Why I prefer to be cruel sometimes…

Published: June 4, 2011

Should we spare change, or induce change by remaining stern?

So another International Children’s Day has passed and while it has been celebrated in some countries and some segments of ours, the state of children in Pakistan remains pathetic. Child labour – that persistent, malignant tumour unleashed upon our country during times of apparent prosperity — simply refuses to go away.

The media was flooded with much of the same institutional blame-game and vague identification of problems areas that we see regurgitated every year. Politicians are blaming natural disasters for the rampant child labour in their jurisdictions while the Ministry of Labour and Manpower is still deliberating the use of international aid to conduct further surveys on child labour. So while six-year-old maids are being beaten to death by employers for urinating on the floor, and entire rest houses are being run by underpaid, ‘horribly’ treated children, it  would appear that the government is still wondering if it’s really such a big deal.

Finding little hope in the government, we could learn from US aid strategists and turn to NGOs instead. The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) has demanded that the government ban domestic child labour. More specific child and labour organizations have been organizing seminars asking the media to do more in solving the problem. This brings us right back here, to this spot, to this opinion piece, one that criticizes the government and NGOs, asking them to take action. Such is the nature of this vicious circle all the major institutions are stuck in.

The role we play:

Let us attempt to depart this circle at a tangent, and examine what we, as common citizens can do to help eradicate child labour. First of all, we need to realise that child labour is a problem that needs to be solved. Researchers at the University of Karachi have concluded that “society has accepted child labour as a stable pillar of the economy”. There has never been significant decrease registered in the number of children involved in labour.

We are part of the problem, and every day, every time we go out on the street, or let employ a child in our homes, we influence the future of children in Pakistan. Affluent, Urban families who hire children for domestic chores offer justifications like “where will the poor kid go otherwise” and “at least we are putting a roof on his head and food in his stomach”. While this may seem charitable on the surface, let us see what is happening here. Most children working in Karachi earn between Rs2,000 and Rs3,000 a month, a fifth of whom children work more than 12 hours. Since food and boarding is often included in the terms of employment, this money goes directly to the consenting parents. So a poor family is earning around Rs2,000 per child. The more children they have, the more this figure is multiplied by. And then we wonder why our poor persist with countless children.

Employers often claim that they are providing their employed children with education and home tutoring. Yet Pakistan still ranks 27 out of 28 Asian countries in regard to literacy of this sector. Obviously all that alleged education is not working.

This means that the children we have ‘charitably’ employed in our homes will grow up and head families of similarly low income. They will want their children to earn for them the same way they did for their parents. A steady family profession has been established, which will repeat and multiply in each generation. Until and unless we remove this economic incentive for having more children, poverty and population control will remain elusive. By refusing to employ a child in your home, you can help solve the problem.

Now let us take a look at begging, because it has become a lucrative enough endeavor to be classified as a profession. We all complain about the increasing number of children begging on the street. We take pity on their condition, hand out a little spare change and drive off, blaming the government for lack of educational provision and the child’s parents for their ‘stupidity’. But what have we just done? By economically awarding the beggar, we have fueled the fire. On average, a donation of Rs20 is made to a begging child. This means that if 15 people ‘take pity’ on the child, he will have earned more in a day then a worker involved in hard labour from 7am to 5pm. Why should anyone continue to labour in the blistering heat or freezing cold? It is much easier (and thanks to us, more lucrative) to simply extend a hand and make a sorry face.  So the next time you fumble through your purse for loose change, wondering where all these beggars are coming from, pause to think, the answer might be right under your nose.

The number of children involved in labour has proven difficult to accurately identify. It could be anywhere between 10million and 19million. There are existing laws that dictate the terms of employment for children and others that could be used to stop child labour, but the wait for our government to implement these measures is proving to be an eternal one.

Meanwhile, our compassion continues to ensure that child labour continues. In current conditions, poorer families will have more children; it is the logical thing to do. Subsequently, more of these children will choose begging, it is the easier, more lucrative profession. These are not the Jahil (idiotic) decisions we too often dismiss them as. Our sympathy has made them otherwise.

We must change our approach. We must be cruel to be kind. Our future depends on it.


Sachal Afraz

A graduate from the Lahore University of Management Sciences currently pursuing post-graduate studies at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • sultan naeem

    Children also face harsh treatment in madrassas where they’re regularly beaten up if they’ve not learnt something by heart.There is an overwhelming emphasis on performance of religious rituals & boys are also regularly raped by maulvis in these madrassas.

    I think it’s time our media did stories on the atrocities committed inside madrassas as they have not come under media scrutiny as yet.Children deserve to have a happy childhood free from religious brainwashing.Recommend

  • parvez

    There has to be and must be laws on this subject. Laws are meant to be enforced for the sake of society. The organ of the state to do this is the judiciary, apparently they have failed yet again.
    Your approach of calling on the people to mend their ways is like blowing in the wind. Issues of this nature are the responsibility of the state and yes our state has failed us.
    So let us do something to correct these wrongs where they should be corrected and not shy away from it. Recommend

  • Mirza

    I appreciate what you’ve said, and understand where you’re coming from, and agree with most of it.

    Here’s the ‘but’:

    It isn’t the children’s fault that they’re put up to the begging, or that they’ve been born and need to work underage. The solution to that can’t be to just refuse employing them. Yes, in the long run it may discourage having more children (maybe). But I’m not one for the whole ‘the ends justify the means’. The root of the cycle is poverty and illiteracy. Educate and help raise those children out of poverty when you employ them. As you’ve rightly cited, employers claim that they do, but figures speak otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that the solution is wrong, it just means that they aren’t really implementing it. We should start implementing it.

    As for begging, I think it’s much more deep rooted than that. I’ve read that families are put up to begging because they’re forced to by local mafia. So not giving the children money can end up meaning that they get punished at the end of the day. What would work, again, if it’s implemented full-heartedly, is a police crackdown against beggary and the mafia. Along with perhaps rehabilitation programs for the beggars. Recommend

  • nafisa

    Brilliant piece! Recommend

  • Haider Shishmahal

    Hey Sachal, very nice article, links to references and many themes covered. Good stuff. I have a clear opinion against child labor in homes but would like to share my families experience in regards to your comment “By refusing to employ a child in your home, you can help solve the problem.” because I feel it does not apply for me.

    Child labor in homes is cruel I know. Yet I have a 15 year old boy Sharif in my employ for Rs 3000 who has been working very hard at our home for over a year and yes I have the usual justification of having tried to sent him to school and tried home tuition, and no it hasnt worked out as hoped. But the last boy Babar who we kept in similar circumstances worked with us till he was twenty one or so and by that time was so well trained that he managed to get a job as part of the supply chain at lever brothers. Not to mention that he became highly skilled in all kinds of cooking and baking that he learned from my mum. Now Sharif earns and keeps his own money. He always gets haircuts in defence for Rs 200 whereas sometimes even i get a cut for Rs 60. Furthermore Sharif was given a bicycle and some money from me. He bought a cell phone and subsequently sells these brand new mobies for a few hundred profit to his friends, and buys a new one, like all the time. He gets new clothes and hand me downs from the family and also buys his own. When he wants to he can groom himself quite nicely.
    Returning to the case of Babar, he is still in vey close touch with the family, and comes over at times to cook for dinner parties. Any financial problems that he has regarding family medical, marriage etc he has another family to rely on.
    My point is that education aims for development, and that an education at our government schools is probably far inferior to an education one can recieve working for educated and caring people, even if they do employ “child labor”. So long as they develop the child with practical skills and good values, he/she can even go on to start a business. Also its precisely for the reason that its easy to develop a child with new skills and training as compared to an adult, and the relative low risk they represent to families that child labor at homes is so popular. Take the case of an adult ayah who gives opium to let the child sleep so he/she won’t be a tiresome bother. The child ayah has neither such knowledge nor a lack of energy. Similarly adult males represent a threat of violence and crime. In America children get jobs at malls, paper routes, baby sitting etc. They get a fair pay and fair timings, they can work because it is not considered exploitation.
    Similarly It is said that the key ingredient of teaching i.e. education i.e. development is love and care. If you care for the children you employ at your homes you can help solve the problem. Rather than bashing people and making them feel quilty for the practices that they engage in and cannot stop, why don’t we write constructively about a short term and long term action plan that we can use to train, develop, groom and show appreciation for the children that we employ.

    Ok Sachal ttyl. check my article out if you get time, it got taken from Dawn and reprinted in Tribune ten days ago.Recommend

  • Fahad siddiqui

    Nice piece…….. Recommend

  • 58 Ali

    @ Sultan Naeem
    Have u ever go to any madrassah in ur lifetime? No, I m damn sure about it. Otherwise u cant comment like that.
    I m not a defender here of the bad things that happens everywhere, in schools, hospitals or even in madrassah. But it doesn’t mean that we comment and try to defame such an important aspect of our life.Recommend

  • Zarmeena Ikram Babar

    A well written article but some how it dosent emcompass the implications and the consequence of the suggested actions -I completely agree with Mr.Haider here, since his suggestions are more pragmatic and harmless- By hiring a poor child at home, education provision along with their training, we can not only enhance their capabilities but also can enable them to support their familes -moreover this will eventually lead in overcoming the vicious circle of begging profession which their parents had followed and which has been transfering from generation to genration.Recommend