Tears tracing lines of dirt on his face, six-year-old Pakistani boy Nabeel Mukhtar cries while crouching on a pavement to scrub motorbikes, his job for nine hours a day, six days a week.
He is one of millions of children driven into labour by poverty in a country where the unpopular government is seen as too corrupt and ineffective to care for its citizens, even the young and helpless.
"I want to study and become a doctor but we don't have any money," said Mukhtar, who helps his family make ends meet.
Rising food and fuel prices and a struggling economy have forced many families to send their children to search for work instead of to the classroom.
Pakistan needs to take immediate measures to stabilise growing budget pressures and to raise interest rates to contain rising inflation, the International Monetary Fund warned on Monday.
Government Needs To Do More
Up to 10 million children are estimated to be working in Pakistan, says Mannan Rana, child and adolescent protection specialist at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The latest government figures, showing three million child labourers, date back to 1996, underscoring how scant attention has been paid to documenting the problem, which is likely to get worse given the makeup of the fast-growing population.
The plight of child labourers in Pakistan came under international scrutiny when it was discovered that children were hand-stitching soccer balls in the town of Sialkot.
Foreign sports equipment companies are wary of any hint of association with child exploitation. One stopped orders in 2006 from a Pakistan-based supplier of hand-stitched soccer balls, saying the factory had failed to correct labour compliance violations.
But the outcry hasn't helped much.
"The problem is that the whole industry has moved into private homes, which has made it a bit difficult to monitor if child labour is being used," said Hussain Naqi, the national co-ordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
"This is not just an issue in Sialkot, child labour is occurring all across Pakistan in very dangerous sectors like glass bangle manufacturing, cleaning of oil tankers, poultry farms, motor workshops, brick kilns and small hotels."
Pakistan spends less than 2 percent of its gross domestic product on education, which translates into a lack of skills amongst the younger population, pushing them onto the street in search of work.
By comparison, just over 17 percent of 2011-12 state spending went to defense, though some experts put the figure at 26 percent.
"The problem is there and we are not in a state of denial," said Shahnaz Wazir Ali, social sector special assistant to the prime minister, adding that about 45 percent of Pakistan's population of almost 180 million is below the age of 22.
But Pakistan's leaders are often too consumed by infighting, or tension with the military, to address child welfare.
In recent months, Pakistan has been gripped by rumours of a possible military coup and the ongoing tussle between the Supreme Court and the government is preoccupying the leadership.
With little government protection, children keep falling into the same vicious circle of exploitation.
Adapted from “Millions pushed into child labour in Pakistan,” Reuters, 7 February 2012.
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