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Who's Winning Friends, Making Enemies in Pakistan?

Ayaz, 14, is not quite sure where to throw the large black rubbish bag he is lugging down a small street in a suburb of the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.

This is the first time Ayaz has been in Lahore, and certainly the first time he has worked as a domestic in a kitchen. "I have never chopped onions before, or washed pots and pans. Until the 8 October earthquake, I simply attended school in Muzaffrabad, and was preparing for my matriculation examination," Ayaz told IRIN.

But, like so many others, Ayaz's life has changed dramatically since the quake. His elder brother and a sister died in the disaster, along with at least 80,000 others. His father, who had worked in the same kitchen where Ayaz now labors for up to 10 hours a day, says he must stay in Muzaffarabad to care for his wife and two young daughters, now living in a relief camp.

Ayaz's mother suffers acute depression, and her husband is afraid of leaving her. Instead, Ayaz has been sent down to work in Lahore, taking on his father's job so the family can earn some money. Ayaz says it was a "big favour" on the part of his employers to give him the job, given his lack of experience or training, though he adds, "I really want to learn and do well."

In any case, Ayaz's school has not yet opened and he is uncertain when classes will resume.

Ayaz is not alone. Families from earthquake areas who have reached Lahore and other major cities in Pakistan, have, over the past three months, been desperately seeking work. In cases where the family's main breadwinner has died or been injured, it is the children who must earn money. Sometimes, even when their father is alive, families no longer feel able to send children to school and have instead put them to work. The fact that hundreds of schools have yet to reopen, or are operating on an ad hoc basis in tents, fuels the trend.

"My mother felt it was not safe for me to stay on at the camp in Shinkiari, as she herself had to go out to bring back food and so on. I was sent to Lahore and now work in a house here," says Zareena, 12, who tends two young children as they play in a park. Her father works as a driver for the same family from Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Zareena also cites other examples of children from quake-affected areas being taken on as domestic help by wealthier families, often in the belief that by employing them they will be assisting the victims of the disaster. Most of the children work inside homes, or at small workshops, restaurants and shops.

According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and other agencies working in quake-hit areas, there has been a marked increase in children at work since the disaster.

"This [increase in child labor] is a concern for us and we are trying to assess the situation," Zafrin Chowdhury, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Pakistan, said.

UNICEF has opened up over 200 tent-schools in quake-hit areas and distributed thousands of kits, including copy books and stationery, but remains worried about more and more children joining the labor force.

There have also been reports that orphaned children, taken in by relatives, have been put to work, with the families not able to support them. "It's a cruel situation. Children were taken in immediately after the disaster by members of their extended families, or other villagers. But now these families worry about feeding them, or are simply greedy for more money. Children as young as eight have been put to work," Fahim Khan, an NGO worker who has spent over three months in the Balakot area, told IRIN.

Over the past two months in Lahore, there has been a visible increase in the number of young children from quake-hit areas working in roadside cafes or small hotels. "There are many such children seeking work, and many are willing to work for low wages," Badr, an owner of a tiny tea stall on Lahore's busy Abbot Road, said.

Child labor remains common across Pakistan. According to official figures, 3.3 million children under the age of 14 are a part of the workforce in the country. Unofficial estimates put the figure at closer to 8 million. The Islamabad-based NGO, Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), has stated in its reports that over 23 million children across the country remain out of school, of which a large number form part of the workforce.

The fact that many of these children work in the informal sector -- as domestic workers or as waiters -- also means they remain hard to control under labor laws -- which in theory bar child labor.

So far, aside from the ban placed on adoptions, there is no official policy covering children affected by the quake. Strategies to counter the difficulties families face as a consequence of deaths, injury or instant impoverishment have not been put in place -- and the result is that many families, fending largely for themselves, have been forced to send children out to work -- either in the quake-affected areas themselves, or in larger cities where they may earn a slightly higher wage.

[Integrated Regional Information Networks is a project the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]

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Albion Monitor   February 7, 2006   (

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