Extreme poverty, forced labour, “honour crimes”…

Prof. Aijaz A. Qureshi; Mushtaq Mirani; Nasarullah Thaheem; Shaheen Khan
Social Watch Pakistan

This report presents an overview of the dramatic Pakistani situation. Its 140 million people are among the world’s poorest. High population growth and low social spending have deteriorated healthcare, education, sanitation and drinking water. Non-Muslim minorities experience routine discrimination. Child and forced labour and violence against women, subject to the rule of “honour killings”, are part of a general climate of restricted public freedoms.

Pakistan’s140 million people are among the world’s poorest (see table 1). Highpopulation growth (a 3% increase each year) and low social spending (see table2) have deteriorated healthcare, education, sanitation and drinking water.Health services are particularly bad for the urban poor and rural population. Onaverage there is one male doctor for a population of 1,923.[1]Private hospitals, which provide better medical facilities, are too expensivefor the poor to use. Public hospitals lack treatment facilities and medicines.Long distances to the hospitals also deny many poor people access to healthcare.

Table1.- Human deprivation profile

Population below poverty line


Population without access to health services


Population without access to safe water


Population without access to sanitation



Daily calorie supply


Illiterate adult women


Malnourished children


Infant mortality rate

81 (per 1,000 live births)

Under-5 mortality rate

112 (per 1,000 live births)

Child labourers

19 million

Source:Mehboob ul Haq, HumanDevelopment in South Asia 2001, Human Development Centre, Islamabad,Pakistan.

Table2.- Wealth and poverty

Total GNP

USD 58.2 billion (1999)

GNP per capita

USD 470 (1999)

Income share: ratio of highest 20% to lowest 20% (1987-98)


Social security benefits expenditure

(as % of GNP)


Public expenditure on education and health (as % of GNP)


Source:Mehboob ul Haq, HumanDevelopment in South Asia 2001, Human Development Centre, Islamabad,Pakistan.

Althoughthe literacy rate has increased, the effective literacy rate is much lower. Itis estimated that the male literacy rate is 53% and the female literacy rate isonly 30%. There is a large disparity in literacy levels between rural and urbanareas, and between highly developed and less developed provinces. For example,female literacy in rural Sindh is only 13%.

Discriminationagainst minorities

Althoughthe government claims to provide equal rights for non-Muslim minorities—mainlyHindus, Christians and Ahmadis[2]—inpractice these groups experience routine discrimination and live in fear andsuppression. In many places liberal Muslims are also prevented from living theirlives as they want.

Afterthe September 11 terrorist attacks, Christians have become the target of violentassaults. Peace activist Aslam Martin was recently killed in Karachi. Islamicextremist organisations equate Christians with the western world and identifythem as enemies of Islam. Minorities also face formal discrimination, such asbeing barred from holding elected as well appointed high offices. The governmenthas taken small steps toward protecting minorities, such as ending separateelections and reserving seats in assemblies and the Senate. Yet full equalityremains distant. 

Childand forced labour

Manyhouseholds depend on child labour for survival. While reliable statistics arenot available, it is thought that about two thirds of children population workin services, manufacturing, fishery, agriculture and forestry. Despite legalprohibitions, industrial child labour is widespread, especially in textilefactories and home-based production. By conservative estimates, one millionchildren work as carpet weavers alone. 

Forcedlabour exists in agriculture and other sectors of the economy. These people arefirst loaned money beyond their capacity to repay and then they continue to workunder low wages and harsh conditions and they are not free to leave thecreditor’s work place until they fully repay the loan. Bonded families arepaid less than others and are denied basic social and human rights. They arevirtual slaves and are kept in permanent poverty. Hundreds of bonded labourfamilies were in the private jails owned by feudal lords and big landlordsmostly in the Sindh province. They were released with the help of the HumanRights Commission of Pakistan, some NGOs and social and political groups. Someof the freed families settled in Hyderabad. Recently ILO with the help of theNational Rural Support Programme (NRSP), have undertaken their rehabilitation.The issue of forced labour is very acute in Mirpur Khas and Sanghar districts inSindh. The exact number of bonded families cannot be counted but independentexperts estimate them around 20,000.

Forcedlabourers and children trafficked from other countries have long worked in brickkilns, fisheries, shoe-making, power looms and carpet- making. High demand forcheap and docile workers ensures the continuation of rural child labour. Somereports indicate that police support child slavery and forced labour. Livingconditions for these workers are appalling, and serious health problems, such asrespiratory, skin and eye ailments, are common.

Povertyhas led to increasing sexual exploitation of children. Child day-labourers arefrequently kidnapped and sold into prostitution, or trafficked across nationalborders. Some brothel owners seek children who come from far away because theyare powerless and least able to escape. In addition, many Pakistani children aresmuggled as camel jockeys to the Gulf states; some are sold by their parents.Recently many young men were indoctrinated by religious fundamentalists and,often unknown to their parents, sent to Afghanistan to fight in the war againstthe United States. It is believed that thousands died in the fighting.

Violenceagainst women

Violenceagainst women is rising. Due to the lack of rule of law, corruption,retrogressive traditions and social acceptance of violence, women are frequentlytortured, insulted, beaten and even killed. Gruesome incidents of “honour”killings, “naked walks” and physical torture against women are occurring inthe country. Some are reported in the media but a large number of such cases gounreported. This reflects the status of women in the country.

InSindh province alone, 129 people, mostly women, were victims of honour killingsin 2001. In June 2002, a tribal council in Punjab ordered the gang-rape of an18-year-old woman, as “punishment” to cast shame on her family after her11-year-old brother allegedly had an affair with one of the tribe’s divorcedwomen.[3]

Tribal tradition (Karo Kari) mandates that afamily whose honour has been offended by an illicit relationship should kill theman and woman involved. However, in practice the victims of these practices aremostly women. Underthis custom, men who carry out the killing need not provide proof of theirallegations or utilise the formal judicial system. Even the slightest suspicionof illicit relations by any woman can result in her being killed by her malerelatives or husband.

“Honour” in Pakistan is defined by men. Women whodefy those standards are often murdered by male family members. The practiceseems to be spreading from rural areas to the city, claiming over a thousandvictims in 2001 despite outspoken denunciation from political and religiousleaders. Thus far the government has not passed a law to outlaw this custom.

Governanceand civil society

Pakistanis a frontline state in the war against terrorism and is ruled by the military.The people of Pakistan continue to be denied the benefits of democraticgovernance. Human rights organisations, women’s groups, the media, NGOs, andacademic and professional organisations constitute the civil societyorganisations in the country. They are very active in promoting socialdevelopment, protecting human rights and demanding good governance. But thecontinued military rule has not allowed them to function as effectively as theymight. There are several constraints to their work, such as a controlledjudiciary, limited political freedom, feudal and tribal culture and religiousextremism.


·       Democracyshould be restored and sovereignty of the people over the State be ensured.

·       Human rights,political rights, and religious and cultural freedom should be guaranteed.

·       Rights ofminorities should be protected.

·       Unemploymentand poverty should be reduced.

·       More fundsshould be allocated for social sectors such as health, education, sanitation,drinking water and transport.

·       The infamoushonour killings, child abuse and child labour, and forced labour should all beeliminated.

·       Religiousextremism, particularly religious terrorism, should be controlled.

·       All communities, regardless of traditions, should besubject to the national rule of law and socio-economic reforms.


Mehboobul Haq, Human Development in South Asia 2001, Human Development Centre,Islamabad, Pakistan.

KaroKari (honour killings),a study report prepared by SZABIST, Karachi, Pakistan.

DailyDawn, various issues.

HumanRights Commission of Pakistan. Annual Report 2001-2002.

SocialDevelopment in Pakistan (towards poverty reduction), Social Policy Development Centre, Karachi, Pakistan, 2001.

Pakistan:Growth, employment, and Poverty Alleviation,report prepared by ILO, Geneva, 2001.

TheHerald, a fortnightly English magazine in Pakistan, August 2002.


[1] Mehboob ul Haq, Human Development in South Asia 2001, Human Development Centre, Islamabad, Pakistan.

[2]The Ahmadis’ claim to be Muslims has been rejected by parliament.

[3] Dawn, 22 June 2002.