Child abuse among child labourers in Pakistan: New research reveals a critical situation for minorities
Child abuse is one of the most shameful and despicable existing human rights violations. Violence against children is nowadays a significant global public health concern, and it has to be considered as such (Elliot, 2017). Researches report that one billion children worldwide, aged 2–17 years, experience some form of violence annually (Hillis, 2016). Moreover, violence is a complex phenomenon, and it can be, at times, challenging to determine when a specific behaviour becomes abusive or violent. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either result in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation” (WHO, 2018). This violence can include deprivation or emotional, physical, or sexual harm to the victim (WHO, 2017). One in every four adults underwent at least one form of violence during childhood, and about 12% of children were sexually abused in 2017 alone. Furthermore, about 90% of the global deaths due to violence occurred in low and middle-income countries (WHO, 2018).
Pakistan has a high frequency of violence, although this is negligently underreported. Recently, there has been a substantial increase in the reporting of violence in the country. In 2016 alone, 4139 child sexual abuse cases, an alarming 11 cases per day, were reported (Sahil, 2016). At first glance, this could sound like terrible news. However, the increase in the reported numbers does not directly imply an increase in child abuse; perhaps, it could be explained also as an increase in the confidence to speak up and report the same abuses that might have already been happening in the past but went unreported. Therefore, under this light, the importance of supporting the victims and their families should be even more glaring. In a country where protecting children against sexual abuse is such a challenge, there is a second major threat hovering over Pakistani children: child labour. At the start, it was regarded as a social evil in Pakistan, but eventually, it has transformed into a major national issue. Child labour is rooted in poverty: it is an attempt from parents to make children contribute to the family finances (Nizami, 2021). Sexual exploitation for those involved in child labour is so commonplace that many children just end up complying, thinking this is a norm (Nizami,2021). Pakistan’s first and only National Child Labour Survey (1996) revealed that over 3.3 million children in the country were trapped in child labour, a quarter-of-a-century ago. More than two decades later, although the number of children in the workforce has surged exponentially, the unavailability of updated statistics has been a major obstacle for child rights advocacy (Abro, 2021).
According to UNICEF, children in Sindh between the ages of four to fourteen constitute a major portion of the carpet industry’s workforce (UNICEF, 2014). Workshop owners looking for cheap labour convince parents to take their children out of school and into the workforce. Uneducated parents, that are financially weak, force their children to work to increase finances. As children are cheaper to hire since they are paid less, this helps to increase profit margins. Children can sometimes work up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and are often deprived of sleep and food. These children eventually have health issues like weakened eyesight and breathing problems (Nizami, 2021).
According to rough estimates, the number of child labourers in the country has climbed from 3.3 million in 1996 to over 20 million in the last 24 years (Abro, 2021), meaning that over 20 million child labourers are likely to be deprived of health, education and other human rights. “All out of school children in the country are considered to be child labourers. Presently some 20 million children are out of school in the country, and we believe all of them are involved in child labour”, stated the Society for the Protection of Rights of the Child (SPARC) Provincial Representative Kashif Mirza while talking to The Express Tribune on the matter (Abro, 2021).
The research pointed out a problematic situation, where more than 20% of the children involved experienced emotional abuse, 19.1% and 8.5% respectively physical and sexual abuse. Furthermore, all forms of violence were highest among the agricultural workers! The Pakistani penal code(2) addresses sexual harassment but failed to take account of the hidden forms of violence such as touching, kissing, oral sex, etc. However, the researchers emphasised the increasing sensitivity of the Pakistani judges. Notwithstanding, one of the recommendations is to revise the provincial legislation to make a law able to include and address all forms of violence, and to protect the minority most at risk (News Desk, 2020).
Child labourers exposed to an unprotected environment are at a higher risk of abuse compared to children living in a safer environment (UN, 2020). Violence poses long-term emotional and physical effects on the children involved. The emotional consequences include depression, anxiety, insomnia, low self-esteem, social isolation and panic attacks (Gross, 1992). These children are more likely to suffer from poor mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual behaviour and criminality (Pretoria NRF, 2018). Moreover, according to a statistical analysis of violence against children by UNICEF (UNICEF, 2014), physical violence is the leading cause of injury and death among children.
In a country where protecting children against sexual abuse is already a challenge, the increasing number of child labourers poses a dangerous threat to children rights and wellbeing in Pakistan Furthermore, minority groups are more vulnerable to these threats than the dominant ethnic and religious community as the research by the Aga University has shown in the case of Hindu Sindhi children (Iqbal et al., 2021). First and foremost, there is an urgency to raise awareness on the topic, both in the affected communities and at the institutional level. The research (Iqbal et al., 2021) highlights the importance of a governmental will to substantiate the actual effort of several non-governmental organisations. Secondly, further research will have to be carried on to assess the effective dimension of the intertwined issues, namely child abuse and child labour among minority groups. To do that, it is necessary to continue collecting more data and reports to understand the scale of the issues involved. As shown by the new research considered (Ibid), the number of voices that is still in silent suffering is always higher than we expect.
1) The journal is specifically the East Mediterranean Health Journal (EMHJ) Vol.27 No. 5, and is a journal that covers research in the area of public health and related biomedical or technical subjects, with particular relevance to the Eastern Mediterranean region.
2) The full version of the Pakistan Penal Code can be fund at https://www.ma-law.org.pk/pdflaw/PAKISTAN%20PENAL%20CODE.pdf. Section 509 is the one that specifically addresses sexual harassment.
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September 2, 2021