When a report comes out naming the worst perpetrators of oppression of any sort, expect Pakistan to take a sizable share of the cake. Picture this: 2,058,200 has been the number revealed by the 2014 Global Slavery Index of Pakistanis under modern slavery. Can we take a moment to imagine how many oppressors that makes? What kind of culture needs to be prevalent for such chronic oppression to fester for generations? What callousness government after government must exhibit for it to continue and grow like it has? What indifference lawmakers have for this to not be legislated out? What disregard for the common people do political parties have to display for this to not be lobbied as a frontrunner in the cause list?
“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know,” said William Wilberforce. A look at the scale of this: in terms of the prevalence of modern slavery, Pakistan ranks sixth in the world and, in absolute terms, the highest number of people in modern slavery, Pakistan ranks at number three. Within Asia Pacific, the combined total of India, Pakistan and Thailand equals almost 50 percent of the total number of people living in modern slavery globally. The global figure is 35.8 million. For Pakistan, this over one percent of its population is particularly vulnerable because of the looming conflict. In this case, the report says, “Exploitation becomes an immediate threat.” Calculating vulnerability by studying Pakistan’s policy, human rights, development, state stability and discrimination, the report reveals that Pakistan ranks at number four.
Modern slavery in Pakistan is mostly debt bondage in ungoverned industries like the brick kiln that has 4.5 million people across the country, agriculture and carpet weaving. It is mostly prevalent in Punjab and Sindh. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), brick kiln labourers are “either kept in captivity by armed guards or their family members become virtual hostages”. Women and children are even more vulnerable; there are an estimated 10 million child workers in Pakistan, 3.8 million of whom are five to 14 years old. Between 2010 and 2013, 41 cases of torture against child domestic workers were reported in the Pakistani media. Of this, 34 were girls and 19 resulted in death.
Neither the social stigma nor the honour culture protects women and children from being sold for sex among these workers. There is mounting evidence that this sexual exploitation is the norm because families are compelled to sell children to pay off their debts. Despite the social stigma and shame associated with commercial sex in Pakistan, pre-pubescent girls are commonly pushed into forced prostitution. Pakistanis are among the top 10 nationalities of suspected traffickers in Europe.
Not only do we need a befitting criminal justice system that has the mechanisms of eliminating modern slavery, we specifically need to create a lasting change in our attitudes, social systems and institutions that enable it. When it comes to attitudes, our employment of domestic staff reeks of oppression in the cities where there is a firmer grasp of the law, rural areas and, particularly, agriculture-based workers are more prone to abuse. Systemic and horrific levels of abuse can only take place in an environment that perpetrates a cultural sanction of slavery.
Sadly, new levels of religious obsession have not provided relief to the weakest in society. Islam, revered for getting a slave to lead the first call of prayer in the person of Hazrat Bilal, has now been brought to a point by some of its fickle followers to have these sad figures. Here is an idea for jihad: we need clerics to champion these cases for the elimination of modern slavery. There is a role for the international community to play as well. No public procurement should be put through in Pakistan unless it is free of contemporary slavery. If Pakistan can source the FIFA world cup 2014 footballs by abiding by international labour standards, it can do so for other contracts too.
This is a greater problem for Pakistan than all other problems put together because it reflects the soul of the people of this nation. This report should not just be a shock to our conscience, it should galvanise the people to use all force and effort to stamp out the demon of modern slavery. Our spiritual health demands this; without the effort, we are pure evil.