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Babes at work

The massive metal gong at Developments in Literacy (DIL)’s Sojro school clangs to signal the mid-morning break, but Deedar Ali isn’t rushing out of class so he can join the other children in break-time games. He is hoping to sell a handful of chanas (chickpeas) to anyone who can afford to spend five rupees on lunch.

“I do wonder what it’s like to play, but I have a responsibility. I need to sell these. My older brothers are mean to my mother; they don’t give her anything from their mazdoori (work earnings), so I must find ways to help us eat now that my father is gone.”

Deedar acknowledges he is hungry, but he won’t eat even a handful of his chanas himself, because he says he would be eating into his potential profits. At the tender age of seven, he is already reconciled to the need to serve as his family provider. And there is no rancour or resentment in his voice or his body language as he claps and cheers for the children playing a game he is watching from a distance. But 20 minutes later, his confidence collapses and his eyes glaze over with tears. “No one bought anything today. I will try to sell after school. I’m only crying because I know my mother will cry if I go home empty-handed. She is hungry most days,” he says.

Walking through the fields surrounding the school, Deedar calls out in a deliberately deep voice, broadcasting his “delicious” boiled chickpeas with masala and lemon. A shepherd appears in the distance, and Deedar, one of 12 million child labourers in Pakistan according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), gets visibly excited about a prospective sale. “They normally buy two handfuls at a time,” he states.

To most eight-year-olds who are heading out to play in the lush green fields surrounding the DIL Subhodero school in Khairpur, Akash sounds like an old man. Understandably. “I have to make sure I’m at the shop where I work for the second shift. I need to save up a lot of money to get my brothers out of the orphanage,” he discloses.

When his father died, Akash was three. His mother remarried, and abandoned her three children. Akash’s uncle enrolled two of them in an orphanage in Larkana. But when he came for Akash, his father’s former employers offered him a better deal. “My father used to work in a shop, and the owners said, ‘leave Akash here. We will raise him and he can work in the shop and earn his keep and live here.’ I was lucky. My brothers in the orphanage are always hungry,” he says.

Akash earns 2,000 rupees a month, out of which he spends 500 rupees on transport when he goes to visit his brothers twice a month, and another 500 rupees which he gives his brothers every time he visits them, if he has managed to salvage this amount.

Examining the fraying fabric and torn straps on his sandals, Akash draws his feet back out of view under the chair he is sitting on, and says, “Sometimes I only give my brothers 300 rupees. I don’t always have that much to leave with them. Sometimes I have to buy chappals (sandals).”

He adds, “I like to keep calculating how much money I have to make and how many years it will take to do so, to get my brothers out of the orphanage. This keeps me from being sad.”

But every morning, as Akash tugs his shirt over his head, the practical, adult mind gives way to the child he still is as he thinks of how his father helped him get ready for school. Those morning moments are the hardest, he discloses. And then there are the minutes before he surrenders to sleep.

“At night, when I sleep, I miss my father and I cry. I try not to cry every day – sometimes I am too tired to cry. And in the morning, I remember that he used to dress me, and make me laugh. I wish he was here. I would ask him for some kharchee (pocket money) too.”

Akash’s class teacher tells us, “Although our schools are 70 per cent female, because it’s mostly girls who are deprived of an education, we investigate in the community and keep 30 per cent of our spaces for boys who are really deserving. We understand children like Akash have to work, but we encourage them to participate in play and concentrate on lessons so that they can look forward to better lives in the future.”

It’s been a while since the school bell rang and the courtyard cleared out for the day. But there is a girl standing a few feet away, looking in Akash’s direction, tugging at her headscarf as the wind undoes the flimsy knot under her chin, and leaves her head bare. “I can take your books home and keep the food covered for you,” she offers. He nods, casting a grateful, half-smile in her direction.

“That’s the owner’s daughter; she is my special friend, we talk when I am sad,” Akash says, then falls silent for a few minutes. When he speaks again, he is enthusiastic about the future: “She gives me good advice. She says when I finish school I can be an officer in a government office, and buy a house. Then my brothers will be free. I hate to leave them in the orphanage, but right now I have nowhere to put them. Magar main mahnat karta hoon, kamata hoon (but I strive, I work hard and earn). I will make it happen.”

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF, there were upwards of 12 million documented cases of child labour in Pakistan at the end of 2013. But experts says this is a conservative number, pointing at instances of casual child labour that is not considered out of the ordinary in a poverty-stricken society. Labour Watch Pakistan reports suggest a much higher count: 40 million child labourers between the ages of five and 14 in Pakistan. Akash is one of 8.6 million in Sindh. The eight-year-old cuts a forlorn figure against the dusty streets flanking his shop, his shirt collar worn out by too many washes.

Two older boys, still in uniform, run up to Akash, clearly pleased to see him. He continues talking: “When I graduate from tenth grade, I will be an officer, and I won’t be needing kharchee, I will have a big income, and I will buy a house…”

“You will buy a house? You talk like a father, like an old man! Who will cook in that house?” a friend of his asks, curious. “Bhabi! (my sister-in-law),” Akash replies instantly. His class teacher overhears the answer, and asks, “And you? Won’t you get married?”

Akash appears nonplussed for a moment. He hasn’t given his own marriage or future much thought beyond saving up enough to take care of his brothers.

“No I don’t think so. Officers have a lot of work to do…”

The little group around him sputters and chuckles. A deep red stain steals slowly into the veins under Akash’s cheekbones before he joins in the laughter. A teacher ruffles his hair. A friend whispers something to him before they all run off towards the gate. He turns, and runs back, “Thank you for talking to me,” he says, shaking our hands before running to rejoin his friends.

After roaming the fields in search of cattle-herders – potential buyers – Deedar has sold only seven portions of chickpeas. It is evident he is tired and disappointed, but he is not giving up. “When I realised how we were living, how little we had to eat, I knew I had to go out to work. I offered. No one forced me. Sometimes people talk ill about my mother, but she works hard. Still we don’t have enough food to eat, so I sell chana and papad (crispy crackers) that she makes on a tray… I try really hard to sell; I go everywhere I can, but sometimes older boys, bullies, steal my wares; sometimes I get chased away, because the people in the shops don’t want me selling on their turf.”

Deedar has been threatened, beaten and bullied. But still he persists. “The shopkeepers tell me they will snatch away my papads if I come back; they say they will beat me till I can’t walk, but if I don’t do it, who will care for my mother? How will we eat? I earn 50 rupees a day and we cannot do without that money. Sometimes I buy a storybook, but most of the time I buy oil and flour.” He adds, “When I come home with more than 50 rupees, my mother smiles. I love that. It makes me happy. I wish people would stop asking me, ‘Who forces you to work at such a young age?’”

It is an intrinsic understanding of the desperate need to stem the hunger, pain and suffering of their loved ones that keeps Deedar, Akash and Zaheer from embracing their role as children, forcing them to take on their family’s financial burdens as adults.

Pakistan’s leaders have put their signatures to every treaty against child labour. They have endorsed every law that prohibits the use of young children in workplaces, but these laws remain unenforced and ignored, pushing more and more children into the workplace each year as the country’s population continues to grow.


Developments in Literacy (DIL) is an NGO that believes in a holistic approach to education, working on, among other things, building the earning-capacity of the mothers of children they educate, as well as hosting adult literacy classes to help women boost their status in the household. They have deep roots in the community, sourcing local talent and teachers to run their schools and offices, providing employment and keeping track of the pulse of the community so they are the first to know when children are trapped in traumatic circumstances. Students receive support beyond school through scholarships and vocational opportunities, so as to provide pathways to income and defer employment. DIL’s field officers are trained to mediate and run community consultations, where they convince villagers and town-dwellers to give up ritualistic practices that keep women and children in a suffocating cycle of oppression and injustice. In Sindh, DIL has partnered with NOWA and the Indus Resource Centre (IRC) to educate and support communities on issues as wide-ranging as honour killings and adla badla(child marriage), a child in exchange for property, or conflict-resolution marriage.

Article & Photography: Fatima Najm

“We take extra care of these children, we make sure we make allowances for them; we help them catch up with their schoolwork, and we make sure they know they can come to us with their issues, no matter how small,” explains Saima, a DIL field officer. “Often these children have to deal with the taunts of the outside world. Here, inside the classroom we can protect them, and we explain to other children what the dignity of labour means, but outside they are often humiliated by older boys, by bullies.”It’s not the bullying that drives nine-year-old Zaheer Abbas to tears, nor the fact that he has to knock at the doors of five or six homes before someone gives him a piece of bread and a little curry to wet it with. “It hurts sometimes when I am hungry and people say ‘no,’ and it hurts sometimes when the older boys are screaming and laughing about how poor my father is – but I can take that.”

It is when Zaheer doesn’t make enough sales from his cart that he returns home in tears. He says soberly, “Thayla pay say baichna mushkil hai, jiss ki bari dukaan hai achhca baichta hai, aur phir baray larkay cheen kay cheesein lay jatay hain. Paisay nahin daytay…” (It is difficult to sell your wares off a cart – those who have big shops make good sales. And then the big boys grab the stuff I’m selling and don’t pay me).

But then his mood lightens. He continues, “I also fix motorbikes. Do you know anyone who will hire me in his workshop? I work hard and I don’t eat much…”

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