Iqbal Masih Pakistan’s Unsung Hero

by Alison Houghton

I am certain that all of you will have
heard of Malala Yousafazai. Female education activist and world-wide speaker, she was catapulted to international renown after she was shot three times by a Taliban gunman who boarded her school bus.

In contrast, until recently, I had not heard of Iqbal Masih.  To my shame, I knew nothing of his bravery or his pioneering spirit that brought liberation to thousands of Pakistan’s enslaved children. He worked tirelessly to highlight their plight both at home and in the international community, until his life was brutally cut short on 16 April 1995.

Iqbal was born in 1983 to a Christian family in Muridke, a small rural village about 30km from Lahore.  He was sold into illegal bonded slavery when he was just an infant of four years old.  His father left home and the family struggled in extreme poverty, his mother barely able to make ends meet as a domestic cleaner.  In exchange for a loan that the owner had agreed with her, she made Iqbal available for work weaving carpets in the local carpet factory.  Children are preferred for this type of work as they have small, nimble fingers which can tie the tiny knots required to make the intricate designs. The loan, or ‘Peshgi’ as it is known, was lent to his mother in instalments. This 600 rupees debt, shockingly, only equates today to around £4.00 – or £12 at that time – and marked the start of Iqbal’s misery.

The conditions in the factory were utterly unbearable.   Iqbal’s working day began at daybreak after a long walk down rural roads. The children were chained to the carpet looms to prevent escape, squatting on benches in front of looms, forced to work 14 hour days in silence, for six or sometimes seven days a week as their debt increased.  Forced to breathe in hot, fibre filled air with no ventilation and to work in hunched, cramped conditions, Iqbal had curvature of the spine, stunted growth, was weak from lack of exercise and malnourished.  His fingers and hands were covered in tiny scars from cuts made by the sharp tools he was required to use. He was constantly beaten, verbally abused, and hung upside down or deprived of food as a punishment.

Iqbal’s debt was being paid off at the ridiculous rate of 3p per day.   His mother had ever increasing expenses such as medical bills and his older brother’s wedding, so she obtained yet more loans from the carpet factory owner.  The cost of tools, his training, his food, and the crippling interest meant Iqbal could never repay it and he would be enslaved for life.

At the age of 10, he escaped from the factory and ran to the local police station in the hope of rescue.   He informed them of the awful conditions and slavery that the children were forced to endure.  The policeman promptly returned him to his owner, recommended he be punished, and happily accepted a bribe for doing so.

In 1994, at the age of 11, Iqbal found a way to attend a meeting by the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF).  There he learnt that bonded labour had been made illegal in Pakistan in 1992: the government had cancelled all debts to business owners but few of these had released any bonded labourers. Iqbal was shocked and although he was a shy boy he was stirred by what he heard and gave an unplanned speech.   He told those in attendance his story and of the suffering he was forced to endure.   This was featured in the local press and he refused to return to his owner.   Iqbal contacted the leaders of the BLLF and their lawyer obtained a letter of freedom for him.  The BLLF confronted the factory owner, eventually convinced him that his factory was illegal, and that he was duty bound not only to free Iqbal, but all the other children bonded there also. At the time he was liberated Iqbal’s outstanding debt had accumulated to 13,000 rupees, £230 in total.

Once free, Iqbal was able to attend the BLLF school for emancipated child labourers where he proved himself to be an intelligent and articulate boy. He excelled at his studies, completing four years of schooling in only two years and was awarded a scholarship to attend school in the USA.   He was also able to begin medical treatment for his stunted growth.  Throughout this time he continued to be involved in BLLF demonstrations and meetings, becoming a prominent voice and activist for bonded child labourers.  His most famous quote being: “Children should have pens in their hands, not tools”.

He risked his safety on more than one occasion, going undercover to interview children in factories about their working conditions.  His small stature meant he had the appearance of a six year old child and could easily blend in.  These daring missions resulted in him obtaining the necessary information to close factories down, thus liberating more illegal child slaves.

Despite death threats from crime bosses controlling the communities, Iqbal was undeterred and it is estimated that 3000 children were freed as a result. He expressed a desire to become a lawyer to better equip him to free bonded labourers, and he began to visit other countries including Sweden and the United States to share his story, encouraging others to join the fight to eradicate child slavery.    In December 1994, he was awarded the Reebok Human Rights Award which he collected in USA accompanied by Ehsan Ullah Khan of the BLLF.

On Palm Sunday 16 April 1995, Iqbal was returning from mass with his two cousins when he was shot in the back with a shotgun. He was killed instantly. The official police report states that a local man, Ashraf Hero, admits killing Iqbal accidentally by firing of the gun in panic after the boys witnessed him engaging in bestiality with a donkey. The police extracted this bizarre confession from Hero after hours of torture.  The Pakistani Human Rights Commission investigated because of Iqbal’s many enemies in the carpet business, but eventually agreed with the police report. Controversy still surrounds his death and many believe that Iqbal was assassinated on the orders of the carpet manufacturers and that Ashraf Hero was a convenient scapegoat or contracted to kill.

Iqbal was buried the next day, 17th April, and over 800 people came to mourn him. Yet, his story and struggle inspired many and he has left a lasting legacy.     He was given the World’s Children’s Honorary Award 2000 posthumously.   The Iqbal Masih Shaheed Children Foundation was created and founded over 20 schools in Pakistan, and a school in the United States that Iqbal had visited raised money and built a school in his honour.   The annual Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor was established by the US Congress in 2009, and the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work in preventing child labour, Kailash Satyarthi, dedicated the award to Iqbal and other martyrs in his acceptance speech.

On 31st May 1995, Los Angeles Times reported that, “Already hit with sagging exports, Pakistani carpet dealers say they have lost more sales to Western buyers since the killing of a young activist who spoke out against child labor. The death of Iqbal Masih, 12, received worldwide publicity after a group that is fighting child labor blamed carpet industry owners. Imran Malik, vice chairman of the Pakistan Carpet and Manufacturers and Exporters Association, estimates that $10 million worth of orders have been lost since the April 16 shooting.  ‘Carpets that were once considered a piece of art are now looked upon as if the blood of children has been used to make them,’ Malik said.”

Sadly, Iqbal’s story is neither unique nor has this suffering been eradicated.   Pakistani Christians still live and work in appalling conditions in debt-bonded slavery to brick kilns, carpet factories, and clothing sweatshops, many of them children.   Generations are working to pay off debts that are ever increasing, the totals kept high by the corrupt owners who profit highly from keeping them in servitude.

Whilst Malala Yousafazai received world-wide attention, asylum and recognition, Iqbal has remained largely unknown, assassinated at the tender age of 12.  Unlike her, despite his achievements for other children, he was not awarded a Nobel Peace prize, just a mere mention in someone else’s acceptance speech.
Iqbal’s story is told in full in The Little Hero: One Boy’s Fight for Freedom – Iqbal Masih’s Story by Andrew Crofts.

The BPCA cares deeply about debt bonded Christians and is working to bring change to their lives.   We are already assisting the children of Shama and Shahzad, the Christian couple who were burnt alive in the brick kiln by a mob following false blasphemy charges, by helping with their schooling and providing a nanny. We aim to educate bonded labourers about their rights and assist them to obtain and keep their freedom by providing advocacy and support.    A Christian charity is also sponsoring us to undertake training this summer in the operation of a village savings and loans scheme and entrepreneurial loans scheme which we aim to roll out to as many Christian villages as we can.

We want to ensure that bonded labour is no longer the fate of many Christians, and to ensure that children of bonded labourers do not have to carry on this legacy of misery. Help us to break the chains.  Pray for Christians to be set free from lives of servitude and poverty, and please give what you can today to ensure that Iqbal Masih’s dream of children holding pens instead of tools
will live on.

Iqbal Masih 1983-1995

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which serves many victims like these, please donate using the following bank details:

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