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Zohra and the silence

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Millions of little slaves in the world

12 June 2020

The power of images is also measured by their ability to arouse indignation and trigger spontaneous protest movements. So it was for the video that showed the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I wonder why, instead, another equally tragic incident did not trigger the same wave of planetary anger. And yet, for several days now, the photo of the lifeless tiny body of a little girl with evident signs of violence has been circulating in newspapers and on the web. The photo, — whomever it may portray — has served to bring to light the tragic ordeal of Zohra Shah and of many girls like her.

Zohra was only eight years old,  but despite her tender age, she worked as a maid for a wealthy family in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Zohra was therefore one of too many children around the world who are forced to give up their childhood to work. But Zohra was still just a little girl and, perhaps in response to the magnificent instincts of little ones at play, she let two parrots escape from their cage. And for this reason Zohra was tortured, probably raped and finally killed by the couple for whom she worked. According to neighbours’ reports, it appears that the two continued their savage beating despite the little girl’s pleas. Only  four months earlier Zohra had left her home to work for the Rawalpindi couple. The couple who is currently in prison,  had deceived Zohra, promising her that they would allow her to study in exchange for her work.

Sadly, what happened is  not an isolated case. Four years ago a judge and his wife tortured and killed their maid who was only 10 years old. The initial prison sentence of three years was later reduced to just one.

In January, a 16-year-old girl was murdered by the family who hired her, because she was “guilty” of protesting about the quality of the food. While child labour is generally prohibited in Pakistan, it is permitted in families and restaurants. Now, at the urging of civil rights organizations and some ngos (which have also launched the hashtag #justiceforzohrashah), it seems that the Pakistani authorities intend to include domestic work on the list of dangerous occupations.

However, millions of children are actually in danger as they are forced to work every day and at every latitude. Last year, on the eve of the World Day against Child Labour (12 June), the data was released on this worldwide scandal of which  too little is said. Approximately 152 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are victims of labour exploitation. Almost half of these — 74 million — are forced to perform work that puts their health and safety at serious risk, with psychological repercussions as well. Sixty-four million girls and 88 million boys are deprived of the childhood to which they are entitled; removed from school, deprived of the protection they need and the opportunity to build a future for themselves.

Of course, some progress has been made. In 2000 the number of child workers was well over 200 million, but the current figure of 152 million is still very high. Suffice  to say that if all these minors lived in the same territory it would be the ninth most populous country in the world. And if, as mentioned, some signs of improvement are noticeable (especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, where since 2002 there has been a 26% decrease in the number of minors employed in dangerous activities), it seems that the goal of eradicating child labour by 2025 set out in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, is a long way off. According to last year’s estimates, by that date there will still be 121 million children forced to work.

According to unicef, the phenomenon is concentrated above all in less developed areas of the planet, as a by-product of that poverty which it then helps to reproduce. However, as it is well known, there is no lack of cases of child labour even in marginal areas in the world’s wealthy North. According to data from the International Labour Organization, among the dangerous activities in which children are involved are mines, where they are in contact with chemicals and agricultural pesticides or with dangerous machinery. This is the case for children employed in mines in Cambodia, tea plantations in Zimbabwe, just to cite a few. Among the worst forms of child exploitation is that of those who work in the streets, that is, the use of all those children who, in large cities in Asia, Latin America and Africa, try to survive by collecting refuse for recycling or by selling food and drinks.  In the Senegalese capital city of Dakar alone, there are 8,000 children living as beggars. Another aspect of this tragic metropolitan reality is sexual exploitation, which involves one million children every year.

But while the various forms of child labour — even the most degrading — can be quantified in some way, less can be said of those jobs that escape statistical evaluation: such as domestic and family labour, in which girls like Zohra and other little Pakistani  Cinderellas are employed. Whether working in their own home or someone else’s, it often becomes a veritable form of slavery for girls, forcing them to live in the nightmare of violence and abuse. Too much silence surrounds the lives of these little slaves, who instead ask to be made visible. And who, above all, ask for  justice.

Giuseppe Fiorentino