Global Human Rights Defence

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). 

In Sindh alone, the third-largest province of Pakistan, four million children work as labourers in different sectors and at least 1.8 million children work in the agriculture sector (Iqbal et al., 2021). The Hindu Sindhis community are one of the most affected minority groups, and they make up for 8% of the total population in the Sindh region. In this regard, new research (Iqbal et al., 2021) from the Department of Community Health Science of the Aga University Hospital Karachi has been recently published in the most recent EMHJ journal published by the World Health Organisation (WHO)(1). This research investigated violence and abuse among working children both in urban and suburban areas of the lower Sindh region (Iqbal et al., 2021).  The results show a predominance of Sindhis children working in the agriculture sector (87.5%), whereas Punjabi dominated among the manufacturing, domestic and hotel and restaurant sector (Iqbal et al. 2021, p. 503). It’s important to note that the majority of the Hindu Sindhis live in rural areas of the country. Therefore, this highlights a further discrimination underway in this region based on ethnicity that affects differently the city areas (with their domestic and hotel/restaurant sectors) and the rural areas (where agriculture is predominant).

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.

References

 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.

Abro, Razzak (2021, May 2). Sindh to update its child labour figures. In Tribune. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2297843/sindh-to-update-its-child-labour-figures

  Bureau of Statistics Punjab, Government of the Punjab. (2014)  MICS 2014 final report. Lahore: http://bos.gop.pk/finalreport. 

  Fry DA, Elliott SP. (2017). Understanding the linkages between violence against women and violence against children. Lancet Glob Health. ;1;5(5):e472–3. doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(17)30153-5. 

  Gross AB, Keller HR. (1992) Long-term consequences on childhood physical and psychological maltreatment. Aggress Behav.;18(3):171–85. https://doi.org/10.1002/1098-2337(1992)18:3<171::AID-AB2480180302>3.0.CO;2-I

  Hillis S, Mercy J, Amobi A, Kress H. (2016) Global prevalence of past-year violence against children: a systematic review and minimum estimates. Pediatrics. ;1;137(3):e20154079. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-4079. 

 International Labour Organisation, (2017). International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). Mining and quarrying. Geneva: https://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Miningandquarrying/lang–en/index.htm. 

  Islamabad: Sahil; (2017). Cruel numbers 2016: a compilation of statistics on child sexual abuse of reported cases in Pakistan.

 National Research Foundation; (2018).  Effects of violence on children. Pretoria: https://www.nrf.ac.za/content/effects-violence-children.

  News Desk. (2020). 8 children are sexually abused every day in Pakistan, report. Retrieved from: https://www.globalvillagespace.com/8-children-are-sexually-abused-every-day-in-pakistan-report/ World Health Organisation, (2017) Child maltreatment: the health sector responds. Geneva:. http://www.who.int/violence_inju- ry_prevention/violence/child/Child_maltreatment_infographic_EN.pdf?ua=1.

  Nizami, Azfar Rabia (2021, March 31). The menace of child labour in Sindh. In Tribune. https://tribune.com.pk/article/97342/the-menace-of-child-labour-in-sindh.

  UNICEF; (2014). Hidden in plain sight: a statistical analysis of violence against children. New York: https://www.unicef.org/publi- cations/index_74865.html.

  United Nations (2020 June 12). World day against child labour New York: https://www.un.org/en/observances/world-day- against-child-labour.

  Wionews, (2021, August, 5). Pakistan: August 14th is the darkest day in the history of Sindh, says Sindhi Foundation. https://www.wionews.com/south-asia/pakistan-august-14th-is-the-darkest-day-in-the-history-of-sindh-says-sindhi-foundation-403251.

  World Health Organization (2018) Violence against children, child maltreatment. Geneva: http://www.who.int/violence_inju- ry_prevention/violence/child/en/.

  World Health Organization; (2018) Violence Prevention Alliance.The ecological framework. Geneva: http://www.who.int/violenceprevention/approach/ecology/en/.

  World Health Organisation (2018) Violence Prevention Alliance. Definition and typology of violence. Geneva:. http://www.who. int/violenceprevention/approach/definition/en/.

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