LAHORE, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Amina Rasheed remembers one incident in particular.
Almost six weeks ago the 12-year-old was locked up in the kitchen of her employer, her feet shackled to a chair and her hands chained to a table. Her employer, whose pot-belly pushed against his thin belt as he bent down to pick up a stick, proceeded to hit her on each finger–twice–until her screams turned into cries and then whimpers. Blood poured from her nails and the thin skin over her fingers broke out into ugly wounds. The sleeves of the yellow shalwar kameez she was wearing were soon soaked in blood and tears and Amina says she wept through most of the night.
Her fault: She had been too slow in cleaning up the house.
“This wasn’t the first time they beat me up,” she said, sitting in a cramped room at the office of a social welfare organization in Sheikhupura, a town located about 45 kilometers from Lahore, and fidgeting with the end of the scarf covering her head as she spoke. “Whenever I would get tired, they would pick up a stick or a belt or anything they could find to hit me.”
Amina had been sent by her parents to work without wages for a family of four near her home; her labor was repayment for a loan. It was her first job, and when her mother went to drop her off at her employer’s house, Amina whimpered and clung to her, unwilling to let go of her tattered chador.
“I kept crying because I didn’t want to stay away from my family,” she said, speaking in Urdu and sniffing loudly as tears rolled down her cheeks. “I wanted to play with my friends and neighbors but my mother insisted I stay at this strange house.”
Neighbors Helped Her Escape
Amina ended up staying at her employer’s house for almost a year. Her escape came when neighbors called the police, worried about the sound of a child’s wails. When police broke in, they found her imprisoned in a cramped bathroom, her hands and feet tied and blood seeping from a wound in her scalp.
At Dar-ul-aman, the social welfare organization she was taken to by police, supervisor Faiqa Ashraf was shocked by her condition. “I don’t remember when I saw a child so neglected and so badly abused,” she said. “She was like an animal who had just been released from imprisonment.”
Ashraf remembers various marks on the girl’s body. She had long, snake-like purplish brown bruises on her back and her arms were severely bruised. Her fingers had swollen up and become unshapely, while her nails were smothered in clotted blood. Open wounds on her scalp were still bleeding.
When asked about her wounds, Amina said her employer would routinely pull her hair and hit her over her head with shoes or other bulky objects. “Whenever I would get tired or take too long to finish a task, my master would start to beat me up. But what could I do? I was alone and had to take care of a family of four.”
She Was a Loan Payment
After the police intervened, Amina’s employer was arrested and taken to the local police station. A television station did a short story on the case and the employer said Amina’s parents had taken a loan of about $625 from him and their daughter’s labor was supposed to pay him back. He also called Amina lazy. But other than the TV spot, her case didn’t create headlines or much of a furor.
Such stories are extremely common here and rarely draw attention, according to I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a nonprofit group headquartered in Lahore.
“In the homes of rich people in Pakistan, abuse of young girls is an everyday occurrence,” he said. “A vast majority of these girls are subjected to sexual violence while others are beaten up right, left and center. The worst part is that these women rarely if ever complain because they badly need these jobs and the earnings that come with them.”
Amina says she was never sexually abused during her ordeal. A court is still deciding whether or not she should be returned to her parents.
In any shopping mall or restaurant in Lahore it’s easy to spot girls under the age of 12 accompanying toddlers and their mothers. Recently Women’s eNews asked one mother about the youngster with her. “I need someone with the energy to run after my child,” she said. “And I take good care for her.”
No Safeguards to Protect Her
Domestic workers are not registered in Pakistan and neither police stations nor the government has any record of the numbers of girls working as servants or their working conditions. Nongovernmental groups estimate that about 70 percent of domestic workers in Pakistan are female.
The Child Labor Act of 1991 makes it illegal for an employer to hire a child under the age of 15 years. However, Khalid Manzoor Butt, a researcher based in Lahore, says in all his years researching child abuse he has never encountered a single case where punishment was doled out.
At least 3 million children work in the country, according to a government survey taken in 1996, the most recent available. But this estimate is almost definitely low, says Butt. “This number only takes into account children working in the formal sector such as the carpet industry. Children working in homes largely go undocumented.”
“The law is that anyone found guilty of employing an under-age servant can be fined 2,000 rupees, or almost $280, or sent to prison for two years,” he said. “But such a punishment has probably never been doled out.”
One reason for that, he said, is because the legal process in Pakistan is extremely lengthy and convoluted, and it can take years to bring someone to trial.
In Amina’s case, her employer was released two weeks after being arrested. Under pressure from her family, Amina agreed not to press charges.
Nasir Khan is a freelance writer in Lahore, Pakistan.
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