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Iqbal Masih and Child Labor

It is said that children are the future of a nation. They are also the most vulnerable individuals needing immense care. But sadly these are only words. There are many legislations made for the protection of children. The United Nations introduced a convention for Children Right’s which is ratified globally. Almost all UN organizations are working for the better growth and future of children. UNESCO, ILO, WFO, and WHO are some to name, who are working in close collaboration with a complete focus on children. The motivation behind all these conventions is to diminish the violation of a child’s rights.


In 2015, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were introduced with a consensus by world leaders. Estimations were made up till the year 2030. About 52 million children will not reach their fifth year between the years 2019 and 2030, 150 million girls will be given off in child marriages below age 18, around 60 million children will not get their primary education and will be dropped out. The root cause of these exceeding numbers and ultimately exceeding violations is the alarming rates of poverty. So to end poverty these goals were set to curb the abuse of children’s rights.


But let’s take a look at history, where a child hero named Iqbal lived in Muridke, Pakistan. To understand Iqbal and his contribution to child rights we have to dig deep and the ending will surely surprise you. Iqbal Masih like many children in Pakistan was born into a destitute family. Upon his birth, his father, Saif Masih, abandoned the family. Iqbal’s mother, Inayat Bibi, hardly made ends meet by working as a housemaid.


When Iqbal was only four years old, he was sold into bonded labor. The reason will make you question your life choices. A wonderment about what poverty and social norms force you to do. Iqbal was sold out by his father because his elder brother was to be married. They took a debt of 600 rupees, approximately 12 dollars from a carpet weaver. Iqbal was sold off till the time debt was paid off. Such is the life of a downtrodden child and countless others. Where marriage is more important than a 4-year-old child’s basic human rights! Marriage is another deeply entrenched social norm that is widely practiced but the responsibilities are less talked about. We shall read more about that later, but let’s see what happened to Iqbal.


The deed was done under an outlandish “norm” called “peshgi”.  It is a gruesome law in which the employer is the master and little children (mostly) are slaves. Their treatment is beyond horrific. Iqbal was to learn the weaving skills and then work for almost 12 hours to 14 hours a day for 6 days a week in the factory. The amount of expense on his food, accommodation, and tools he used were added to the debt. Not only that, there were more strict conditions. If Iqbal made any “mistake” , ran away, became sick, or broke any “rule” then he was punished. The “loss” was added to the debt. This was the persecution faced by Iqbal and many countless children.


What to think and whom to blame? Parents? The carpet mafia in the face of a factory owner? The state? Yes, the state. Each state is bound to protect and educate its little helpless children. The social contract is a binding deal between the state and its citizens. So the burden of responsibility lies on the state. Eventually, an act came to be named as The Employment of Children Act, 1991. This act abolishes all kinds of violations of the rights of children. Furthermore, all bonded laborers were to be freed and exempted from their debts. Any person found guilty would be severely charged with imprisonment of “one year or with a fine which may extend to twenty thousand rupees or with both.”


What distinguish Iqbal are the following events and his willingness to act bravely.  In the following years Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF) was founded. This organization was founded by Ehsanullah who did social activism against bonded labor. Iqbal decided to run away and came across BLLF. He was saved by the organization and sent to Lahore. There Iqbal was educated and vowed to free his fellows too.


Iqbal and Ehsanullah


Iqbal posed as a factory worker in his previous workplace and risked his life for information. Soon with the help of BLLF, hundreds of children were freed and the factory was shut down. Iqbal was called a “child militant” for his brave act. Iqbal gave several speeches and became the spokesperson for BLLF. He wanted to become a lawyer to fight against this cruel system. Iqbal freed almost 3000 children.


Iqbal Masih


Iqbal’s activism began to be known worldwide. He was called to the US and Sweden to give speeches. He was awarded ‘Reebok Youth in Action Award’ in 1994. Several accolades were made to his name. But there was a tragedy awaiting him.


On April 16, 1995, Iqbal was shot dead in a field at Chak 16, his hometown. His two cousins, Faryad and Liaquat, were also present at the crime scene. Now there are two theories regarding Iqbal’s murder. One theory is that Iqbal saw a man raping a donkey in the field and he shot at Iqbal. Iqbal died while his cousins were unharmed. The other theory and which is more likely to be believed is that Iqbal was shot by the carpet mafia. The man in the field was also an employee of a carpet mafia and he was presented as a cover-up. Iqbal also received threats just two weeks before his death. His life was in danger because of his vigorous activism and fame. The FIR was also controversial because the gunshots were too many in number and didn’t appear to be shot in vain. Iqbal was buried in his hometown and almost 800 people attended the funeral.


The issue was highlighted and Asma Ahsan Group was formed by notable lawyer Asma Jahangir and BLLF president Ehsanullah. They worked together from 1986 to 1990. But nothing came out, regardless of appeal in the Supreme Court. The end came out to be a hastened murder by an animal rapist. But the issue remains there.


 According to data collected by the International Labor Organization (ILO), almost 3.8 million children are part of the bonded labor workforce. One-third of them have not even attended school. Remittances are being sent but the situation needs much more diligent work and effort. The future of children is at stake and it must be saved, at all cost.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Edited By: Ritaja Kar


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Tags: ILO Bonded Labor Ehsanullah Child labor Child militant The employment of children Act 1991 Iqbal Masih Bonded Labor Liberation Front BLLF



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