ONCE upon a time, in one of the neighbourhoods in Karachi’s PECHS area where I grew up, there stood two or three houses in each row of the demarcated land; the remaining plots lay vacant. Children would roam around, play in open spaces, climb the trees and go back home.
Fifty years have gone by and practically no plot has remained without a structure. I do find children on the streets, only boys though, between nine and 17 years, playing cricket in the afternoon for an hour or less. All are domestic help; the kids get some respite from their chores while their masters take a siesta. They live in this neighbourhood but belong to the fringes of society. Compelled to leave their homes up in the north, they supplement the household income through child labour in the city.
Though visible, child labour remains undocumented. One census taker told me that children engaged in domestic service were not counted in the 2017 census as they were not members of the households they lived in and that there was no category to document their existence.
While trade unions in Pakistan are by and large led exclusively by men, women too have played an important role in labour struggles in the informal sector.
Whether it was tenants rising up against landlords in the pre-Partition era, brick kilns and agricultural workers struggling for freedom from bondage in contemporary Sindh and Punjab, the peasants’ resistance against the military for land rights, or the fisherfolk’s struggle for rights on natural resources, women have emerged as leaders. They have mobilised marginalised communities to tackle tough challenges.