Trigger warning: Mentions of child abuse and sexual assault

Life is colorful when you’re eight. You see the world for all its beauty. You see a bird, and you want to set it free. You don’t really know negativity or pain.

You aren’t supposed to.

But in Pakistan, when you’re eight, people employ you as domestic workers. They bully you. They assault you. They beat you. And sometimes, they even take away your life.

That’s what happened to young Zohra Shah from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, who was working as a child maid. She tried to free a caged parrot. At eight years old, she saw the cruelest side of humankind. 

Zohra was brought into the hospital on May 31st, with injuries on her rib cage, hands, face, and even her thighs (which pertain to the notion that she was probably sexually assaulted by her filthy employers).

What kind of a person, firstly, “employs” a child?

Secondly, what kind of humans beat a child to her death for letting a parrot free?

The employers claimed that it was an “expensive” parrot. To them, a parrot’s life was more valuable than a child’s. Both employers are currently in police custody. And yet, that doesn’t give me any kind of relief.

It was recently revealed that Zohra Shah was tortured regularly by the couple, Umme Kulsoom and Hasan Siddiqui. Even worse, they would actually record these incidents, finding sick pleasure in the pain of an innocent child.

Moreover, images of Zohra locked in a cage were discovered as well. Every new piece of information further breaks my heart. But that’s the awful truth, isn’t it? Pakistan’s dirty disregard for its minors. The blatant ignorance of the grave effects of child labor. The desperation to feed one’s family.  Over ten children are abused every single day in Pakistan.

We need to do better. We need to do more.

Zohra, you didn’t deserve this.

You saw the world for everything it had to offer, and I’m sorry that we failed you. I’m sorry that we live in a society that constantly fails young girls like you.

Every new piece of information further breaks my heart. But that’s the awful truth, isn’t it?

This family had promised to educate Zohra Shah and to provide her with a better future. Bullshit.

I think of 11-year-old Zainab Ansari, who was raped and murdered. I think of 10-year-old Tayyaba who was beaten with a ladle and detained in a storeroom by her employers (one of whom was a judge). I’m sickened constantly by these actions. I’m furious. I’m angry. I’m ready for the system to be dismantled.

For the laws to be updated and actually enforced. 

On January 11, 2020, the eve of Zainab’s second death anniversary, the Child Protection Bill was passed and enacted as the Zainab Alert Response and Recovery Act 2020 (“ZARRA”). Section 13 of ZARRA states a penalty ranging from a minimum of ten years of rigorous imprisonment along with a fine of Rs 1 Million to a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. However, the accused in the case of Zohra Shah could not be taken to task under this act for two primary reasons. 

How are the rights of children protected under the law when the law doesn’t punish the guilty adults?

Firstly, ZARRA only criminalizes the offenses of abduction and kidnapping. It does not extend to homicide.

Secondly, ZARRA can only be enforced within the territorial jurisdiction of the Islamabad Capital Territory. Therefore, as the place of the offense is Rawalpindi, which is geographically situated within the province of Punjab, recourse will have to be taken to the orthodox criminal legal system to bring justice to the perpetrators of this heinous act.

How are the rights of children protected under the law when the law doesn’t punish the cruel adults who mindlessly destroy childish innocence and freedom?

Emotional abuse, domestic abuse, economic exploitation, child abuse – we see so many wrongs within the framework of our society. This case highlights the grim disparity prevalent in Pakistan. Zohra, Zainab, Tayyaba are just a few cases that made the headlines.

Most of them don’t.

We need to use our voice. We need to use our privilege.

From time to time, provinces have attempted to regulate the employment of children within their legislative capacities. For example, The Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act 2017, and The Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Act 2016 were passed by the Provinces of Sindh and Punjab respectively.

However, such laws have not been able to create any deterrence.

It may be fair to say that even if the law is enforced, it is to be rendered futile if it fails to be implemented. Does our system somehow condone allowing people to hire child workers? The system is constantly failing us because there are not always consequences.

People get away with assault, abuse, and rape countless times. 

Is there even a difference between child labor and child abuse anymore? We need to educate those around us. If you know someone that employs a child, please speak to them about it. Tell them how wrong it is. Make them understand the effects on a child’s life. 

Zohra, Zainab, Tayyaba are just a few cases that made the headlines. Most of them don’t.

How many more cases like these will it take for our people to rise up? How many innocent lives will be lost before we see the cruelty that adds to the nails in the coffin? How many names will make us realize that our system needs revamping? 

Zohra, Pakistan fights for you. For your family. For your innocence. 

But today, we also take a stand. I vow to use my voice as a tool to continue to highlight the appalling misdoings of our people.

I want you to remember Zohra Shah. The girl that just wanted to set a bird free. And was killed for her innocence. 

Say her name. 

Mourn for her.

Remember her.

To those in Pakistan: if you are a victim of domestic abuse or know someone that is – call this helpline: 1099.


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  • Maheen Humayun

    Maheen Humayun is a writer, poet and educator based in Karachi, Pakistan. She has a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing. In addition to working as the Senior Editor for Love, she teaches literature in the day, and writes her own at night. Maheen has written for The Express Tribune and Dawn as well and her novella, "Special," was published in 2012. When she isn't writing for The Tempest, you can find her drinking copious amounts of black coffee, working on crushing the patriarchy, learning digital art, and doing spoken word poetry.