It was a moment that stunned viewers. In late 1994, a twelve-year old boy whose stunted body size and weigh made him look half his age appeared on ABC World News to describe his years as a virtual slave in Pakistan. At the age of four, Iqbal Masih had been offered to a carpet manufacturer as collateral for a loan of about $16. For the next six years, twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week, the boy worked at a loom in a carpet factory. As “bonded laborers” working to pay off family debts, Iqbal and the other children in the factor were forbidden to leave and punished severely if they tried.
“They threatened us not to even think of leaving,” he said in the ABC interview. “They tell us, ‘We’ll burn your fingers in oil if you even try to leave. We’ll put you in oil.”
Iqbal ran away from the factory twice. The first time he headed straight for a police station, thinking he would be offered protection, and was promptly returned to his owner. As punishment, he was hung upside down by his heels and then chained for a time to his loom. He was luckier n his second try. After wandering countryside for a few days, Iqbal eventually met a representative of the Bond Labor Liberation Front (BLLF), an activist organization seeking to end the enslavement endured by over twenty million adults and nearly eight million children in Pakistan.
Risking life and limbs, Iqbal led the BLLF to the factor where he had worked. When photos of malnourished children chained to looms were released, public outcry forced the police to close the place down.
Iqbal became an international known spokesperson for the BLLF, participating in dozens of raids on sweatshops and liberating over three thousand Pakistani child laborers.
In the last year of is life, he toured Europe and the United States, drawing world attention to forced child labor and urging an international boycott on Pakistan carpets.
Although, illiterate, when he escaped from the factor, Iqbal was a bright child, mastering five years of schooling in less than three. His dream was to become a lawyer to continue his struggle against bonded labor. But Iqbal courageous opposition to what has been called Pakistan’s carpet mafia made him a target. On Sunday 16, April 1995, Iqbal was killed by a shotgun blast while ridding a bicycle.
His death story was made controversial as police recorded an FIR that said that Masih was shot by a man whom the boy and two relatives had seen having sex with a donkey. Tahir Ikram, a Pakistani reported, filed the story to the Reuters but was ignored by global media. At the time of his death, Iqbal was an internationally known child activist. Why the person who was having sex with a donkey killed only Iqbal– not the two other relatives– led the media not to believe the donkey story.
Iqbal has been featured in ABC News person of the week. His worked has inspired the creation of Free the Children, a Canadian organization whose goals are to free children from poverty and exploitation and free young people from the notion that they are powerless to change the world.
This Child has freed 3000 kids and brought down Pakistan’s Carpet Industry by $37 million in just under one year.
Iqbal was the recipient of the prestigious Reebok Human Rights Youth In Action Award in 1994. His work has inspired books and a movie called ‘Iqbal’.
The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kailash Satyarthi on grounds of prevention of child labor and female education. Satyarthi mentioned Masih in his Nobel Peace Prize award speech, dedicating it to him and other “martyrs”.
Content and Photo courtesy: The Dardistan Times