TACOMA, Washington — Child labor remains a pressing concern in Pakistan, where the latest estimates suggest the number of working children aged 5-17 stands around 3.4 million. Poverty is the primary driver forcing child labor, as families seek additional income sources to make ends meet. In 2023, the poverty rate is projected to reach 37.2% in Pakistan. As more households struggle financially, child labor has emerged as a coping mechanism, denying many Pakistani children their fundamental rights.
Heartbreaking Cases of Abuse and Exploitation
The agonizing story of 14-year-old domestic worker Rizwana, tortured by her employer in Islamabad in July 2023, draws attention to the tragic epidemic of child labor in Pakistan. Rizwana was employed by the wife of a civil judge to work as a maid in their home for a monthly salary of 10,000 rupees ($32.88). However, she was subjected to severe beatings, her teeth broken and her body bruised. Her plight highlights the abuse faced by child domestic workers.
Eight-year-old Zohra Shah was brutally killed on June 5, 2020, while working as a child maid in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Zohra was employed by a local couple who fatally abused the young girl. Her tragic death from their inflicted injuries sparked national outrage. Hailing from an impoverished family, Zohra represents many young girls pushed into illegal child domestic labor due to poverty.
These stories represent the daily plight of millions of Pakistani children trapped in illegal work, denying them education, development and childhood. Poverty, lack of access to schools, inadequate legal frameworks, discrimination and exploitation drive this epidemic. Though child labor laws exist in Pakistan, enforcement remains weak.
Legal Protection Gaps and Government Initiatives
The Employment of Children Act 1991 prohibits child labor in hazardous industries like mining, construction and factories. The 2016 Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Ordinance bars child domestic labor. Recently, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Prohibition of Employment as Child Domestic Workers Act imposed strict penalties for child domestic help. However, millions remain exploited as implementation falters.
While laws like the Employment of Children Act 1991 and the Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Ordinance prohibit child labor, enforcement is weak. However, Ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government spearheaded effective initiatives to tackle this societal scourge.
The Pakistani government’s Kamyab Jawan Programme aims to empower youth and provide skills training and financial assistance. The Kamyab Jawan Programme has helped many young entrepreneurs start successful businesses in fields like engineering, IT, agriculture, food services, beauty services and mining. The program beneficiaries who launched these ventures are now earning good profits. They have also been able to provide employment opportunities by hiring skilled workers to help expand their businesses. The Kamyab Jawan Programme has thus enabled young people to pursue entrepreneurship, become self-reliant and contribute to economic growth.
The Ehsaas program launched by the Pakistani government involves needs-based school stipends to promote education among disadvantaged children. By linking financial assistance to school enrollment, the program aims to prevent child labor in Pakistan, The Kamyab Jawan Programme aims to provide education stipends to children from low-income families in Pakistan. It incentivizes parents to send their children, especially girls, to school regularly. The stipend amounts are higher for female students at all education levels — primary, secondary and higher secondary. The stipend was provided quarterly, after ensuring 70% attendance. The program addresses the major issue of out-of-school children, particularly girls, in Pakistan. It facilitated access to education for children from underprivileged backgrounds.
SPARC’s Efforts Against Child Labor in Pakistan
Several NGOs in Pakistan are working to combat the issue of child labor through advocacy, education and collaboration with employers. The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) is a leading NGO dedicated to eliminating child labor in Pakistan. SPARC advocates for stronger legal protections, provides educational opportunities for working children and works directly with families and employers to reduce child labor. With extensive experience, SPARC has played a major role in increasing awareness and improving legal enforcement against child labor across Pakistan.
The Way Forward
While government programs have made some strides, child labor remains endemic across Pakistan with millions still trapped in illegal work. More vigorous efforts are urgently needed to eliminate the scourge, by addressing systemic issues of poverty, social inequality, lack of education access and poor enforcement of labor laws. No child’s life should meet the same tragic end as Zohra or Rizwana. Pakistan must redouble its commitment to ensure every child can access education and develop freely, protected from exploitation. Only a comprehensive societal effort focused on uplifting the poor and underprivileged will ensure the rights of all children are fulfilled. The future prosperity and progress of Pakistan depend on prioritizing its children today.
– Asia Jamil