Selling Your Child for a Bag of Flour

Jun 16, 2011
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More than 1 million cases of parents selling their children into slavery or forced marriages in Pakistan, and in one instance, for a bag of flour.

977 Feeding children has become harder for impoverished families, some of whom can no longer afford to provide a decent meal for them. Photo: Kamila HyatMuhammad Ahsan gave his son away to his employer, a brick-kiln owner, after failing to pay back money he had earlier borrowed, but feels embarrassed that the boy has ended up working as a domestic helper in the latter’s home in Lahore.

“I owed him Rs.100,000 [US$1,176] I had borrowed and couldn’t afford to pay back,” Ahsan said. “He agreed to write off the amount if I `gave’ him my 10-year-old son, Sajjad, to work in his house as a domestic worker, washing dishes and cleaning floors.

“I am ashamed because I have in fact `sold’ my son, and ended his schooling to do so. But perhaps I can now afford to educate my two younger sons.”

His story is not unique. Despite laws that forbid it bonded debt labour is common in Pakistan. The U.S. government, in a 2009 report, describes Pakistan as a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and sexual exploitation.

Pakistan's largest human trafficking problem is that of bonded labour

Pakistan's largest human trafficking problem, according to the report, is that of bonded labour.Concentrated in Sindh and Punjab provinces, it is particularly common in brick kilns, carpet-making, agriculture, fishing, mining, leather tanning, and production of glass bangles. Estimates of victims of bonded labour vary widely, but together with those in forced marriages and women who are traded between tribal groups to settle disputes or as payment, are likely to exceed 1 million, it said.

The Karachi-based NGO the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, in a 2003 study, found that over half a million people were working at brick kilns as bonded labourers. More recent data is hard to come by.

The Pakistani National Coalition Against Bonded Labour, which is made up of a group of local NGOs, describes the practice as “one of the least known forms of slavery today but responsible for enslaving millions of people around the world”.

Apart from paying debts, parents also sell, or attempt to sell, children for other reasons.

In the southern Punjab town of Vehari, Ghazala Bibi, once stood at a city square for over seven hours, seeking “buyers” for her three children, Mahnoor, aged nine, Abdullah, seven, and Masooma, four. “My husband is a drug addict and I can no longer manage to feed my children,” Ghazala, a domestic worker, said.

She said that by selling them, she hoped they would gain a better life.

In another case reported in November 2010, four children in Vehari put up a banner offering themselves for sale to pay for a kidney transplant required by their mother, Aqsa Parveen, 35. The provincial government of the Punjab intervened and arranged to bear the costs of the surgery.

People stage 'mock' sales, simply to obtain charity

“I believe some people stage `mock’ sales, simply to obtain charity. But even in such cases the people are generally desperate and believe they have no choice,” Sumera Jabeen, a community health worker, told IRIN. She also said more people were sending children out to beg for food.

More pushed into poverty

In a report released in April, the Asian Development Bank noted that a food price hike of over 10% in the first few months of 2011 had pushed a further 6.94 million Pakistanis into poverty. It noted that the price of wheat had risen by 10% this year and rice by 13.1%.

“We can no longer manage to offer our five children even a single decent meal. Prices are too high, I was recently laid off from my factory and now do only odd jobs, earning around Rs. 6,000 [US$70] a month. Almost the entire amount goes on buying food,” Fareed Ahmed, a textile factory worker, told IRIN.

There have also been reports of parents attempting to sell children – in one case from Quetta, the capital of Balochistan Province, simply for a bag of wheat flour.

“There is no doubt at all economic conditions are getting tougher for people. Prices are indeed rising by the day and people struggle to manage. But persons who stand by the roadside, trying to sell children, are essentially staging a drama-seeking media attention and hoping someone will give them money,” said Anwar Kazmi, a spokesman for the charitable Edhi Foundation in Karachi.

What we need is a strategy to create a social safety net for the destitute, generate employment and also to control inflation

A member of the district administration in Vehari who asked not to be named, agreed. “The problem is that politicians rush to give money to these people and gain publicity, which is why people stage these stunts – but this is no solution. What we need is a strategy to create a social safety net for the destitute, generate employment and also to control inflation,” he said.

According to the National Coalition Against Bonded Labour, those affected essentially forfeit their right to employment, to move freely, and to sell his or her labour at market value. These actions violate internationally recognised human rights.

This article was first published in IRIN.