Monday, January 25, 2010

Shazia’s Death: A Call For Introspection, By Adil Najam

By: Adil Najam, Originally writtan At All Things Pakistan

The murder of 12-year old child Shazia, working as a housemaid in the house of one Chaudhry Naeem (a former president of the Lahore Bar Association) has been widely reported and strongly condemned by all (including Chief Minister Punjab and the President of Pakistan). It is, indeed, something that we must all condemn.

But it is also something that should shame all of us. I certainly stand shamed today.

Certainly, the brutality of this murder and the inhumanity of the treatment that this child had reportedly received is NOT something common. The circumstances here were “cruel” as well as “unusual.” However, the mistreatment of domestic help, including little children and the elderly is not at all unusual; even if the cruelty is.

What happened here is indeed an aberration, but the circumstances that led to it - i.e., children working as domestic servants, the mistreatment of domestic help, and the total lack of rights for such help - is not just common but sanctioned by all of us. In some cases directly; in others by consent through silence and by toleration. No one in Pakistan can claim to be ’surprised’ by the fact that domestic help, especially the most vulnerable amongst them, are subjected to mistreatment. In this case the abuse was physical and ultimately fatal. In other cases - maybe too many - it is sexual. Often it is verbal. But even if those cases it can be demeaning and destructive to the humanity of those being abused.

This incident deserves condemnation. But it also deserves introspection.

More developments continue as one writes, and will no doubt continue to come in, but the essential elements of the story are outlined in this news item in Dawn yesterday:

Police said on Sunday they had arrested Advocate Chaudhry Naeem, the main accused in the case of murder of a 12-year-old maid, and five others. “We have arrested Advocate Naeem and three members of his family on charge of murdering their maid,” SSP Operations Chaudhry Shafiq told this reporter. He said that Amanat and his wife had also been taken into custody for getting Shazia employed at Chaudhry Naeem’s house in the city’s Defence locality. He said that Lahore High Court Chief Justice Khawaja Muhammad Sharif had taken suo motu of the incident and directed the police to produce the accused before him on Monday.

Citing the autopsy report, a police official said that the girl had been subjected to severe physical torture. But she was not sexually assaulted. Chaudhry Naeem, a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, his son Yasir, a sister-in-law and a daughter-in-law have been nominated in the FIR. Amanat and his wife have been booked for providing the maid to Chaudhry Naeem. Punjab’s Senior Minister Raja Riaz condemned the incident and said that Rs500,000 would be paid to the girl’s family on behalf of President Asif Ali Zardari. It ‘s learnt that Shazia, a resident of Lyton Road, started working at Chaudhry Naeem’s house about seven months ago on a monthly salary of Rs1,000. According to sources, she used to be severely beaten even for petty lapses.

The editorial in The News is exactly right in what it says:

The torture and death of a 12-year-old maid in Lahore has caused a stir. Protests have been held and police are reported to have arrested the main accused - a lawyer - and seven others. The president and the Punjab chief minister have both taken note. The child, forced into work by poverty, was brutally exploited by the middleman who hired her and the employers who murdered her. Such trafficking is certainly not unknown. Similar, sordid stories have emerged before. The story of the girl’s life - and death - is now known because her father refused to remain silent despite attempts to bribe him. Now that an outcry has been raised, action has been taken against the policemen who neglected to act.

Indifference and apathy of both government and society is one reason why such crimes take place. Statistics show that 70 per cent or more female domestic servants suffer abuse in some form. All domestic servants remain unprotected by labour laws with no regulations in place as to their hours of work, leaves and other rights. The many young girls hired to perform domestic chores and tend to children more privileged than themselves are especially vulnerable. They have nowhere to turn when subjected to violence and abuse. Measures must be put in place to protect this category of workers. We need specific laws and mechanisms that allow domestic workers to set up unions. Those responsible for murder in the latest case must be made to pay for their crime. Many like them have escaped unpunished. It is this failure to bring such people to book that leads to more such brutalities being committed each year and to the untold suffering that continues behind closed doors. Now that the matter has been taken up at the highest levels it is vital to put in place a system that can save other children from ending up dead at places where they are forced to work.

There will be those who will say that such crimes, or worse, happen elsewhere too and are not unique to Pakistan. Indeed, they are not. But that is neither an excuse nor a justification. It is sad, but immaterial, if such inhumanity happens elsewhere too, it matters only that it cannot be tolerated anywhere. There are those who will say that this is an extreme case and not the norm. Indeed, and thankfully, it is not. But this matters little too. This extreme case has happened simply because abuse that is not as extreme, but is abuse nonetheless, is tolerated too often by too many who choose to “look the other way.” There are those who view this as a case of ‘minority victimization.’ It surely is that and for that reason is even more reprehensible. But it is also more than that. The rot in society that this represents is spread wide as well as more deep. A rot that too many of us have too long tolerated.

Let me end by repeating what I have already said above: This incident deserves condemnation. But it also deserves introspection.

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