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A Young Pakistani Maid's Short Life, Tragic Death07:46
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Countless generations have witnessed the cycle of life along the Grand Trunk Road in Pakistan, sweeping from Lahore north and west across a plateau to Peshawar.

Millions of Pakistani children earn a living along this old highway. Economic desperation forces them to scavenge and sweat rather than go to school.

Robbed of their childhood, they grow up fast. Others, like Shazia Bibi, don't get that chance.

Born on May 20, 1997, Shazia went to work last year in the home of Chaudhry Naeem, a prominent lawyer and former president of the Lahore Bar Association.

According to her family, Shazia -- the daughter of a housecleaner -- washed his floors and cleaned his toilets.

On a recent evening, Naeem sat in the dark of his sitting room in his home. He is the chief suspect in a crime and asked that the interview not be recorded.

His maid earned less than five cents an hour. Naeem shrugged an acknowledgment.

When asked if he took advantage of her poverty, the lawyer who employed her for eight months in his spacious home insisted that he did not. "We need servants," he said. "We pay children extra; we pay for their medicine, and clothing for weddings and special occasions."

The last occasion for 12-year-old Shazia was a funeral -- her own.

'If We Were Rich, Our Daughter Would Be Alive'

The circumstances of Shazia's death are in dispute.

According to the hospital death certificate, the girl died on Jan. 22, 2010, of "cardiopulmonary arrest." Another official report describes "multiple scars" on her back and at least 18 injuries including abrasions on her neck, swelling on her face and a bruise on her forehead, caused, the report says, by "blunt means." Still a third document -- an official forensic medicine and toxicology report -- says Shazia died of septicemia, or blood poisoning. One judge reviewing the case noted that “patients with septicemia often develop hemorrhages [that] if untreated … begin to look like fresh bruises.”

But the contradictory details of how she died seem almost irrelevant to her family.

The grieving family is Christian, part of a tiny -- and often discriminated against -- minority in Muslim Pakistan. The family says that because Shazia was Christian and they are poor they do not have the connections or resources to fight for justice in this case. Christian groups have rallied around the case, and amplified the family's voice.

Shazia's 65-year-old stepfather, Bashir Masih, collects a pension of $60 a month to help feed Shazia's four surviving siblings.

"If we were rich, our daughter would be alive," Masih said, surrounded by family and friends eager to coach him. "This has happened because we are poor."

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Pakistani law prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14. Shazia was not yet 13 when she died, and her case demonstrates how custom and tradition trump the law.

Along the Grand Trunk Road children toil in workshops, bang mud into bricks, haul goods and hawk food. And with poverty growing, wages declining and the cost of living increasing, more and more children are being forced into the labor market.

Bashir Masih, Shazia's stepfather, says that if his family were rich, Shazia would be alive. "This has happened because we are poor," he says. (Julie McCarthy/NPR)

Reliable numbers are difficult to come by, but experts say the number of working children ranges from 3 million to 12 million. A U.S. Labor Department estimate says the number could be as high as 19 million.

Pakistan's Senate took note of Shazia's case last week. And the government has awarded the family the equivalent of $6,000 -- a fortune for them -- and the promise of a new house.

Poverty Complicates Murky Circumstances

Razia Bibi, Shazia's aunt, washed the body when the young girl was delivered home. It was battered and bruised, she says.

"I recall looking at our child's body, a girl who was beautiful and healthy, and I can't bear it," Razia said. "She was human, she was not an animal -- all those injuries. We don't need land or money; we need justice. They killed our daughter."

But in Pakistan few things are black and white. The case of Shazia trains a spotlight on something murkier: how poverty can compromise even the victims.

Shazia Bibi's older sister Sonia (left) and aunt Razia are among the grieving family members. Razia Bibi says she prepared her niece's battered and bruised body for burial. "She was human, she was not an animal -- all those injuries," Razia says. "We don't need land or money; we need justice. They killed our daughter." (Julie McCarthy/NPR)

Shazia's mother had enlisted a broker to find her daughter a job with a

wealthy family, a common practice in Pakistan. The family says it received 10,000 rupees -- about $125 -- from the broker when Shazia was placed in the home of the man who is now charged with her death. Naeem says he paid the broker, Amanat Ali, 15,000 rupees; Ali, is also named in a criminal suit.

Leading human-rights lawyer Asma Jahangir says with the deteriorating economic situation in Pakistan, parents often justify sending their children away to work.

"So it is an uphill task even trying to convince the victims themselves that this is certainly something that in the long term is debilitating for them," Jahangir says.

In Pakistan, parents do sell their children sometimes. Shazia's family insists that did not happen in this case.

Nongovernmental organizations, however, have begun to distance themselves from the case as Shazia's mother and stepfather -- now estranged -- began to change their story.

Questions arose: Did the family attempt to get their daughter back as they claim? Or did they urge the lawyer to keep Shazia as he claims? Were the disputes with him about Shazia's well-being or about money?

Legal Community Decries Charges

Shazia's family gathers at her grave in Lahore. The mourners are members of Pakistan's tiny Christian community, which is one reason, they say, they are not able to bring the man accused of Shazia's death to justice. (Julie McCarthy/NPR)

Members of the Lahore Bar Association condemn the case against Naeem, their former leader, as a witch hunt. The association's vice president, Zulfiqar Mankee, says the media have defamed a respected member of the legal fraternity.

"In my opinion, media murdered Chaudhry Naeem as well as his family. Now Chaudhry Naeem and his family [are] only breathing, not living a honorable life. That decent guy," Mankee said.

Naeem says Shazia ate from the garbage bin. "I thought she was mentally retarded," he said.

The family says Shazia was healthy and did not suffer from developmental or mental disabilities.

He kept her in his house because he says her parents wouldn't take her back. And he says he couldn't return her.

"I worked from 7 a.m. to 6:30 at night. When would I have time?" he said.

But human-rights activist and lawyer Jahangir isn't convinced. "He's a lawyer. He should have gone to the police and said, look, this child is very ill, her parents don't take her. Can I put her in an institution where she can be looked after?" Jahangir said. She's not just simply there to do your chores. It's that basic compassion that is so missing. It's that basic attitude that people who work for you are your slaves."

Truth May Never Be Known

Naeem, who faces a criminal trial, says he is not guilty of any offense or bad judgment. About 48 hours before Shazia died, Naeem says, he took the girl to the hospital for what he described as a skin disorder. He also said she had fallen down a flight of stairs outside his house. Naeem says he believes she died from complications of the skin disease, including possibly septicemia.

This drama, he says, has destroyed him and ostracized his family. He says he has learned not to hire young female servants or anyone who belongs to the Pakistani Christian community.

"I'm in a great depression," he said. "You cannot imagine what I am facing in this society."

Lahore Bar Association Vice President Zulfiqar Mankee says the public and media have already convicted his friend and fellow lawyer Chaudhry of Shazia's death. Mankee believes Shazia died of disease. (Julie McCarthy/NPR)

The truth about 12-year-old Shazia may never be known. But the story of her death -- contradictions and all -- speaks volumes about the vulnerability of poor children forced into labor, and the strange and often sinister circumstances in which they find themselves.

Copyright NPR 2022.

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