AN ACTIVIST FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
IQBAL MASIH - PAKISTAN
You are now paying your final visit to a boy from the near past. It
is early 1995, and you are in a town somewhere in Pakistan, a
nation carved out of British-ruled India only fifty years ago You are
standing at the back of an old, run down meeting hall, waiting to
hear a speech given by the boy you are here to meet. His name is
Iqbal Masih. As you look around at the crowd; you notice that
most of the audiences are young like you. But in all other ways,
these children who stand there, quietly murmuring to each other,
are not like you. Some have faces pinched with hunger, some bear
scars on their bodies.
Some are even bent over as if they are already very old. All of
them are thin, poorly dressed, and their faces have lost the
carefree innocence of youth. They look as though they have seen
too much suffering, too young. They also look afraid.
Iqbal Masih enters with a few adults and is introduced by a man
who praises his courage and intelligence. He reminds the audience
that if anyone needs help, to please let him know, and he will do
what he can. You cannot see Iqbal and have difficulty listening to
his speech. It is hot in the room, people are shuffling about and
there is no microphone.
Even so you manage to catch most of what he is saying. He is telling these
young people what their rights are. He says that if they are bonded
workers, they are free now, they do not owe their masters any more
labor, that it is not only wrong, it is against the law for their masters to
mistreat and underpay them. He is telling them that they have the right to
go to school, and that they can get help if they want it.
Some of the children leave before Iqbal has finished his speech. One
whispers that she will be beaten if anyone finds out she has been here
Others stay to the end and leave looking more hopeful titan when they
arrived. A few stay to talk to the adults who came with Iqbal who have
promised to help.
After everyone has left and quiet has fallen, Iqbal shakes, hands with you
and you stroll together through the town. He is a handsome boy but his
body has suffered, he is so small that he does not look twelve. His back is
bent and there are scars on his arms and hands.
Once outside you walk slowly in the heat along a narrow lane with small, square houses on
either side. Men ride by on bicycles and a truck goes past, covered with elaborate, colorful
decorations . Iqbal begins his story.
My story is just like the stories of the children you saw in the meeting hall. Only the details
will differ. I come from a small country village in the Punjab called Muridke. My eldest
brother was getting married and my parents had no money to pay for the wedding, so they
accepted a loan from a man who said that they could pay it back by sending me to work in
his carpet factory.
I was four years old when I went to work for him. I hardly ever saw my family after that I was
small and scared, and soon found out I had reason to be. The factory owner knew that
people like my parents have little or no education, so they cannot read a contract or bond or
even know there could be such a thing. So he had managed to trick my parents quite easily.
The interest he was charging on the loan was more than he was "paying" for my work .As a
result my parents' debt was increasing all the time.
The people who ran the factory were very cruel to me. At times they even chained me to a
loom so I had to squat all day long to work. That is why my back is bent over, from not being
allowed to stand up. And look at my hands from tying many thousands of knots, they are all
knotted, too. You will notice that I wheeze a lot from breathing in carpet dust day in day out
for so many years.
There were other children besides me working in the factory as well. We had to work twelve
to fourteen hours a day, even seven days a week with no time for going outdoors and
playing, and we were beaten if our owner thought we were misbehaving. And of course we
had no schooling whatsoever.
They fed us very little and the food was
poor quality without much nourishment in
it. They even took the cost of the food out
of our little pay, and we never got any
money for ourselves because it was all
going to pay the debts of our parents.
When I was ten, I was rescued from this life
of pain and misery by a man called Ehsan
Ulla Khan. In 1988, he founded the Bonded
Labor Liberation Front (BLLF) to free
children like me from bonded labor. I had
gone to a meeting like the one you just
saw, where I discovered that bonded child
labor is illegal now. I was so moved on
finding out about my rights that before I
knew it, I was standing up and making a
speech at the meeting - a speech that was
then printed in a newspaper! After that, I
refused to go back to my "owner" and
Ehsan Ulla Khan helped me get into one of
the schools he had founded for children
like me. I joined the BLLF and, by giving
talks like the one tonight, I have helped
other children escape from bonded labor.
I became one of the organization's best
speakers, and my speeches continued to be
printed in the newspapers. I soon became
famous, and I was sent to the United States
and Europe to carry our message there.
Just a little while ago, in December 1994,
I received the Reebok Prize for Youth in
This is an international Award!
I am happy to be helping other
children to gain their freedom and
their rights. I think I have saved
about 3000 children so far.
Now that I am at school, I like
studying and learning. One thing I
am learning is more about child labor
in my own country, and in others. In
Pakistan, although bonded child
labor is now illegal, no one makes
any arrests and children are still
working as near-slaves in many
The biggest employer of children is the carpet weaving industry. Over a
million children and maybe more are doing this kind of work for pennies
a day. Then the carpets are sold in Europe and North America to rich
customers who know no better. Not only does this go on in our country,
but in India and Bangladesh as well.
And all over the world, children are doing other kinds of hard work for
very long hours every day of the week. There are over 73 million children
under the age of fourteen doing many different kinds of work. Most, but
not all of them, live in Asia, Africa and South America. They are treated
very badly, and then the things they make are sold in rich western
countries. These children are to be found in factories stuffing toys for big
western toy companies, or sewing sequins on fancy gown, or sharpening
surgical instruments. Some of them work in dangerous places like glass
or brick factories with no protection from sharp glass or hot furnaces, or
they are put at risk making matches or fireworks. Some suffer horrible
burns and yet receive no medical help. Many children also work from
very young ages as servants for rich people, or they do farm work like
cutting sugarcane or many-many hours each day.
I have learnt that the child labor is growing all over the works in so-called
developing countries. It is true that poor families in poor countries need every
member to help making a living. I think it is an honorable thing to work hard and
take pride in work well done. And no matter whether they are rich or poor, all
children who help their families can feel good about what they contribute.
But there is something very wrong when children are forced to work as hard or
harder than grown-ups and it is wrong for factory owners to steal us from our
families with lies. Sometimes these factory people even kidnap children to work
for them. When they begin to work, the youngest ones often receive no pay at
all. I do not think that this helps poor families, because it dooms their children to
yet more poverty and ignorance.
Children are dying young from diseases caused by work they are forced to do, or
they are growing up crippled or shrunken like I am. They have no chance to go to
school to be educated. If they were, they couldn't be cheated like my parents
were. It cannot be right to beat us and brand us, or to make us work while
refusing to hire fully grown people. The main reason they want children, you see,
is because we are small and helpless.
You can see that I get very angry when I think of these things. But I know that my
speaking out is making a difference. The carpet industry here is already losing
millions of dollars because rich people in the West do not want to buy goods
made by enslaved children. I am hoping that becoming famous will allow me to
reach even more people around the world. To me, children are the future wealth
of any country, if they are free to grow up and to be educated to do more than
I feel good about my own future. When I grow up, I want to become a lawyer, so
that I can help to fight injustices against children. Right now my life is good, too.
Now that I am free, I can see my mother and father again, and play with my
cousins. I have a more normal life once more - if you don't count the death
threats! The "carpet mafia" we call them. They are angry factory owners who
want to keep things the way they are and don't care at all about our welfare.
I don't worry about these threats too much though.
I see that I must go now. There are the other BLFF people waiting for me. I am
glad to have met you. Go home and tell your families about what I have told you,
Okay? You can help too, you know. Goodbye!
Iqbal went home to visit his village of Muridke in the spring of 1995. On
April 16 he was riding a bicycle with two of his cousins when he was shot
dead under mysterious circumstances. He was only twelve years old.
His murder was never solved, but gave suspicion still rests on the
"Carpet Mafia" Iqbal Masih has been so successful in exposing the evils
of child labor that Pakistan lost about 14 million U. S. dollars in sales in
one year alone. If factory owners were behind the murder, it backfired
because sales dropped another 10 million dollars after the world heard
the terrible news.
One person who learned about the murder of Iqbal Masih was another
twelve-year-old boy — front Toronto, Ontario, in Canada. Craig
Keilburger had never heard of Iqbal Masih before, but he was so upset
when he read about the murder that he founded almost single-handedly
a children's volunteer organization to fight enforced child labor. It is
called "Free the Children."
Craig's efforts to publicize the evils of child labor have been so successful
that he has been able to travel around the world, speaking to heads of
state and government agencies, and helping to raise money for
organizations like BLLF that free children and give them homes and
education. One of the many ways he has helped to "free the children"
has been to urge people to buy only carpets with a "Rugmark" label.
This guarantees that they are not made using child labor. Craig has also
founded branches of Free the Children in many countries.
There are many other organizations around the globe that work to end
enforced child labor. Just a few of the other organizations are: UNICEF,
through the United Nations; Child Rights Information Network in
London, England; International Programme for the elimination of Child
Labor in Geneva, Switzerland; Set the Children Free in New Zealand;
Community Aid Abroad in Australia; and U.S. Child Labor Coalition in the
U.S.A. If you want to help out, too, you can contact one of them, or
another organization of your choice. One of the easiest ways to find
these and similar organizations is to look on the Internet or to ask for
help at your local library
Iqbal Masih became a martyr for what he believed in, but he achieved
something important both in life and in death. In life, he showed other
children that just because they are small does not mean they are
He gave comfort and hope to other children like him and helped them
to become free. Even his death could not stop the impact he made. His
cause was taken up by others including children in other, wealthy
countries — children like Craig Keilburger. They too have discovered
that they can do something to help the world, that they too can be