Asia

Zahra: Pakistan couple face polygraph over child maid 'tortured to death'

Hasan Siddique in police custody
Image caption Hasan Siddique was arrested shortly after Zahra died

A couple in Pakistan accused of torturing their seven-year-old maid to death will be held in jail for two weeks while police arrange a polygraph.

Hospital staff in Rawalpindi alerted police at the end of May after the couple brought the injured girl, Zahra, for treatment. She died a day later.

It is illegal to employ anyone under 15 in Pakistan but it remains common.

The case has prompted anger and made national headlines. The accused couple have not commented publicly.

Pakistan's human rights minister promised to amend the laws to curb the practice of employing child workers. Critics say too little has been done to enforce laws already in place.

Zahra's grandfather Syed Fazal Hussain Shah told the BBC that a distant relative who had been working at Siddique's house as a cook for some years got Zahra the job with the couple, about five months ago.

"He said they will educate her, something that we couldn't afford. So we decided to send her," he said.

How do police say Zahra died?

According to a police report, Zahra was brought by her employer Hasan Siddique to a hospital in the upmarket Bahria Town district of Rawalpindi in a critical condition on 31 May.

She had been bleeding profusely and had torture marks on her face, chest, arms and legs. She was put on a ventilator in the intensive care unit (ICU) but died the next day.

According to the report, the police were alerted to the case by hospital staff on the morning of 1 June, when Zahra was still alive, but unconscious.

Image copyright Family handout
Image caption Zahra, pictured three years ago at about the age of five

The hospital staff told the police that Mr Siddique had brought Zahra in at about 6:30pm on the previous day.

He is alleged to have told the staff that Zahra was his house maid and had allowed his parrots to escape from their cage, which enraged him and his wife and they beat her up.

Staff at the hospital say that while they were busy giving emergency aid to Zahra, Mr Siddique disappeared from the scene. They searched for him in the hospital premises but could not find him. So they contacted the police.

Police then tracked down and arrested the couple, using a copy of the national ID card which the man who brought Zahra into hospital had used to get her admitted.

What has the reaction been?

Many commentators have highlighted widespread social practices that expose children to abuse, violence and death in Pakistan.

While many social activists have called for those responsible for Zahra's death to be brought to justice, others have underlined the lack of legal protection for vulnerable children.

Meena Gabina, a rights activist and member of the left-wing Women's Democratic Forum (WDF), questioned the practice of employing young children as house maids.

"How do you kill a seven-year-old girl for freeing birds from a cage? How?" she tweeted.

Nida Kirmani, who teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, said employing children as domestic servants was "the worst kind of exploitation".

In 2019, the Punjab provincial government had promulgated a law to ban employment of children below 15 years of age as domestic servants. But the law is widely flouted.

Some commentators have focused their ire on officials, who they accuse of doing too little on this issue.

How widespread is mistreatment of child servants?

There is no reliable data on numbers of under-age domestic servants in Pakistan, but cases involving their mistreatment have been reported before.

A report jointly issued by three human rights groups early this year said at least 140 child domestic workers had suffered torture, rape or murder over the last decade.

The figures were based on newspaper reports and could be a conservative estimate, given the tendency among poor families not to report incidents of abuse either due to fear, extortion or settlements reached with those behind the abuse.

But some cases have been very prominent. In December 2016, the country was shocked when pictures of a girl of 10 with a bloodied face and a swollen eye went viral on social media.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Judge Rajak Hurramali, and his wife were jailed over their treatment of Tayyaba (left)

The girl, Tayyaba, who came from a village near Faisalabad city in Punjab province, had been employed as domestic help at the house of an Islamabad-based judge.

She had reportedly been beaten up badly by the judge's wife for losing a broom. The matter became public when neighbours noticed injuries on the child and informed the authorities.

The judge and his wife were jailed but later had their sentences slashed on appeal.

Are child servants common in Pakistan?

The number of children employed as domestic servants runs into the hundreds of thousands.

A 2004 report of the International Labour Organisation, quoted in a Dawn newspaper report in 2016, said some 264,000 children were employed as domestic help in Pakistan.

Those figures have multiplied manifold, given an exponential rise in population, increase in poverty and population displacements due to conflict as well as large-scale economic activity.

Official statistics put Pakistan's total population below the poverty line at over 50 million. These include more than five million beneficiaries of the government charity Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), and anywhere between three to six million homeless people or people who have no permanent home address and therefore do not appear on the national population database.

In addition, around 10 million people, according to estimates by industrial groups, are dependent on day-labour jobs for a living.

The latest government figures suggest that closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing economic woes may push another 10 million people below the poverty line.

The absence of a vigorous family planning campaign means that most families have several children, and instead of sending them to school they need them to add to their family income.

A number of employment firms operate in the countryside to supply domestic workers for more affluent families in urban areas.

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