By Zofeen T Ebrahim
The death of 10-year-old Fatima Furiro would have passed sadly but quietly had it not been for the two graphic videos that turned up on social media. The little girl’s body was this week exhumed for a postmortem examination, days after the videos mysteriously appeared online.
One appeared to show signs of torture on Fatima’s body, while the other showed her writhing in agony, and struggling to sit up, before collapsing.
There was immediate pressure on her parents to lodge a formal complaint, and police in Sindh province’s Khairpur district arrested her employer, Asad Ali Shah Jeelani, over the child’s death. Jeelani, who is a pir, an influential spiritual leader in a Sufi sect, has denied any wrongdoing.
As she mourned her child, Shabnam Furiro said sending her three daughters to work in the home of Jeelani would remain a lifelong regret. “All of this was not worth the 3,000 rupees [£8] every month we received in return,” she said by phone from her village of Ali Muhammad Furiro, almost 250 miles (400km) north of the port city of Karachi.
Fatima is not the first child to have died allegedly at the hands of her employers; she is also unlikely to be the last.
Poverty pushes many parents to turn a blind eye to the physical and sexual violence faced by their children
Earlier this year, an 11-year-old was killed by his employer in Karachi; in Lahore last year, an 11-year-old boy, Kamran, succumbed to his injuries after he and his seven-year-old brother were severely beaten by their employer for stealing food from a refrigerator; in 2020, eight-year-old Zohra Shah died from injuries inflicted after she released her employers’ prized bird from a cage; and in 2019, 16-year-old Uzma Bibi was tortured and murdered for taking a small piece of meat.
Every time such deaths occur, people in Pakistan go into a collective retributive frenzy. The pattern is always the same: the abuse is highlighted on social media and it is then picked up by the media, followed by expressions of outrage and horror from legislators and celebrities, and then the alleged perpetrators are arrested. But the indignation then subsides as quickly as it flared up.
Fatima’s death has also been a wake-up call for the village of Ali Mohammad Furiro, which is in shock. Families are bringing their daughters home and pledging never to send their kids to the homes of the rich.
Allah Baksh Koondhar, a journalist who lives in a neighbouring village, said: “Many of these young girls, aged between nine and 15, disclosed being whacked, their hair pulled, or scorched with a hot iron.”
Koondhar said the tradition in Sindh to “gift” young daughters to their pir to serve for a few years was grounded in ignorance among those who revere these rich spiritual leaders.
Shabnam insisted she had no idea her daughter was being beaten regularly. She did not even speak up on seeing the torture marks on her daughter’s dead body and said she thought she had died of a stomach ailment.
It is hard to imagine that parents are not aware of the risks when they place their children in domestic servitude, but extreme poverty pushes many to turn a blind eye to the possibility of physical and sexual violence in addition to the long working hours endured by the children, with little rest and no healthcare or education.
Shabnam said poverty had forced her to send her daughter to Jeelani’s house. After the floods of 2022, it had become difficult for her husband, a farmhand, to find regular work. The day he did, he earned only 400 rupees, making it difficult to feed the family; Fatima’s pay was essential to the family, she said.
Although it is illegal in most of Pakistan’s provinces for children under 14 to work, and in some for children under 18 to work in hazardous occupations, Pakistan’s Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child estimates there are 12 million child workers in the country.
While Punjab may be the only province that has banned children from working in private homes (though this still continues with impunity), Iqbal Detho, chair of the Sindh Human Rights Commission, has taken up the case of Fatima’s death and found many lacunae, or gaps in legal protection, in the complaint lodged by the parents. He said the incident could be investigated for breaches of bonded labour and child protection laws.
At the same time, the contradictions within the country’s constitution and the penal code about the legal age of children in work need to be addressed and revisited to protect children from abuse.
However, the most urgent need is for Pakistani society to realise that they are not doing a “good deed” by hiring the children of poor families.
Note: The above article was originally published by The Guardian on August 28, 2023.