She was dressed in a light blue, almost-white shirt, a cobalt blue shalwar and a dark grey sweater. Around her neck was a grey shawl, muddied on the side shading it brown. Skinny arms, large, work-beaten hands, stiff, raised on one side, her fingers folded, covered in mud, her nails white, clipped to the point of being bitten. Her body was that of an 11-year-old, her face covered in bruises, dark, many. Her hair was scraggly, as if shorn by a child. Her tongue had a cut. Her chest had cuts. Her dead body was found in a large drain. She was 16 years old. Her name was Uzma.

Teenage girl who worked as a housekeeper in Allama Iqbal Town, Lahore, was found dead in Pakistan in the last week of January 2019. There was a lot of anger, and the body of a girl, almost a child, was found in a drain. The case was clearly one of torture and manslaughter, and the quick investigation led to the arrest of one of the k*illers and two of her helpers.

People all over Pakistan were outraged and saddened by what happened, and it also sparked a much-needed conversation about a subject that, despite being very important and often in the news, doesn’t seem to matter much to most people who are busy with their daily lives and has never really gotten the attention it deserves. A lot of violence happens to kids and teens who work as maids and servants in today’s society, where political correctness forces people to hide their obvious contempt for the poor with words that don’t really show the clear lines between who should be treated well and who should be treated worse than an animal. There is cruelty that is easy to see, ruthlessness that is so common it’s hard to miss, and apathy that is so clear it’s like neon lights are shining on it.

In a society where to keep underage children as domestic help is against the law but is still a common practice, the outrage over Uzma’s death should be that pivotal moment when things change. But how do you teach someone to not be cruel to a child whose familial destitution compelling her or him to say a hurried goodbye to a childhood unlived force her or him into a life of labour that despite being inside a house is not better than that of a life being wasted in a prison for hardened criminals?

Not every child who works in a house is treated badly. Not all bosses beat them, don’t feed them enough, don’t give them enough rest, or work them too much. Some kids don’t think they’re less important than the German Shepherd that has to stay on a leash all day and is only free at night to protect the house. This is not about those kids; it’s about Uzma and a lot of other kids like her.

This is Tayyaba’s story, who is 10 years old. She was badly beaten by a woman and her judge husband.

It’s the story of Mohammad Imran, who was tortured and beaten before he was strangled to death. The people who had hired him for a small wage were the ones who hurt him.

There was a teen named Akhtar Hussain who was ki*lled in this story. They beat and tortured him and his sister before they were ki*lled. The person who did it was the daughter of a member of parliament from a party that is currently in opposition.

The story is about Kinza, who was 11 years old, and how her boss, a woman who is a major in the army, beat and tortured her. Her husband is a doctor.

It’s the story of 12-year-old Taqi Usman, whose boss ki*lled him with a club because he forgot to feed the family pet.

A lot is said and promised about their stories, and laws are made stricter, but nothing really changes. It’s not possible for law to replace empathy, that small but important thing called humanity. Who cares about words that sound good in a human rights manifesto, a feel-good movie, a UN platform, or the background noise of the news?

An ILO study from 2004 found that 264,000 children worked as housekeepers in Pakistan. Twelve million! That’s how many there were in 2012. Take a moment to think.

You laugh when your son tries to emotionally blackmail you into buying him a new PlayStation or iPhone while you kiss your daughter goodnight and watch your kids run to you after school, tired and happy. There are 12 million children who are poor, out of school, away from their families, forced to work more than they can handle, and treated like they are untouchable in millions of homes just like yours. Really think about it.

What went wrong? What did we do to let it happen? How did humanity get pushed to the background so that it wasn’t seen that so many kids were being abused in ways that no kid should ever be abused? When did society’s need to save money get so bad that kids’ bodies were forced to work in ways that went against everything we know about being human? When did it become normal for parents to hit, torture, and k*ill poor kids whose parents trusted them with their lives? When did homes of people who seem normal become so unsafe for kids whose bodies aren’t getting enough food?

Uzma was beaten a lot, told she couldn’t see her family, never got enough food, and had to sleep on the cold bathroom floor. Uzma was paid Rs 4,000 a month for her job. That costs 105 dinars. She ate something off of the daughter of her boss one day. She was hit in the back of the head with a big ladle several times until she passed out. She was given electric shocks to wake her up instead of being taken to the hospital. A woman, her daughter, and a friend of hers are all guilty of beating a child and hiding her body while it was bleeding for so long that it kil*led her. After that, they put her body in a drain. One good, innocent life was lost for one bite of food.

There is merely one thing to be said: no poor child should be in any service, domestic or other. Period.

It is on those who mistreat them. It is on those who see it all and turn their face away. It is on those who don’t speak up. It is on the law that exists but doesn’t work. It is on those who accept the stories of perpetrators and not punish them on the pretext of legal loopholes.

It is on the absence of empathy, compassion and humanity.

The death, the mur*der, of the child Uzma is on the collective conscience of Pakistan. I don’t expect anything to change. All I can do is see, react, speak up, not let it happen around me, and wait for justice to be done to Uzma and all other children like her.

May in heaven, little Uzma, you live eternally as a happy, beautiful child that you weren’t allowed to be on earth…

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