Dr. Monazza Aslam & Dr. Shenila Rawal
A simple google search for underage domestic workers in Pakistan brings up harrowing accounts of child torture, child abuse, sexual harassment and inhuman brutality. The most recent story to hit the headlines in Pakistan is of 8-year-old Zahra, working as a domestic worker in a home in affluent Rawalpindi looking after a couple’s 1-year old child. She made the mistake of releasing the family’s ‘expensive parrots’ and, in doing so, paid the price with a beating so severe that it cost her her own life.
Sadly, Zahra’s story is not unique. If anyone had the stomach to do some simple research and collate the number of such stories over the past few years alone in Pakistan, I am sure it would make for some sordid reading. Headlines will look something like this: ‘8-year-old girl beaten, killed by employers in Rawalpindi over setting free their parrots’; ‘Employers throw hot water on minor maid in Sheikhupura’; and ‘Tayabba was ‘definitely tortured’’.
There have been numerous Zahra’s before this and, regrettably, there are going to be many more unless something dramatically changes in Pakistan to identify the core of the problem and address it through appropriate and effectively implemented legislation.
The exploitation of children through child labour remains at unacceptable levels globally. This is despite a universal recognition that child labour can have detrimental effects on children’s physical and mental health, their well-being as well as their education and life outcomes in the short and long term.
Child labour: situation at the global level
With 152 million children (64 million girls and 88 million boys), 1 in 10, globally reported to be engaged in child labour, and half of these (73 million) in hazardous child labour – work that endangers their health, safety and moral development – this remains a persistent and unacceptable challenge. The majority of these children tend to work in the agricultural sector (71 per cent) and a similar percentage engage in work that is unpaid within the household (69 per cent).
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 4.3 million children are engaged in forced labour i.e. the worst form of child labour (ILO 2017). It has also been documented that almost half of the population of child labourers is aged 5-11 years – the most formative age during which children would otherwise be receiving an education and developing their human and social capital.
Pakistan’s thriving domestic work sector; majority being women & children
In Pakistan, domestic work is likely to be one of the biggest sources of employment for children in the informal economy. With high levels of rural-urban migration and the prevalence of large numbers of low-skilled individuals with low levels of education, domestic work is often the only option available to a large majority of individuals.
Read more: Covid-19 Exposing and Exploiting Inequality
According to some estimates, there are at least 8.5 million domestic workers in Pakistan with women and children accounting for a large percentage of them. Most middle-class and upper-class families employ domestic help, who are typically involved in work such as cooking, cleaning, and looking after children. By its very nature, this type of work has the potential to be uncounted, not be considered ‘proper work’ or open to exploitation.
What are the main causes of child labour?
Finding a solution to the problem involves understanding why the problem arises in the first instance. Most often than not, parents tend to engage children in child labour due to poverty. Of course, there are a multitude of other contextual and household factors that come into play in determining the level and type of work children with do. It depends upon but is not limited to, parental education, health status, number of siblings (even birth order) and economic factors such as labour and credit market conditions. Cultural and social norms surrounding children’s work are also important factors determining the type and extent of work children engage in.
Read more: India’s child labor problem
A large number of studies in the economics discipline as well as in other specialities have identified that the most critical factor that determines child work and child labour is financial status and poverty. In situations where families have to rely on children to work, children’s work is an important factor in keeping a family financially sustainable. Hence, understanding the motivations behind families decisions whilst mitigating the risks to children could allow some forms of children’s work to continue alongside other activities in which the children engage, for example attending school.
Short and long term effects of child labour
Children’s work, especially if it takes them away completely from schooling and also results in their exploitation and harms them physically or mentally (or both), is a safeguarding crisis. From a longer-term perspective, it also has significant consequences for the economic development of a country by directly impacting the human capital accumulation of individuals and thereby impacting their productivity and life outcomes, and ultimately economic growth and other outcomes for the country as a whole.
Girls in Pakistan are especially vulnerable of being trafficked into domestic servitude. These invisible children face multifaceted exploitation. When they should be receiving an education, they are forced to live away from their families and undertake hard labour which, sadly, sometimes (but not always) comes to light like Zahra’s case. Unfortunately, there are many silent and invisible girls, serving ‘sentences’ in domestic settings, barely old enough to even look after themselves, forced into exploitative, demeaning, sometimes dangerous and risky work.
Covid-19 will aggravate child labour, education issues
It is also worth noting that the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated many of the risks that children and young people face through its public health, economic and social disruption. Given the crisis that national governments all over the world are facing, a critical additional constraint they face is their inability to provide the support they might have been able to do so prior to the pandemic. Child labour laws and enforcement may not be as stringent and, therefore, may not protect children to the extent that they would have under normal circumstances.
In addition to a significant health crisis, many families are facing an unprecedented financial upheaval which may force them to resort to more child labour simply to meet a subsistence existence. Given that adult labour movement might be substantially restricted due to the Covid-19 crisis, this may put further pressure on families. This crisis will also have far-reaching consequences on children’s education.
Solving the problem, but how?
Whilst often favoured as a solution, blanket interventions such as outright bans on child labour may not be the answer to this complex problem. A recent review of global evidence by Aslam, Rawal & Morrow (forthcoming 2020) on the state of the evidence on child labour, school attendance, learning and child well-being has noted that social and cultural norms are often deep-rooted and persistent and such blanket bans and interventions are often not successful in overcoming them.
Nuanced approaches that are sensitive to the belief systems, as well as cognizant of poverty as a critical factor resulting in children’s involvement in work, are needed to combat this problem. However, one thing is clear, Pakistan has already lost too many young children to exploitative work. Something needs to change to prevent another tragedy like Zahra’s from ever happening again.
The authors are both Managing Partners at the Oxford Partnership for Education Research and Analysis (OPERA). Monazza, a Rhodes Scholar from Pakistan (2000) is an education economist with a DPhil. in Economics from the University of Oxford. She tweets @AslamMonazza. Shenila holds a PhD. in Economics of Education from UCL. She can be reached on twitter @shenilarawal. Both work as experts in international development and engage extensively with governments around the world. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.