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??I would like to do what Abraham Lincoln did?

I would like to do it in Pakistan.”?

-Iqbal Masih

The finest carpets in South Asia are woven by children because their tiny fingers can tie small, tight knots, and because they are paid just a few rupees. In Pakistan, a 12-year-old boy who protested against child labour was murdered.

Iqbal Masih (b. 1983 – April 16, 1995) was a Pakistani boy cast into bondage at age four because of his family?s inability to repay a debt, but through extraordinary courage and perseverance became an international symbol for the dignity of children and a martyr for justice—all by the tender age of twelve.

Iqbal first had to work an entire year as an apprentice with no pay. After that he was ?paid? about 20 cents US per day. (This is in quotes because he didn’t receive the money. It was subtracted by the rug-maker, his employer, from what he owed.) However, his employer also added to what he owed the cost of his food and the tools he used to do his work. If Iqbal made mistakes, he was fined, and this, as well as interest, was added to the loan balance.

Iqbal Masih, received The World’s Children’s Honorary Award 2000 posthumously, for his struggle for the rights of debt slave children. Iqbal became a debt slave at an early age, for the owner of a carpet factory who then sold him on.

Iqbal was around 5 or 6 when he started working in the carpet factory.?He worked from early morning until evening and was often treated badly. When his mother Anayat needs money for an operation, she took out a loan from a carpet factory owner. The loan, or ?peshgi?, was in Iqbal?s name. That means that Iqbal owes Ghullah the 5000 rupees (100 US dollars) that his mother?s operation cost. Now Iqbal was a debt slave and the factory owner was in charge of his life.

Five years later, Iqbal was liberated from debt slavery.?He started attending the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) school. Iqbal talked to his friends who worked at carpet factories and spoke at meetings. He gave many carpet workers children the courage to leave their owners. The owners threatened Iqbal who, after receiving an award in the USA, was murdered on 16 April 1995.

Today, Iqbal is a symbol for the fight against harmful child labour and slavery all over the world.

In 1967 the Bonded Labour Liberation Front of Pakistan (BLLF) began its campaign to both free the brick kiln bonded labourers, and totally abolish the paishgee debts. The BLLF fights against slavery, private jails, forced labour and child slavery in all sectors, including brick making, carpet weaving, leather trades, medical instrument manufacturing, agriculture, stone quarrying, domestic servitude, etc. BLLF freedom movement faces challenges and opposition from strong employers in these and other sectors.

From January 1999 until May 2009 BLLF freed 30,000 bonded labourers, men, women and children from four provinces of Pakistan. They belong to different sectors like agriculture, brick kiln, stone quarrying and carpet industries. 45% of them were children, 25% of them were women and 30% were men. These bonded workers were freed through Habeas Corpus applications, which were filed in High Courts. Due to BLLF?s lack of resources, they have been unable to build rehabilitation programs for the newly freed bonded labourers and many of the children are? still waiting to go to school.

?Our victories amount to a hardship,? says Ehsan Ulla Khan, the BLLF?s founder and guiding force. ?The state has done nothing to enforce the anti-slavery laws or even to inform the public that child and bonded slavery have been outlawed. It?s evident that if the enslaved workers are to be delivered from bondage, private citizens will have to do the delivering. That is, we will have to proclaim the end of slavery, educate workers, monitor employer compliance, and take legal action when necessary, because the state lacks the will and resources to do so.?

With little funding, the BLLF wages a two-front war against the enterprises that use child slaves. While its legal advisers engage the courts and the legislature, its field staff shuttles around the country, informing workers of their recently acquired rights and distributing a pamphlet known as ?The Charter of Freedom,? which enumerates those rights in simple language. If a bonded slave child or adult asks for its help, the BLLF takes whatever legal action necessary to secure his or her release.

Iqbal Masih

Iqbal was tiny, his growth stunted from years of malnutrition. His hands were leathery and crisscrossed with scars, his back hunched. A Christian, Iqbal was ?apprenticed? (which means sold) to a carpet factory when he was four years old so his parents could pay for an older brother?s wedding.

Iqbal?s labour was to work off the debt.

But it never did.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that there are between 2 and 19 million child laborers in Pakistan, which is a predominantly Muslim country. Most of these children who are bonded labourers are Christians, and most become enslaved the same way Iqbal did, because of unpaid debt.

Iqbal said that children were often chained to the looms at night so they would not run away. The same tools used to make carpets were often used to beat the children. He remained a slave for six years until he managed to run away to the Bonded Labor Liberation Front, a nonprofit run by one soft-spoken, courageous Pakistani who had no children of his own, Ehsan Ullah Khan.

In 1982 a baby boy was born to Inayat Bibi and Saif Masih. They named him Iqbal Masih. Sometime after Iqbal?s birth, Saif Masih deserted the family. While Iqbal?s mother worked, his older sisters took care of him and his older siblings. Iqbal did not go to school. Education was not compulsory or widely available in Pakistan. Very few poor children learnt to read and write. He spent his earliest years playing in the fields until he was ready to help his family by going to work.

By 1986 an older son of Saif Masih was about to get married. The celebration would include feasting and processions. Weddings are very important to the people of Pakistan. Wedding celebrations are often held even if a person is short of money or out of work. Saif Masih was no exception. He knew that as father of the groom, he had to pay for part of the festivities, even though he had deserted his family.

Like most impoverished child slaves, Saif had never been able to save much. No bank would give him a loan. He could not apply to the government for aid because there were few programs to help poor people. People such as Iqbal?s father are forced to turn to local moneylenders, local employers, or landlords to get the money they need. In Muridke, many poor people simply borrow from a local thekedar, an employer who owns a nearby carpet factory. In return for the loan, the employer expects collateral, a guarantee of something of value to secure the loan. Said Masih?s only valuable possessions were his children. Saif asked Iqbal?s uncle to contact the thekedar. The thekedar was willing, probably only too happy, to lend Saif money. In return, one of Saif?s children would go to work in this fast-growing business. Iqbal, a scrappy four-year-old, was considered ready to work. The uncle borrowed 600 rupees (approximately $12) from the contractor. Little Iqbal would weave carpets until all the money, including an undisclosed amount of interest and expenses, was paid back. This transaction is called a paishgee, a loan, and it ended Iqbal?s childhood forever. From that day forward, Iqbal became a ?debt-bonded slave.?

Iqbal?s job at the carpet factory was essentially no different from that of millions of other young people who work day and night to help their families. At four o?clock in the morning, he was picked up by the thekedar and driven to the factory where he was to work for the next six years of his life. He was put in an airless room, big enough for about twenty looms. A small, bare light bulb gave out little light. It was sticky and hot inside the room because all the windows were sealed tight to keep out any insects that might damage the wool.

Iqbal took his place in front of a large wooden carpet loom. He was to squat on a small rutted wood platform. In some factories children sit on cushions. Other factories have trenches dug into the floor to hold the looms in place. The weavers sit on a plank with their legs dangling into a trench. These trenches also provide sleeping places for the children who work far from their families. Large balls of coloured wool were hung because of the gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, exotic birds, and sophisticated geometric designs woven in the carpets. The ustaad, teacher, explained the process called ?knotting?.

When Iqbal completed his work as an apprentice, he was then ready to weave carpets. He worked beside twenty other boys. His earnings amounted to one rupee a day (two cents), even though he worked from four o?clock in the morning until seven in the evening. The children in the shop were not allowed to speak to one another. ?If the children spoke, they were not giving the complete attention to the product and were liable to make errors,? Iqbal later told journalists. Many other freed child slaves told similar stories.

Lint and fluff floated in the air. Iqbal would breathe it in and cough it out. Sweat poured down Iqbal?s face as he leaned close to the loom. The thekedar screamed, ?Don?t soil the wool!? At night he was driven back to his family. He was too tired to play his favourite sport, cricket. ?I didn?t have time to play ball,? he explained later. It didn?t take long for the bounce to fade from Iqbal?s walk.

Iqbal and his fellow weavers were warned never to leave the factory during work hours. ?If we tried to escape, we were threatened with being thrown in boiling oil,? he said. ?If we were too slow, we often got lashed on our backs and heads.? Concentration was crucial. Mistaking a single knot led to fines or beatings. Daydreaming could have serious consequences. The sharp, crescent-shaped weavers? tool would slip and nick his fingers. This happened many times.

Once, when Iqbal was so exhausted he began to doze off, the sharp knife slid, digging into the flesh of his forefinger. ?Hold your hand up!? the thekedar shouted. ?Don?t let the blood drip!? The carpet master did not want Iqbal?s blood to stain the precious wool thread. To stop the bleeding, the carpet master dripped hot oil onto the wound. The oil, used to seal the wound, stung horribly and Iqbal screamed. His screams were answered with a slap on the head and an order to get back to work.

Every afternoon the child slaves were given a half-hour lunch break. Iqbal said, ?We were kept hungry.? The thekedar provided the youngsters a small portion of rice and lentils. Sometimes there would be a few other vegetables added to the meal. The cost of this simple meal was immediately added to the children?s paishgee, increasing their debt.

The cramped, overheated conditions inside such factories often lead to disease. Weavers inhaling thousands of tiny wool fibres can get emphysema or tuberculosis. Many suffer from scabies and skin ulcers because of the ?constant exposure to wool?. More often than not, their posture is bowed because they are forced to squat on the wooden platform for long hours. Their hands ache with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis.

Iqbal said, ?We weren?t allowed many days off. Even sick children were not allowed to rest.? If a child weaver complained that he was too sick to work, the chowkidar locked him in a dark closet known as the punishment room. ?they also hung children upside down until they became sicker. Children were beaten,? said Iqbal.

Although most bonded children are docile and obedient, they are not afraid to talk back. These children are often hit, chained to their looms, or locked in dark, musty closets. Iqbal would often talk back.? He was beaten more often than the other children because, time and time again, he defied the master. He spoke up when he thought something was not right. ?Sometimes I was fined.? In a way, the fines were worse than the beatings. They raised Iqbal?s debt higher and higher. Instead of paying off his bondage, he was increasing the time it would take to earn his freedom.

In factories similar to the one where Iqbal worked, children are battered for all kinds of reasons. One young boy was not a good weaver, and the chowkidar constantly hit him with a stick. A researcher reports, ?Once, after he made a terrible mistake, the foreman took a shearing knife and made a deep cut between Salim?s thumb and index finger. The boy was so terrified of the foreman that he did not dare raise complaint.?

Iqbal?s family also borrowed more money. So, as Iqbal got older, the debt grew. It looked like he would be like many children who never escape, who remain in debt-bondage for life. Iqbal and the other children worked squatting on wooden bench in front of the looms. They worked 6 days a week, 14 or so hours a day, in rooms with poor light. They were not allowed to talk to each other, because this would mean they weren?t concentrating on the work. The rooms had no ventilation and were extremely hot because open windows were considered bad for the carpets. The air was full of particles from the fibers they worked with. Their work requires skill and care in order to tie the knots in the right places.

Iqbal Masih

Later, when his mother Anayat needs money for an operation, she takes out a loan from a carpet factory owner called Ghullah. The loan, or ?peshgi?, is in Iqbal?s name. That means that Iqbal owes Ghullah the 5000 rupees (100 US dollars) that his mother?s operation cost. Now Iqbal is a debt slave and Ghullah is in charge of his life. When Iqbal gets home from the carpet factory in the evenings, he collapses into bed and falls asleep. Sometimes Ghullah wakes him around midnight. ?We have a carpet delivery that has to be finished. Come on, get up.? The peshgi debt means that Iqbal has to go with Ghullah, who drags a sleepy Iqbal through the narrow streets to the carpet factory. If Iqbal falls asleep at work, he is woken up by a blow from the carpet fork.

One day, a little boy in the carpet factory has a high fever. Ghullah, the owner, ties the boy?s feet together and hangs him upside down from the fan on the ceiling. ?I?m the one who decides when you work,? roars Ghullah. In that instant, Iqbal decides he?s had enough. He starts to run away from work as often as he can. Iqbal and his friends take the chance to run away when Ghullah isn?t there. They play all day without worrying about what awaits them. The next morning, Ghullah comes to their homes to get them. He?s furious, and he beats the boys with a carpet fork or whatever is within reach. Then he chains them up. Sometimes two days pass before he releases them again. Early one morning in October 1992, Iqbal runs away from work.

He jumps onto the back of a tractor, where many adults and children are already sitting. One hour later, they arrive at a BLLF meeting. This is the first time Iqbal sees the leader of BLLF, Ehsan Ullah Khan. He listens with interest when Ehsan talks about the law against debt slavery. Ehsan asks Iqbal to tell the other children about his experiences. At first Iqbal doesn?t dare, but then he steps up to the microphone. Ehsan gives Iqbal a ?freedom letter?.

On it is written the law that bans debt slavery and the sentence for people who use debt slaves. The problem in Pakistan is that people don?t obey the law, and the police and courts often help factory owners rather than poor people. Ghullah refuses to let Iqbal leave the carpet factory. But Ehsan doesn?t forget the little boy, and he asks some of his colleagues to find out more and help Iqbal to freedom. Iqbal is delighted to be able to start attending ?Our own school?, as the BLLF School for former debt slaves is called.

Iqbal learned that the system of bonded labour he was working under had been outlawed in Pakistan in 1992, and that the government had cancelled all outstanding loans to these employers. The BLLF helped him get the papers he needed to force his employer to free him. Like many rug-making children, after years of bending forward to tie knots and breathing air filled with dust from rug-making materials, Iqbal was sick and looked frail. He was about half the height he should have been at age 10, less than four feet tall, and weighed only 60 pounds. His body had stopped growing. He also suffered from arthritis, and kidney and breathing problems; and his spine was permanently curved. His hands were covered with small scars from cuts made by rug-making tools. Nevertheless, Iqbal jumped at the chance to study at a BLLF school in Lahore, not far from his home village of Muridke. He studied hard, and finished 4 years of work in just 2 years.

Iqbal became an activist against child labour. He repeatedly took risks, pretending to be a factory worker so he could get information from the children working there. He helped free 3000 children from bondage in textile and brick factories, tanneries, and steelworks. He became a very good speaker, and began to speak at BLLF meetings about his experiences; then he began speaking to international visitors ? journalists and activists.

He tells his friends and children in other carpet factories that they don?t have to stay with their owners any longer. In the Muridke area, children start leaving carpet factories in their hundreds and thousands. Iqbal speaks at meetings. He always ends his speeches by saying: ?We are?? And all the children respond: ?FREE!?

Iqbal Masih’s?story is a tragic one. He was sold into bondage for an amount less than seven dollars. PHOTO: MORALHEROES.ORG

Iqbal now lives in Lahore with BLLF. The first time he comes home to visit, Ghullah the owner of the carpet factory says: ?You have to come back to work. Then the other children will come back too.? But Iqbal refuses. Another carpet maker threatens Iqbal?s mother. He says he?ll kidnap her and Iqbal if Iqbal doesn?t return to work or pay off the debt that made him a debt slave. A third carpet maker says to Iqbal?s little sister Sobia: ?Your brother walks about like a judge in the streets when he comes home. But one day we?ll get him.? ?Shut up old man,? says Sobia, who has never dared to be rude to an adult before. ?Watch out or we?ll kill you too,? replies the carpet maker.

He eventually started going to where he was invited outside Pakistan. For example, he went to Sweden, where he was honoured by the International Labor Organization.

He tells school children about how life is for debt slave children in Pakistan. Many newspapers write about him, and he is featured on lots of TV programmes. In December 1994, Iqbal flies to the USA, where he is given an award by Reebok for fighting for the rights of debt slave children. Iqbal is also ?Person of the week? at one of the USA?s largest TV companies.?While he was there, he visited Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, Massachusetts for a day. This visit was to have far-reaching consequences.

Broad Meadows Middle School was chosen for Iqbal?s visit because its students were Iqbal?s age, and because they had done active work for human rights at the local and international level. He spent a day there. He met with some classes and spoke about his experiences. He had lunch with them. The kids started on their own to bring him gifts like gum, stickers, t-shirts, baseball cards, food, bracelets, and pictures. Then a group of them got together and bought him a backpack to put it all in. In his talks to them, after telling his experiences, Iqbal asked the kids to try to educate people and to get people to stop buying rugs that are made using children as workers. One of the students who was there said in an interview 3 years later: ?Here was this kid talking kid to kid who felt so much toward what he was doing, he was like burning fire, you can?t just say ?Oh, okay, great. Good job. Bye-bye now.? You just look at him and say, ?I want to help.? ?

In the same interview, Amy said, ?I just felt it was very wrong that children are being sold into slavery. So I joined the campaign. And then after Iqbal died, I was just so angry at it that it gave me an urge to do more.? ?These 7th-graders first organized an educational campaign. They got children?to write thousands of letters to anyone they thought could help change things–senators, congressmen and women, government officials. They called local carpet stores asking if the rugs they were selling were made with child labour. The store owners got so angry that they even called the school and demanded that the school stop the kids from asking questions (which the school refused to do). They asked their city government what their policy was on buying carpets. They did all of this on their own time, before or after school.

Then the students decided to build a school in Pakistan in Iqbal?s memory. They called the project ?A School for Iqbal,? and they organized it themselves. Since Iqbal was 12 years old when he got the Reebok human rights award, and because he was sold into bonded labour for $12, they decided the number 12 was symbolic, and sent email out to 30 middle schools asking for donations of $12. And 12 schools answered that they would join the campaign. As Amy summarized it, ?Anybody could get corporate donations?.. but what we did was unique in the sense that we collected $130,000 by $12 donations from schools who donated in pennies or other stuff.? She goes on to explain that people also donated computers, things they made for the kids to snack on, and they donated time, and skills, such as typing. Schools ran campaigns to raise money, like selling popsicles (flavoured ice on a stick). People made things for the kids to sell. Many students who were involved in this effort have continued to be involved, even though they have graduated from Broad Meadows and gone on to other schools for high school. They ended up raising $350,000, enough to not only build a school for 250 children in Iqbal?s village (completed in 1997), but also enough to pay the staff long into the future, as well as to pay for getting 50 kids out of slavery.

Iqbal? was also honoured with a Youth-in-Action Award, while in America. He and Ehsan Ullah Khan, from the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, a nonprofit organisation, had come to the United States to receive the award and educate Americans about the awful plight of child labour. They visited schools and human rights groups, Iqbal spoke (through a translator) at an award ceremony with 2,000 people in attendance, appeared on TV and visited stores that sell Pakistani carpets.

Iqbal then returns to Pakistan. On the morning of Easter Sunday, 16 April 1995, he takes the bus home to Muridke. That evening he joins his relatives Lyaqat and Faryad Masih, who are taking food to Lyaqat?s father who is watering his fields. All three of them sit on the same bike. It is eight o?clock and it?s dark. When the boys are half way there, they hear two gunshots, which kill Iqbal. Faryad can?t write, so on the night of the murder, he has to put his thumbprint at the bottom of a blank piece of paper. Then the police write whatever they like and claim that Faryad has signed the paper to say that it is true.

Khan said he was sure it was the carpet factory owners who had killed him. The official Pakistani story was absurd and disgusting (they said Iqbal and his friends stumbled upon a man fornicating with a donkey and the man shot him), and no forensic evidence was ever found to substantiate the outlandish claims.

Mr Khan described the 10-year-old boy after being freed as “emaciated and wheezing like an old man”. He claimed that Iqbal was murdered because his protests had caused dozens of factories in Pakistan to close.

The next morning, a poor farmer called Ashraf Hero is arrested and accused of murdering Iqbal. The police torture him. They hang him upside down from the ceiling and beat him with sticks and leather belts. ?You?re going to say that you killed that boy Iqbal and say whatever we tell you to. Or else we?ll kill you and your whole family. You?re poor and worthless. No one cares what we do with you,? say the police.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan confirms that the police report is correct and that Hero, an innocent man, is the murderer. As a result the lie is spread all over the world by ambassadors and journalists, without being questioned. The Human Rights Commission also claims, without proof, that the murder is nothing to do with the fact that Iqbal challenged the carpet makers. Hero is kept out of the way. No one is allowed to meet him. But in court he is found not guilty. The police write that Hero, who has never before held a rifle, just happened to hit Iqbal when he fired in the general direction of the boys. In actual fact, Iqbal was hit by 120 pellets on his back, while the other boys were only hit by a total of two pellets. It was Iqbal who was the murderer?s target, and he was shot in the back when he tried to escape. ?Iqbal told me that he wanted to be a big lawyer,? recalls Sobia, who was ten when her big brother was murdered. ?He wanted to free the children in the carpet factories and give them an education so that poor children could have a better future.?

Iqbal Masih

That?s one of the worst things about working in international human rights. Brave activists who champion the rights of carpet factory slaves (like Iqbal), or who rehabilitate teenage soldiers in Somalia or who combat the prejudice against the HIV positive on the streets of Brazil, or who push for peace between the Hutus and the Tutsis, often die. And usually at the hands of the powerful warlords against whom they are peacefully waging battle.

In Pakistan, children are forced to work in brick kilns, agriculture, carpet factories, restaurants, and factories manufacturing all kinds of goods from furniture, and sports goods, to surgical equipment. They also work as domestic labourers, where they are often exposed to mental and physical abuse and separated from their parents, being kept in a state of virtual imprisonment.

There are around 240 million working children between the ages of 5 and 14 in the world today. Three in four of them carry out harmful child labour, the kind of work that prevents children from going to school and destroys their health and development. More than 8 million children are forced into the worst kinds of child labour, as debt slaves, soldiers or prostitutes. Every year, at least 1.2 million children are ?trafficked? in the modern day slave trade. Iqbal was a modern day child slave. There are child slaves in countries like Pakistan, India, Nepal, Cambodia and Sudan, as well as in Europe. Most of these are debt slaves, but there are other kinds of slaves, like the girls in West Africa who are household slaves. You are a modern day slave if your employer has so much power over you that you have to work for him or her. Pakistan, like most other countries, has laws that ban both debt slavery and child labour. But often these laws are not enforced. The countries that have child slaves have all ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and are supposed to protect their children from having to carry out work that is harmful for them.

Iqbal was one of 8 million child labourers in Pakistan, over a ? million of these labourers were attached to the carpet industry. Iqbal was one of many whose families were ?bonded? to an employer, in this case one who ran the half-knotted section of carpet manufacturer.

The ?bonded??system can tie a family to an employer for generations; it becomes a vicious cycle of work and debt that cannot effectively ever be repaid. In Iqbal?s case he was literally tied (chained) to his loom, with no realistic alternatives, he had to work 12 hours every day. At the age of 10 he escaped his ?employers?.

Iqbal joined the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF) of Pakistan to begin his fight against child labour. He was responsible for the escape of some 3000 other child labourers. He made speeches to inspire others around the world and was promised an education at Brandeis University in Boston, once he had finished his studies in Pakistan.

Iqbal would not live to accept this generous offer. On April 16th 1995 Iqbal was shot in the back by an unidentified man with a 12 gauge shotgun. Although Pakistani authorities officially deemed his death an accident, it is widely regarded that the ?Carpet Mafia? paid for Iqbal?s assassination, due to his views and efforts to stem child labour.

Iqbal Masih, with remarkable courage and perseverance, used tragic circumstances to try and change the world for the good. His story should continue to inspire all those who fight for a world where children are free to be children—and the dignity of humankind is supported, not distorted, by work.

Iqbal died on behalf of the millions of children who have no voice.

The fact that Iqbal was sold for less then seven dollars by his own parents is truly tragic. The fact being sold robbed him of his childhood and turned him into a child slave worker, forcing adulthood is more tragic. The most tragic is that it was his parents who forced Iqbal Masih to lose his freedom, his youth and his health.?In his death, Pakistan?s Iqbal Masih continues to inspire people across the world; ?he was mentioned by Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi is his award speech at Oslo, where Satyarthi dedicated his win to Iqbal Masih and other martyrs of the child rights cause.

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