Iqbal Masih – The 12 Year Old Who Fought to Stop Child Labor and Child Slavery in Pakistan

Child labor is one most disastrous curse that has been haunting our society for ages. Children under work-age are employed in various industries for the sake of cheap labor and are forced into a world of misery and drudgery. Instead of being provided education and a better environment, they are given tools of work to operate and perform. They are robbed of their childhood and play days. They are denied their very life that should have been passed in learning and playing.

There have been many attempts to get it abolish and check the entry of children into industries. On the international and national levels, authorities have criminalized it and employing children is a punishable offense. Even, there have been many individual efforts around the globe to protest and stand against child employment. Not only influential men and women, but there are children too who have stood for their rights as human beings. Here is one such boy from Pakistan – Iqbal Masih – who was once forced into the child slavery from a tender age of only 4. Later on, he escaped his workplace and joined an anti-child labor organization. Having experienced the suffering of premature workload, Iqbal committed to fight against this abusive cult and helped more than 3000 Pakistani children to escape bonded work that was practiced there despite its being illegal.


Early life

Iqbal was born in 1983 in the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan. At that time, his family was going through a severe monetary crisis. In an attempt to support themselves, they had borrowed 600 rupees from a local employer who ran a carpet weaving business. However, the debt could not be paid in time. So, in return, Iqbal was offered to work as a carpet weaver to pay off the debt.

At the age of 4, Iqbal became one of the thousands child bonded laborers there. He and most of the other kids were kept in chains to prevent escape. He would work for more than half of a day, for the whole week, without any leave or holiday. They were allowed only a 30-minute break. But, the amount he got there was never enough to pay off the debt, and the interest of the loan continued to increase too.


The Escape

At the age of 10, Iqbal escaped his slavery, after learning that bonded labor was declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. However, when he went to the local police authorities asking for the safety, the corrupt police again handed him over to the factory owner in return for some money.

Nonetheless, it did not deteriorate Iqbal’s hope of a free life. Soon after, he got a chance to attend a freedom day celebration held in the locality. The organizers were from a workers’ union and asked others to speak too and share their experience regarding child slavery. Iqbal rose up to the moment. On hearing Iqbal’s painful account of his terrible life, one union leader named Ehsan Ullah Khan started a movement to free Iqbal from the labor. Sooner, Iqbal along with some others was released from the curse of child labor.

The Struggle against Child Labor

Just in his 12, Iqbal became a prominent leader of the anti-slave movement in Pakistan. He attended the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) School for former child workers and soon completed an educational course. When Masih learned more about labor laws and human rights, he went on to speak on behalf of the enslaved workers. He would sneak into factories and start asking the children about their life and problems therein. Though this was a risky way, Iqbal was daring enough to face anything in his mission.

Soon, the BLLF began to send him to address at demonstrations against bonded slavery. With his knowledge of the issue, Iqbal educated the laborers and encouraged them to stand up for their rights. Despite death threats from the child labor mafia, Iqbal did not discontinue to speak against their malpractices. His endeavors indeed paid off as over thousands of children rebelled after visiting rallies and hearing his speeches.

Because of his compelling narrative, Iqbal was invited to other countries as well including Sweden and the US to share his story and encourage others to join the fight to eradicate child slavery. Afterward, Iqbal showed interest in law and wanted to be an advocate to fight on the behalf the maltreated children.

The tragical end of a hero in the making

On the 16th of April, 1995, during his way back to home from a mass, Iqbal was shot dead. The police report claimed that it was an accidental firing by a local farmer. However, because Iqbal was a great hinder of the local mafia, the possibility of being murdered was high. The top officials investigated the matter but later approved the police story. Nevertheless, it is still widely believed that Iqbal was assassinated by on the orders of those who were checked by his work against child employment.

The legacy continues

Iqbal’s venture inspired the creation of organizations such as Free The Children, a Canadian-origin non-profit initiative, and Iqbal Masih Shaheed Children Foundation, which has set up some 20 schools at various places in Pakistan.

In 1994, Iqbal had visited a school in Quincy, Massachusetts, to address there about his life. When the students there came to know of his unfortunate death, they started collecting money to set up a school in his honor in Pakistan.

In 1996, organizations in Spain and South America promoted the 16 of April as International Day against Child Slavery in honor of Iqbal.

In 1998, the newly built Istituto Comprensivo Iqbal Masih, an educational institute comprising several schools in Italy was named after him.

In 2000, he was posthumously awarded World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child.

To acknowledge his contributions, the United States Congress has established an annual Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor.

In 2012, a Square was named after Iqbal in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Iqbal’s story was portrayed in a book entitled “Iqbal” by Francesco D’Adamo, a fictional story based on real incidents. Also, Jeanette Winter included the story of Iqbal in the book “Two Stories of Bravery”.

The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and children’s rights crusader Kailash Satyarthi remembered Masih in his felicitation speech, dedicating the award to Iqbal and the likes.

The hero undone

Iqbal Masih is a great hero and inspiration. Only a little boy, he took courageous action on behalf of child slaves in Pakistan and around the world. Though he lived a short life, his profound message exhorted thousands to seek freedom and encouraged others around the world to join in his efforts. Nevertheless, the evil of child labor is not vaporized for once and ever. The inhuman cult is still being practiced many where and people who have their interests are making it possible. Corrupt governments and glutton officials are the main culprits in the case. But, it is up to us to take a stand now. We have to follow the lead of Iqbal and create awareness among children and families involved in child labor. If we indeed want to honor Iqbal, we make sure that no child is employed anywhere or in any sector. And we must ensure that children go to the school and enjoy their innocent life learning and playing. As the people of a civilized world, it is our duty toward our children, and we see that being done properly.


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