A less known, if not forgotten, symbol of fight against child labour is Iqbal Masih. His story has inspired many individuals and organisations alike. From social activists to Noble Peace Prize winners, all have found inspiration in him and have not gone without mentioning him in their speeches.
At an age when he should have been admitted to a school, he was sold in bondage for amount equivalent to less than 7 US$. His mother was to get operated and the family had no resources except to take a loan from a local businessman who in return took their son, who was 5 years at that time, in bondage. Which meant that the child would work for the carpet weaver until the loan is paid back. His family’s financial burdens kept growing which forced them to take more and more loan from the businessman. It meant that Iqbal would work longer and longer until the debt gets cleared. He was made to work more than 12 hours a day, less than half an break and worked 7 days a week at a rate of few cents for the loan to get his mother operated. Not only this, he was kept under-nutrient (same for other children working in that factory). He stood 4 feet tall which is 12 inches shorter than average boys of his age. Small fingers of carpet weavers would in turn bring an added benefit for the carpet factories. The working conditions for children working in those factories were below human dignity.
From start, as it should be the case for children of his age, he had a dream to get educated but the circumstances did not favour him. One time he managed to escape and reached the local police. He made a complaint that the factory owner has beaten him and makes him work forcefully. The custodians of law brought him back to the factory in return for petty bribe and advised the factory owner of stronger bondage in the future. This time he, similar to other children working in the factory, was bound with chains to stop them from escaping. One day, Iqbal learnt that the Supreme Court of Pakistan has banned the Child Labour. With high hopes he managed to escape again and joined Bonded Labour Liberation Front. On hearing his story, a patron figure named Ehsan Ullah Khan started his efforts to free him from bondage and after his zealous struggle, Ehsan was able to free Iqbal from bondage. Iqbal also toured various cities of Pakistan where child slavery was known to exist and spread awareness. He remained keen to get education and finished four years of school education in a period of two years.
“Children should have pens in their hands, not tools”- Iqbal Masih once said.
He travelled internationally and spoke against child labour and invited masses to stand with him against child labour.On returning Pakistan after his tour of United States he was shot dead while he was on his way home. While being in USA, he was asked why he wants to return to Pakistan when he knows his life is in danger there. He courageously responded that that his mission was more important than his life and he wants to realise what he has dreamt of. His murder was soon made up an accident. Majority, however, still believe that he was shot by the agents of carpet industry. Though his breaths were cut short but his message and effort is still alive. He has, till date, inspired thousands of individuals and organisations. He is by all means the symbol of courage to stand up against child labour in South Asia. The situation in the country has improved but still not as ideal as Iqbal wanted it to be.
The situation has certainly improved over the years however Pakistan still remains a country with third largest child force. Figures (2014) show that somewhere between 9-12 million children in child labour in its various forms. The highest number of children (ages 10-14) are found to be associated with any of the different forms of agricultural sector that contributes a quarter to its GDP(24%).
Sadly, Provincial Governments have not established a minimum working age, and the federal minimum age for hazardous work falls short of international standards. To end the remaining child labour, it is a priority task for the federal and provincial governments to establish minimum working age. Historically the role of unions working against child labour has been pivotal. Strengthening them should be a priority for the government. The education standards are shamefully low. What remained the least prioritised sector for subsequent governments, education in Pakistan has always been ignored and remains under-developed. The government will have to invest more in education sector to improve the situation. As Nelson Mandela emphasised the importance of education in his famous words.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”-Nelson Mendela
His words act as a guideline for the stakeholders to use education as a tool to bring about the positive changes in the world we desire. Its never too late to get your priorities right. It is requested to the governments and related departments to start working on its before the next dawn. Investment today in education would bring the highest returns in the near and distant future.
Thank you for your time.
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