Death of maid, 12, symbolizes Pakistani poor


POSTED: Saturday, February 06, 2010

LAHORE, PAKISTAN—The death already seemed like a bitter injustice. A maid died after unexplained injuries she got in the house of her rich employer. But one detail in particular has outraged Pakistanis: She was 12.

Her employer—a lawyer and a former head of the Lahore Bar Association—says she fell down stairs, and died Jan. 22 of complications from a skin disease. Her family claims she was tortured. The employer remains in police custody while they investigate the family's charges.

Whatever the case, the death of Shazia Masih, a wisp of a girl from a bone-poor family, has served as a vivid reminder of the powerlessness of the poor in Pakistan.

Many wealthy Pakistanis employ children as servants, often to help with their own youngsters, a relatively common practice that Pakistani law does not prohibit. Slight and shadowy figures at the edges of birthday parties and nights out in fancy restaurants, these young servants, who rarely earn more than 50 dollars a month, form a growing portion of Pakistan's domestic labor force.

The root of the problem is poverty, Pakistanis say, and a law would do little to stem the tide of desperate young people from the countryside looking for work.

“;You can't imagine the poverty,”; said Muhamed Sharif, an employment agent who supplies maids, gardeners and security guards to wealthy residents of Lahore. “;Sometimes they come in hungry. They will do anything for work.”;

It was raw need that brought Shazia into the house of Chaudhry Naeem, a prominent lawyer who lives in a wealthy neighborhood in this leafy city in eastern Pakistan. She received $8 a month to wash his floors, his cars and his toilets, her mother said, money that went toward paying off a family debt. Her parents, a house cleaner and a trash collector, earn $62 a month, too little to afford meat or fruit.

The system seemed to conspire against Shazia. The middleman who got her the job was pocketing a chunk of the little that Naeem paid her. Because Shazia was a minor, she was not issued a badge by the neighborhood security agency, making her invisible.

If Naeem's lawyer is to be believed, Shazia was even rejected by her mother, Nasreen Bibi, who promised repeatedly to take her back, but never showed up because she could not afford to keep her. Bibi denies the charge.

The circumstances of Shazia's death are in dispute. A lawyer for Naeem said Shazia was suffering from a skin disorder, probably scabies, and that Naeem had brought her to the hospital. She died while getting treatment, the lawyer said. Her death certificate says she died of blood poisoning.

Bibi says her daughter had been abused, an account that the medical examiner's preliminary report seems to support. It lists 17 injuries, including bruised swellings on her forehead, cheek and scalp, “;caused by blunt means.”; A more thorough medical report is due in coming weeks.

Sharif, whose agency is one of 10 serving Naeem's area, said that outright abuse was not common, but while the work was more comfortable than labor on farms, the maids were rarely treated well.

They lived a lonely life apart, using separate utensils, eating left-over food, and working more than 12-hour days. Children's heads are often shaved against lice. Few, if any, go to school.

An employee of the security agency for the neighborhood said that he had returned five children to their parents since 2008, after they had run away from masters that they said were abusive. The youngest, Allah Wasaya, a boy of 6, said his employer hit his feet with a golf club when he did not fetch the man's shoes fast enough.

The employee, who asked that his name not be used because he was not permitted to speak to journalists, disapproved of such behavior, but said there was little he could do but send the children home to conditions that might be even worse. “;We are not in a position to report them,”; he said of the wealthy residents.

As the poor get poorer in Pakistan, a job as a maid is valuable, even for a child. An estimated 40 percent of the population live beneath the poverty line, far higher than 30 percent in the 1990s.

Inflation around 40 percent, according to the Social Policy and Development Center, an economic policy organization in Karachi, has caused prices for electricity, gas and food to spike, pushing millions more into poverty, economists say.

A British Council report last fall estimated that Pakistan's economy would have to grow by 6 percent a year to keep up with the expanding population, which over the past 20 years has been growing at twice the world average. The economy grew by 2 percent in 2008, the last year for which the government has statistics.

That potentially disastrous imbalance seems to go unnoticed by Pakistan's political elite, whose power struggles in Islamabad are as distant—and irrelevant—to the poor as the workings of the U.S. Congress.

The lack of safety net has pushed people like Roxana, a 14-year-old with a bright face waiting for work in Sharif's office, out of school and into work to help her father, a plate seller, support 10 children.

Some relief has come in the form of the newly free news media, which made Shazia's case a national issue, prompting visits to her family from top officials and even a fat check from Pakistan's president.

Naeem's beleaguered lawyer, G. A. Khan Tariq, bemoaned the coverage, which he said blew an ordinary illness into a torture case. “;The media tried this case and issued its own verdict,”; he said.

The real test, however, will come in Pakistan's criminal justice system, a notoriously weak institution that is easily influenced by men in power.

“;Our justice system operates against the underprivileged,”; said I. A. Rehman, a prominent human rights activist. “;Will there be justice? I have my doubts.”;