Only a few kilometers in, homeward bound, breathing the fresh, polluted air missing in the United States, I had counted 20 pairs of young limbs, thin bodies draped in mud-stained kurtas, working with, around or amongst mechanics. The sight was not new. Yet the sinking sensation it evoked was new. Same sights make us numb to the point of blindness. But I had just stepped out from bright colors of the west, and so, the banal grays of the kurtas, browns of the dirt and blacks of the tires stuck out to me.
How often do Pakistani children get to live their childhoods? In a country where child labor is as popular as the need for one more roti, there are many innocent children who have invested, or rather lost their childhood years to the burdensome job of earning livelihood for their families.
The 16-year-old Mohammad Imtiaz Hussain is the middle child amongst twelve. Imtiaz had studied till grade 3 when the financially draining process of his older sisters’ weddings started. Mr. Hussain started sinking deep into loans. As education did not qualify Imtiaz to earn in time, Mr. Hussain put him to learn “the hunur” (skill) of tailoring in an ordinary tailor shop.
“I started with earning 5 rupees everyday which changed to 10 and now I earn 8000 per month,” says Imtiaz. Despite one brother running a CNG rickshaw, another working as a hairdresser in one of the ordinary hairdressing shops located on the streets and the other working with his father in a TV shop, Imtiaz had to continue stitching money to pay off the loans taken on his four older sisters’ and two brothers’ weddings.
“I really want to study enough to be able to read and write names and open a tailor shop of my own,” says Imtiaz covetously. “I don’t take admission into school because all the kids would make fun of me.”
While young boys from many poverty ridden families can assume a variety of professions on streets, the most popular one for girls from such families, by far, is that of household maids. Although stuck in different circumstances, the 17-year-old Rubina Dilawar is also struggling to earn enough for mouths.
Burqa-clad, Rubina treads off to sweep the floors, dust off the windows and wipe the floors after school every day. Enrolled in grade 8, Rubina attends an ordinary school from 7 am to 2 15 pm. She then leaves for her job as a maid at a household. After sweating off the dust for around 3 to 5 hours for a thousand rupee per month, Rubina trudges onto her last stop of the day, her madrassa (religious school) and returns home after Isha (night prayer).
“What purpose does a thousand rupee serve in these expensive times?” asks Rubina objectively. The thousand rupees go in her school fee, she says.
The fourth youngest member of a family of nine, Rubina is one of the only two breadwinners of the family. The other breadwinner, her brother, works as a gatekeeper at an office with a mediocre salary. In a country that does not accommodate disabilities, her deaf and mute father does not get hired permanently. After frequent intervals, he rebounds to stitching bed sheets. However, the plight of the family is not entirely due to Mr. Dilawar’s unstable and insufficient earnings.
Rubina’s mother, Haleema, is much agonized by the fact that all of her children do not have identity cards and cannot be attested to work legally. When asked why the cards cannot be made for them, Haleema claimed that her husband was fooled into making a card that he thought would secure his job at a factory while in fact the card states that this family is from Bangladesh.
“I was born here, my husband was born here and so were our kids,” claims Haleema. “Yet they say we are from Bangladesh.” With the card that labels them as Bengalis, the Pakistani government wouldn’t make identity cards for them.
Haleema wanted all of her children to study till grade 8 only. But Rubina’s older brothers continued till grade 10 and 11 saying “Hum karlenge” (We will manage). Reluctantly, they had to stop there. How is the family to manage if all the siblings do not have identity cards and cannot get higher paid jobs without them? “I don’t think I can study more because I get tired after school and don’t feel like working more,” states Rubina regretfully. “I really want to study but no one can afford it.”
According to the 1996 National Child Labor Survey conducted by the Federal Bureau of Statistics, there are 3.3 million child laborers in Pakistan. The next National Child Labor Survey is to be conducted during 2011-2012. However, no figures can be calculated for the education, leisure, and the prospects of brighter lives that these kids would never be exposed to.
Rubina’s cousin is the only girl in her extended family who has studied the most, till grade 16, thanks to her two brothers who stopped their education at grade 10 to pay for their sister’s expenses. Two of Imtiaz’s brothers have also had the opportunity to study much more than other siblings, till grades 15 and 13. Nevertheless, education for one always comes at the expense of some physical or cultural necessity.
“Working for a degree is out of question,” states Imtiaz ruefully. “My other brothers do not contribute enough to run the household.”
“Insha’Allah if I get the opportunity I will study ahead,” says Rubina. “I want to study till grade 12 at least. But my brothers argue that with no food to eat, how can you even think about studying ahead?”