls, who despite being a child herself is entrusted with the menial tasks related to the newborn. In others, young girls are procured to satisfy the illicit sexual appetites of the males of the household. Everybody knows what is going on; nobody says a thing.
Little is likely to change, not least because the rationalisations that Pakistani society has constructed to deflect blame from itself are strong and nearly impenetrable. Those who are actually beating and torturing young girls in their homes will not spare the time to read this or any similar exhortation that pokes at their dormant conscience.
The lesser offenders, the sahibs and begum sahibas at the malls and markets and in stately homes and fancy restaurants, will absolve themselves, making the glib comparison that by giving these girls a roof over their heads, their old clothes and throwaway food, they are themselves saints, saving these girls from worse lives. It does not occur to them that a life slightly better than the absolute worst is not a good life, that employing a child who should receive love and care and schooling is still exploiting that child.
Some hope for change may be located in shame. With cameras available on most mobile phones, those who see these children at work while their grownup employers shop, eat, laugh and have a good time should take pictures and make a record of just how callous they are to the plight of the children they employ. Disseminating these images on social media and deliberately shaming the people who refuse to stop exploiting and victimising the children of the poor may be the only way to stop the abuse and torture of these little girls