By Zubeida Mustafa
- WHEN Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet, wrote his famous poem Pity the Nation he probably could not in his wildest dreams imagine the excesses a nation can commit against children, whose souls, according to him, “dwell in the house of tomorrow”. Had he sensed man’s brutality towards his own offspring, Gibran would have added, ‘Pity the nation that robs its children of their childhood’.
- The shocking murder of a child in Lahore allegedly by her employer is a small example of how Pakistan treats its children. According to Arshad Mahmood, a child’s rights activist, 24 children engaged in domestic labour have been killed in Pakistan since January 2010 when Shazia Masih was reported to have been brutally killed in the lawyer’s home where she worked.
- It must be noted that domestic labour is only one sector where children go to earn a living. Equally deplorable are the Worst forms of child labour as described by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) in two districts of Sindh — Tando Allahyar and Badin.
- Researched painstakingly by Zeenat Hisam and her team, these two slim volumes are eye-openers. They highlight the magnitude and various dimensions of child labour in these areas of Sindh. The idea is to keep the public focus on this problem and design interventions to eradicate child labour. The reports also identify the socio-economic factors that have created conditions in which hazardous forms of child labour thrive.
Invariably the areas where the incidence of child labour is high are poverty-stricken with few opportunities for income generation. In the districts of Tando Allahyar and Badin, literacy is low and people lack the skills and education to improve their lives. As such, the average monthly wages are barely half the national average (Rs5,000 in these two districts).
Unsurprisingly, parents are sending their children to work to supplement the family income. Many are engaged in hazardous occupations such as agriculture, transport, fishing, carpentry, auto repairs and waste collection.
The negative repercussions of such labour on the health and socio-psychological state of the child are recognised by families and the children themselves. This awareness in communities is something that is a phenomenon that did not exist before. For parents to feel embarrassed when explaining why their child has to work indicates a change in their ethos.
A stage will come when this embarrassment will change into anger, thus paving the ground for violent upheaval. Thus the Piler team discovered that children themselves did not like to work but were compelled to do so by their parents. Mothers and fathers were also unhappy about their children working but felt helpless in the face of poverty.
There was a marked preference for education but a categorical rejection of government schools which are considered to be incapable of teaching and grooming a child for employment. The children had dreams to become a ‘doctor, a teacher or an officer’. But denied the opportunity, they are resigned to their fates.
The Piler report proposes long-term and short-term interventions. The first asks for measures to improve income-generating projects to help alleviate poverty. That would reduce the compulsion for parents to send their children to work. As a short-term intervention, the study suggests that the government should improve the school system so that it creates an incentive for children to enrol as provided by Article 25-A of the Constitution. This article makes education free and compulsory for children from six to 16 years of age.
These are sound suggestions. They can be reinforced with some further measures. The government of Sindh is ostensibly spending billions on education. A Supreme Court Order of November 2013 informs us that the district of Badin has 2,897 schools of which 294 are ‘ghost’ schools and the annual budget for school education is Rs41.7 million. The Annual Status of Education Report [Aser] 2013 reports that these schools provide education to only 50pc of children aged six to 16. Their learning skills are dismal.
The situation in Tando Allahyar is worse. The district has 843 schools of which 40 are ‘ghost’ and the annual budget is Rs49.3m.The school enrolment is 51pc. Aser terms Sindh to be the worst in educational attainment.
This clearly shows that there is a heavy leakage of funds that can be plugged if the political will exists. This money can be channelled into compensatory stipends for children who give up work to attend school. According to the Piler report the younger, unskilled children earn as little as Rs40 per day which is a measly amount that can easily be generated if the so-called educationists who have sold their souls to the devil are brought to book. The link between low educational provisions and the high incidence of child labour is not coincidental. Only if the vicious cycle could be broken can we restore to our children their childhood.