South Asia

Pakistan: 8-Year-Old Zohra Shah, a Caged Soul Killed for Setting Birds Free

Last week, domestic worker Zohra Shah was beaten to death after she accidentally let expensive parrots escape in an affluent neighbourhood in Rawalpindi, sparking a debate on child abuse in the country.

Lahore: On May 31, eight-year-old Zohra Shah was brought to Begum Akhter Rukhsana Memorial Hospital in Rawalpindi in a critical condition.

The child was unconscious and had terrible injuries. There were cut marks on her arms and legs, scratch marks and bruises on her torso and most disturbingly, torture marks on her genitals, thighs and calves, potentially pointing towards the likelihood that she was raped.

Shocked at the state the girl was brought in, and also because private hospitals cannot proceed in crime cases as they do not have medicolegal authority, the doctors instantly notified the police.

Hassan Siddiqui, the alleged killer of 8-year-old Zohra Shah, at a police station in Rawalpindi. Photo: Twitter/@RwpPolice

It was discovered that Zohra’s injuries came at the hands of her employers, Hassan Siddique and his wife Umme Kulsoom, who had beat her after she reportedly freed some valuable parrots from their cages.

Hassan Siddique had quietly left the hospital by the time the police reached.

For some time, Zohra struggled for her life in the ICU and was put on ventilator. But ultimately, she breathed her last.

In a recent development, Zohra’s grandfather Fazal Hussain said that his granddaughter, who was beaten with something heavy and blunt, was taken to work by an aunt, but without the family’s permission. Government authorities, however, suspect the father was behind the arrangement.

Fazal Hussain, a resident of village (Basti) Maso Shah, said though the family had offered them money, they had refused to take any. He also claims that Hassan Siddiqui had raped Zohra several times while she had been living with them for the past four months.

“Siddiqui kicked the girl in her private parts and there were bruises on her entire body and she was bleeding,” the police said.

Child labour at its worst

When Zohra was dropped at her employers’ house four months ago, she had little idea of what would happen – all that she knew was that her father had brought her from their hometown in Muzaffargarh, a district in South Punjab, and had gotten her some work.

This was despite the fact that the Punjab Domestic Workers’ Act – which bans children working as domestic workers – is in place.

Rawalpindi district officer Ali Abid Naqvi said that the girl’s father had made a deal, for a sum of Rs 50,000, with Hassan Siddique for Zohra to babysit their one-year-old infant, and was to get accommodation, food and clothing in return.

Whether she received enough food or proper clothing is yet to be ascertained, however she did babysit for the well-to-do family, who lived in their suburban home in the sprawling housing society Bahria Town – developed by the well-known real estate tycoon Malik Riaz.

“It’s also important for everyone to know that the father was a drug addict,” said the DO. “It is probably why he just ‘gave away’ his daughter at such a young age and made her work, while he himself was unemployed and a lay-about. In fact, he was so self-absorbed, that even when he was notified of her death, he did not even come to collect her body.”

Hassan Siddique dabbled in a bit of real estate, but is primarily an exotic bird breeder, said Naqvi.

For Zohra, there was no one to file the case so the police had to file it themselves. An FIR under Sections 302/376, and 34 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) was registered at the Rawat police station, but the police is not opening up to the media.

Local journalist Muhammad Zareef pointed out that the Bahria Town is a gated community with its own security personnel, medical care services, and other facilities – a place where the media is not encouraged to gather.

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“The abuse was long term in Zohra’s case,” he said. “We know this because she had older scars and marks from violence all over her body. But if anyone in the neighbourhood heard her scream in pain, no one called the police and the media was also never notified.”

He said that even the hospital was Bahria Town’s own hospital, and her employer probably thought that “the case would remain covered up”.

The employers have been arrested and are now on judicial remand.

“Previously, the woman was not arrested but the city police officer has ensured that both of the suspects have been arrested and so they are both on remand,” said DO Naqvi.

The police report states that the girl also had wounds on her thighs which were consistent with sexual assault, and was also bleeding from her genitals. Although rape has not been yet proven, DNA samples have been sent to a forensics lab. It was also revealed that Zohra Shah was tortured regularly by the couple. The police stated they found some videos from the home in which the incidents were recorded.

Meanwhile, the child’s parents have returned to their village around 250 miles south of Kot Addu. Boxer Aamir Khan and his wife Faryal, who live in the UK, have expressed their sadness at the incident and have announced financial aid for the family.

Pakistan’s human rights minister Shireen Mazari took to Twitter and wrote that her ministry had been in touch with the police, has been following the case and is proposing reforms to domestic labour laws.

COVID-19 worsens the situation

Child rights’ activist Rashida Qureshi has been extremely worried through the lockdown. Without mincing words, she said that children under lockdown are even more vulnerable than before when it comes to sexual, physical, mental and emotional abuse and violence.

With the lockdown, unemployment – especially that of domestic labourers – has also increased. As lockdown was eased and people wanted to hire domestic help, they ended up employing children because the labour is cheaper, she says.

“Even worse, the children who were already employed as live-in domestic help were not sent back home during lockdown, nor were they allowed to see any outsiders (parents). We all know how the COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in domestic violence even towards vulnerable people of a family, these employed children are not even part of the family – does anyone wonder how they are faring?”

The Domestic Workers’ Act has defined that a child cannot be employed as domestic worker. But it has also given the cut off age as 15 years, so anyone above the age of 15 can be employed. At the same time, it is ironic that this facet of the law does not stand in synchronisation with other laws pertaining to children.

Iftikhar Mubarik, from Child Rights Movement (Punjab) says that the law is ‘toothless’. He says the Right to Education law says education is compulsory for children till the age of 16. In the Restraint against Child Marriage Act, Punjab has given a cut off age for age 16 in girls and age 18 in boys, while Sindh has made it illegal to marry before the age of 18. This itself is a discrepancy. And in the law banning Bonded Labour, the child’s age is again different – this time 14 years.

“How can all these laws give different age benchmarks for children and expect to be properly implemented?” he asks. “If a child is allowed to work at 15 years, what about the compulsory education he or she has to get till age 16?”

In the corridors of power though, there is no answer to these questions that are asked every time an incident like this occurs.

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Needless to say, this is not the first such case. Azra Ramzan, 16, was raped and strangled to death in Lahore in January 2014, and 10-year-old Haresh Kumar jumped off the sixth floor in order to avoid more torture. The same year, Waheed, 10, was tortured for stealing money in Multan; Iram, 16, poisoned to death in Lahore; Fiza, 15, was raped and tortured and finally succumbed to her wounds in a Lahore hospital three days later.

The reasons offered for the killings and torture have largely been trivial. In Januay 2019, 16-year-old maid Uzma who was tortured and murdered by her employer in Lahore for having helped herself to a small piece of meat.

Sometimes, there are no reasons at all.

In 2017, the daughter of a Punjab lawmaker tortured a 16-year-old boy to death, while his sister was beaten black and blue. The boy’s body was left in the house’s courtyard until his family came all the way from their village, after which the police was notified. In the meantime, the woman fled from the country.

In January 2020, a report released by three rights-based groups – the Hari Welfare Association (HWA), the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) and the Institute for Social Justice (ISJ) – revealed that more than 140 cases of abuse, torture, rapes and murders of child domestic workers (CDWs) had been reported in the media during the past ten years.

In this regard, it is obvious that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Akram Khaskheli, the HWA president, said that most cases of child sexual abuse (CSA) were not reported in the media because of social stigma. It was also specified that in terms of torture and abuse, 2013, 2017 and 2019 have been the worst years for child domestic workers as at least 21, 27 and 19 cases of abuse, respectively, were reported during these years in the media.

Of the total in ten years, 96 children were tortured and raped, and 44 of them were murdered. Around 79% of the cases were reported from Punjab, 14% from Sindh, 6% from Islamabad and 1% from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Out of the total, 34% children were ten years old and below, 40% between 11 to 14 years old, and 26% between 15 to 18 years old.

The situation is dire for the estimated 264,000 children who are employed in domestic work.

A structural flaw

In Zohra’s case, said district officer Rawalpindi Abid Naqvi, even though the employers were the ultimate criminals, part of the blame must be given to the eight-year-old’s parents.

“Maybe we will offer them financial compensation, that is still unclear since the father is an addict – but we have offered legal aid to the child’s family,” he says. “But it must be understood that a major issue of poverty is always there in such cases, so is drug addiction, and many of these families are broken or dysfunctional. Sometimes both the parents have second marriages and the children are left behind, unwatched, uncared for and alone.”

To stop such crimes, society has a role to play, he said. “Employers tend to buy the silence of parents. Poverty compels the latter to accept money rather than fight for justice.”

For Valerie Khan Yusufzai, a Franco-Pakistani child’s rights activist and president of the Alliance Francaise Islamabad, it is societal stricture that is at fault. Having lived here for 24 years, she has had a chance to study the society.

“The fundamental structure of society here has given way to social, economic and gender inequality and these inequalities put a lot of distance between people in society,” she said. “In this context, they are sometimes dehumanised and that is what qualifies as slavery – that suddenly you don’t see them as human beings anymore.”

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It’s an inherited mindset, she said. “France was one of the last countries that was indulging in the slave trade, mainly because they had impunity. Until and unless we don’t shame and hold people accountable, they will have impunity. In this way we also have to end the demand so that the supply doesn’t exist either.”

Khan said that people from the elite class, including families of lawmakers, also employ children in their households. “Otherwise, why would they not bring this issue in the assembly?”

“It is the biggest hypocrisy in a society always boasting of religious morals,” she said. “When a child comes to the house to work, refuse. You want to call yourself a good Muslim? Give the money to the parents and put a condition for them to send their kids to school. Many people I know are doing this.”

Law must ensure employers do not get away with it, she said. “The level of abuse is just mind boggling. These people should have psychiatrist evaluations to see what is wrong with them. What is fuelling this kind of crime and violence? A lot more research is needed on child abuse.”

Activists have been lobbying for years for child rights laws and for amendments that make them stronger. Shireen Mazari did take to Twitter to say that reforms must be made in the Domestic Workers’ Act. But with such a negligent attitude from the government towards child protection, not many are hopeful.

Xari Jalil is a journalist who reports from Karachi and Lahore. Her areas of interest include crime, society and art. She tweets at @xarijalil.