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Zahra Shah: a test case

Opinion

October 25, 2020

Zahra Shah, who has been referred to as “Zohra Shah” in all mainstream media thus far, was a seven-year-old child, working as domestic help in a home in Rawalpindi. She was raped and then beaten to death by her employers (husband and wife).

The torment, torture and pain inflicted upon Zahra is not, in any way, an isolated incident. It fits into a larger pattern of abuse of children employed as workers in homes, factories and other such places. Just a few years prior, in 2016, a 10-year-old maid, Tayyaba, was tortured by her employers, a judge and his wife.

Before Zahra, there was Tayyaba. Before Tayyaba, there was Shazia Masih who was tortured and killed in Lahore in January 2010. It is worth recalling that in the Shazia Masih case, the accused was a lawyer. The additional district and sessions judge held that the child had not been murdered but had died of natural causes. The accused lawyer had been released on bail shortly after his arrest and he was given a free hand to continue his attempts at bribing and silencing the family of the victim.

Many homes in Pakistan continue to employ children as domestic help. It is accepted as a social/cultural practice – almost like a favour being done for poor, impoverished families. These children are treated like slaves and subjected to abuse and even sexual violence. These children, more often than not, come from poor, rural backgrounds and those who employ these children are aware of their impoverished and destitute backgrounds. That is why when children employed as domestic help are raped and killed, the families of the influential are so quick to offer blood money. To them, some cash in exchange for a human life is fair and proportionate.

Zahra’s family had revealed during an interview that they were offered a large sum of money by the relatives of the man who raped and killed Zahra. As if the offer of blood money isn’t disgraceful enough, what has been revealed during the ongoing proceedings is equally disturbing.

Zahra’s family’s lawyers revealed to the Court how one of the co-accused (female) had a track record of torturing domestic workers. Moreover, the lawyers highlighted the degree of torture inflicted upon the little girl, including the use of an iron rod to beat her. The young child was also caged and filmed. Forensic analysis of the phones of both the accused reveal pictures and videos of abuse and torture committed against Zahra.

Additionally, reading Zahra’s medical reports will make even the hardest heart break and bleed: injury to vital organs (including heart, lungs, trachea, voice box, and brain), severe head injuries, swelling of both hands, bruises on cheeks and thighs of the victim, and multiple scars on the back and chest of the victim. While one can read the medical report, the heartbreaking reality is that only God knows what torment and anguish the poor child went through before her death.

The state of Pakistan is in serious breach of its obligations under the International Labour Organization’s Convention No 182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention), which provides for immediate and effective measures aimed at prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour. Yet, children continue to be employed in homes due to extreme poverty. The rich and influential prey on the weakest members of our society, with little to no prospect of accountability.

While the federal cabinet, on the initiative of the Ministry of Human Rights, included child labour in the schedule of banned occupations under the Employment of Children Act 1991, the provinces have yet to follow. There is an urgent need for the provinces to take this issue seriously and follow the initiative of the federal government, especially considering the scale of this practice in the provinces.

There is also an urgent and pressing need to raise the age of the child from 14 years to 18 years, and to explicitly and comprehensively prohibit all forms of child labour. At present, the law stands in contravention of Article 25-A of the constitution, which safeguards for all children the right to an education. For as long as children continue to be employed in homes, instead of being sent to schools, this provision of the constitution stands infringed. This obviously also requires recalibration of our social and cultural understanding of the rights of children.

In Zahra’s case, the accused’s bail was rejected after a brave fight by the family and their lawyers. The trial has commenced and the next date for the proceedings is fixed for October 29. It is pertinent that all eyes focus on the proceedings, to ensure some semblance of justice for a grieving family. Attendance of, and support by, civil society organizations during the proceedings is important for maintaining the public’s attention on this case, which is a test case and likely to set an important precedent in issues of child abuse and torture.

There is, in reality, no justice for a family that has lost its child, let alone lost their child as a result of torture and sexual violence. There is nothing that can ever heal those scars. However, in order to ensure that the same practice is not repeated, as is currently the case, clear precedent needs to be set and the perpetrators of such heinous crimes must be held accountable.

The writer is founding partner of Mazari-Hazir Advocates & Legal Consultants.

Email: [email protected] gmail.com