June 14, 2020
By Ahmed Saeed
Three year old Khadija Shah has yet to fully understand the fact that her older sister, Zohra Shah, is no longer coming home. Snuggling into her grandfather’s lap, a place of refuge, she often voices out her confidence that her deceased sister will come through the door to visit her any day now. Her parents and grandparents have yet to have the heart to tell her as well as her other five siblings that Zohra had been beaten mercilessly to death by her employers for accidentally setting free some parrots.
Zohra’s mother, Samina Abbas, has spent every waking moment since the loss of her child in absolute despair and heartache. She wants justice – not monetary compensation – for the barbarity meted out to her eight year old daughter.
Zohra worked as a domestic worker in the Rawalpindi home of an exotic bird trader, Hassan Siddiqui and his wife Umme Kulsoom. She was regularly beaten, often with implements, over trivial matters and sometimes over nothing at all. Footage recovered from the accused couple’s cellphones by Rawalpindi police showed Zohra was also subjected to humiliation as well. In one clip, she is recorded being forced inside a bird cage as punishment.
“I do not want a single rupee, I do not want a single thing. It does not matter how poor my family is, we can always get by. What I want is justice. An example should be made out of those two for what they have done to a little child,” Samina despaired from behind a veil that had worn out and grayed with dust – mirroring her own soul. “They killed her over a bird. Her face was covered with wounds and bruises, she was murdered.”
Zohra’s parents said their daughter wanted to go to school. She loved studying, but her parents could not fulfill her wishes due to abject poverty and the fact that the nearest school was around 10 kilometers away from their home. The girl’s parents were then approached by her maternal uncle, who said Zohra could make a living as a domestic maid for the well-to-do Hassan Siddiqui in Rawalpindi. The eight-year-old agreed, believing this to be her opportunity to finally acquire an education in the rich metropolitan.
“She said she wanted to be a doctor and help us,” revealed her grandfather, Fazal Hussain Shah, recalling the many times she had requested him to buy her books. “I did not want her to leave my side but when she was told she would be able to study there and she would have new clothes to wear, she agreed to work. How could she have known what fate her life would take?”
Fazal Hussain stated that after Zohra had gone to Rawalpindi, they would rarely ever hear from her. Her employers were always nearby whenever she talked to her family, and perhaps that is why she was unable to tell them about the abuse she was suffering. Everything changed on the night of May 31st, when they received a call from the police.
“She spent four whole months there, and then out of the blue we received a phone call from the police asking me to come to Rawalpindi immediately because my granddaughter was severely wounded and unconscious,” he added. “We reached the city the following evening, but by then Zohra had passed away. The police told us to take her body away for burial, but asked us to come back to complete the investigation.”
According to Tahir Shah, Zohra’s father, claimed it was the police that had informed him that his girl had been killed by Hassan for releasing a caged parrot, and that her body bore obvious torture marks.
“Their neighbours told me they would brutalize my child regularly, even starving her for an entire day or two. There were so many bruises and wounds on her body, some old, some fresh. Her forehead was wounded and her crown was burst open… she was just a child, and she was made to bear so much,” he lamented.
Rawalpindi police have registered a case against Hassan and his wife under Section 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention), and Section 324 (attempt to murder) of the Pakistan Penal Code. Section 324 carries a minimum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum of 10.
But Zohra also had some bruises around her genitals, which has led the family and the police to believe that the girl may have also been sexually assaulted. However, according to Siddiqui’s statement to the police, the couple would also kick the girl between her legs during beatings.
Regardless, Rawalpindi police have also booked the accused under Section 336 (punishment for rape), which can land Siddique a minimum or 10 and a maximum of 25 years in imprisonment. A swab sample has been dispatched to a forensics lab to determine whether or not Zohra was also an unfortunate victim of child sexual abuse in addition to physical and emotional torture.
Meanwhile, the couple is currently in judicial remand, awaiting trial. Although the police have assured Zohra’s family that they will bring her murderers to justice, Fazal Hussain revealed they are being threatened by the relatives of the accused and have even been bribed to withdraw the case.
“I am receiving phone calls every day, they are pressuring us to agree to a settlement. They tell us if we do not take the money, they will use it to bribe the police instead and have the case tossed out, and we will get nothing out of it,” he alleged. “But I want nothing but justice for my granddaughter, and I am willing to go to any lengths to ensure it. I will sell my house if need be, but nothing can make me back down.”
Zohra Shah’s little sisters are often out playing in their rudimentary yard, unaware of the tragedy that has befallen their family. They still often look toward the door, expecting to see Zohra standing there, having just come back from Rawalpindi and ready to join their game.
“She used to buy these little knickknacks for her little sisters. They dearly miss her. My youngest son asks when Zohra will return. He demands to know whether or not the funeral we held was Zohra’s,” said Samina. “Sometimes I give in and I tell him that it really was Zohra, other times I say it was someone else. Yet he always wants to know if Zohra will come back soon.”
Child labour is a social ill still rampant in Pakistan despite several laws outlawing the practice. Pakistan’s first set of laws prohibiting child labour were not passed until early 1990 after a push from activists – the most important of which, the Employment of Children Act 1991, for which prominent human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir played a key role in drafting and lobbying. The Act helped to legally define childhood and adolescence according to the UN’s Charter of Human Rights.
The Act outlaws hard and hazardous labour for children, defined as anyone of 14 years of age and below, and bans the recruitment of adolescents, defined as persons aged between 14 and 18 years, for military service. The 1994 Punjab Compulsory Education Act criminalizes withholding a child under 16 years of age from acquiring a primary education. Moreover, the Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019 prohibits employing a child under the age of 15 to work as a domestic servant in a household in any capacity.
As per these laws, in the first place, Zohra should have never have had to toil as a domestic worker, babysitting someone else’s child and performing various domestic chores. She should have led a happy and fulfilled childhood studying in school like she had always dreamed of, and to come back home to play with her siblings. Despite this, Zohra, like millions of other similar children are forced to work either as domestic servants or as labourers, and end up losing their childhood.