x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

South Asia's poor children being robbed of childhood

It broke my heart to think of innocence lost at such a young age, of a childhood robbed of the opportunity to learn and play because poor families had to put their children to work.

At a recent wedding I attended in Pakistan, there was one member of the gathering who was often invisible but without whom a celebration would not have taken place.

Irum was up at the crack of dawn scrubbing pots and pans, helping cook endless meals for up to 50 people, supplying never-ending cups of tea and in between, sweeping and mopping floors. She was 10 years old.

Her father was out of work and as the eldest of five children, she was put to work by her mother as a home help. Irum had never been to school. She cooked and cleaned for her entire family as her mother wasn't up to the job, she told me. It wasn't a complaint. She uttered those words, like everything else she said, with stoical acceptance of her lot in life.

Her solemn little face, features set to give away nothing of what was going on behind huge soulful eyes, never showed a flicker of exhaustion, resignation or defeat. She slept on command, waiting for an order that her work for the day was done - usually in the early hours of the morning - then in one swift movement, would topple over and go from vertical to horizontal, falling asleep wherever she had dropped.

There was, thankfully, none of the subservient "madam" or "sir" often heard in this region. Instead, she was called "beti" (daughter) or "bachi" (child) - but the term of endearment was almost always followed by an instruction.

You knew she had taken a shine to you when she would appear wordlessly and without warning at your elbow, watching you intently with those enormous slanting eyes as you went about your business. Or I would feel a tug on my head and turn around to find her twirling a strand of my hair around her fingers. Occasionally, very occasionally, she would break into a broad grin, revealing a mouthful of brown stumps.

It broke my heart to think of innocence lost at such a young age, of a childhood robbed of the opportunity to learn and play. Of 40 million children in Pakistan aged between 5 and 14, an estimated 10 million are put to work. Half of them are under 10. That figure, I suspect, does not even include the domestic servants like Irum, put to work for a handful of rupees by impoverished parents.

Collectively, child labourers make up a quarter of the country's unskilled workforce and can be found in nearly every industry and field, as well as in the homes of the middle and upper classes, who blithely ignore the injustice of their own children playing freely alongside youngsters who have been deprived of a childhood.

Nor is Pakistan alone in this. In neighbouring India, an estimated 44 million children are employed in labour while Bangladesh has up to 12 million underage workers. The majority of the world's 220 million child labourers are found in Asia.

I can't help wondering what will become of little Irum. She had some spark and fight in her: when, on a lengthy coach journey, a much older male passenger blocked her view of the TV screen blasting out Kareena Kapoor's latest movie, she slapped him on the back and brushed him aside impatiently.

She rolled around with childish glee as I packed, and when I gave her a handbag and bracelets I no longer needed, she said disdainfully, to my amusement: "Is that it?"

I hope she keeps some of that feisty spirit as she gets older. But I can't help thinking Pakistan's deep-rooted poverty, uneven distribution of wealth and resources and lack of opportunities will eventually beat it out of her.