Every time I hear an adult say, “What difference would one person’s opinion/fight/struggle make?” or a child explain, “No one takes us seriously because we are just kids,” Or on days when I crib about the really unimportant things in life, I think of Iqbal Masih and his struggles, his fight and his life.
This is a story of a little boy, Iqbal Masih who was born in Muridke, a very small, rural village outside of Lahore in Pakistan. He belonged to a very poor family. His father worked as a labourer and his mother a house cleaner. When Iqbal’s father borrowed 600 rupees from a local carpet factory owner, he signed up Iqbal as collateral against the loan. This meant that Iqbal was to work for the carpet factory owner until the debt was paid off. This was the year 1987. Iqbal was just 4 years old when he started working as a bonded child labourer.
As a little kid, Iqbal had to put up with inhumane work conditions. He was made to work in an airless room with a small, bare light bulb. The windows of the room were kept sealed to keep out insects that might damage the wool. He worked for 12 hours every day for 6 days a week. On Sundays (his only day off), Iqbal would spend it playing with his friends not even bothering to eat meals.
Can one imagine being tied up for more than a few minutes? Iqbal was often tied to his loom so that he stayed rooted and continued working endlessly. He was given meager lunch and would be beaten up if he ever tried to sneak away. There were other children in the factory too, but they were not allowed to speak to each other because that meant, not giving their complete attention to the product and increased possibility of making errors. Working for long hours, gave Iqbal a bent back which in turn stopped his physical growth. His lungs were affected as well because he inhaled a lot of dust from the factory.
Members of Iqbal’s family, however, were oblivious to this little boy’s unacceptable circumstances. They kept borrowing from the carpet factory owner, making it impossible to ever get rid of the debt. Iqbal continued working till the age of ten. Then one day he escaped the living hell and was eventually saved by Ehsan Ulla Khan, founder of the Bondage Labour Liberation Front.
Iqbal started attending school for the first time and also travelled to meetings with Eshan Ullah Khan, urging children to “Come with me and be free,” as Child Labour was a common practice in Pakistan and also in other countries around the world.
Standing out as a public figure, Iqbal began speaking internationally. His speeches raised a lot of interest. He became the first child recipient of “Reebok’s Youth in Action Human Rights” award. During his acceptance speech at the award ceremony Iqbal said, “In my country, children work with this instrument (holding up his carpet tool). However, children need this instrument (holding up a pen).” And when he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Iqbal said: “A lawyer, fighting for the rights of my people. But first I have to finish school.”
Unfortunately, Iqbal never got to finish school. Four months after receiving the Reebok award, on April 16, 1995, while riding a bicycle with his friend, Iqbal was shot dead. The investigation into his murder has not reached any conclusion yet, however, Iqbal’s fight against Child Labour did make a tremendous mark across the world. Two and a half years after Iqbal’s death, President Bill Clinton signed a law making it illegal to import goods created by bonded child labour.
So, for anyone of us who believe that one person cannot make a real difference in the world or children cannot leave an Impact… Iqbal Masih proved us wrong.