Who was Iqbal Masih?
Iqbal Masih was a Pakistani boy who fought against child labour until his death at the tender age of 12. When he was 4, he was sold by his parents to a carpet weaving company to work as a carpet weaver. In order to make sure he won’t escape, he and other children were kept tied to the chains. When Iqbal was 10, the supreme court of Pakistan declared child labour illegal and that gave the brave boy an opportunity to escape. His freedom didn’t last long though and he was caught by the police and handed back over to his employer. His second attempt was a successful one and Iqbal started studying while expressing a desire to become a lawyer to fight the evil of child labour. While returning from the USA from one of his campaigns, Iqbal was shot dead by a heroin addict who belonged to the Pakistani carpet mafia. He remains an icon for Pakistani kids who are still unable to free themselves from the evil of child labour.
Iqbal Masih was born in a small village on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan, in 1983. His father was a poor labourer and abandoned the family after he became father to another boy, which meant another mouth to feed. Iqbal’s mother Inayat, who worked as a housecleaner, bore the responsibility of taking care of all her children, doing odd jobs in houses in Lahore.
Baby Iqbal, unaware of what dire conditions his family suffered with, was taken care of by his sisters and played in a vast field outside his small house. However, his childhood bid its farewell to Iqbal at the age of 4, when he tasted ‘real life’ for the first time. In 1986, the family needed money for his older brother’s marriage celebration and borrowed Rs. 600 from a local carpet weaving business owner. In return, he took Iqbal as a bonded labour until the debt was recovered.
With no other option left, Iqbal started working and found out that several other children were working alongside him. He started working from early morning and worked till late evening. He worked 14 hours a day for 6 days a week and the pay was so low that he could not pay the money back to his ‘owner’. But somehow, without any ray of hope, he kept working and even when the Pakistani Supreme Court made child labour illegal, the corruption which prevailed at every corner in Pakistani politics and economy, kept the evil well fed.
At the age of 10, Iqbal managed to plan his first escape after getting tired of the atrocious way he was getting treated with. The children were beaten, starved, made to work in extreme heat, forced to work overtime with very low pay, barely enough to get them two square meals, even lesser than that sometimes. Iqbal’s bravery encouraged him to take the risk which he knew would cost him his life if he failed, but Iqbal took the bold step and planned an escape.
Iqbal took some other children with him and they all ran away, landing straight into a police station, only to land in the crib of poisonous corruption which was obvious through the way the police reacted. The uniformed corrupts handed Iqbal and other children over to his employer to get some money as a reward.
Iqbal’s punishment for escaping was extreme starvation and horrific beating sessions and time halted for the brave young boy as the suffering seemed unending.
At the age of 12, Iqbal made another escape attempt, this time to a convention of Brick Layer Union. There, Iqbal came in touch with an activist named Ehsaan Ullah Khan, who helped free Iqbal along with some other children from Arshad, the carpet business owner.
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Iqbal had a strong desire of studying and he managed to get admission in the Bonded Labour Liberation Fund School and he was such a bright student that every teacher was impressed with him.
Iqbal helped more than 3000 child slaves to break free from slavery to find a better life. He started gaining popularity and gave speeches in several parts of his country and many other developing nations where child bondage slavery existed.
His time in the school brought him in touch with many social activists and at the age of around 12, Iqbal started writing his own speeches. He expressed desire to become a lawyer in order to eradicate the bondage labour system from his country and the world. As his popularity rose further as a young leader, he was invited to deliver speeches in the USA and Sweden.
A time came when BLLF meetings centred on Iqbal and he mesmerized and brought tears out of the eyes of the crowd he spoke in front of. He shared his own experience as a child worker and insisted the elite Pakistanis to come forward to help him in his pursuit to give back the lost childhood to thousands of little children working in fields, factories, devoid of basic necessities to survive.
With courage of more than an average man at a tender age of 12, Iqbal still was a child at heart and loved watching cartoons on TV and when he went to the US to get his Reebok Human Rights Award, he got hooked to playing video games.
Iqbal Masih constantly received death threats from bitter men, from whom he snatched their chance to get cheap labour in the form of children. On April 16, 1995, after going back from Easter celebration with his family, Iqbal was shot dead at Muridke, Pakistan by Muhammad Ashraf. He said goodbye to the world and left it a little better than he found it when he was born. His death sparked a lot of fire and Pakistan woke up from deep slumber to fight the evil prevailing in the society which enslaved little children and snatched off their childhood.
Iqbal Masih became the universal symbol for the fight against slavery. He was honoured with several awards.
While receiving his Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, Kailash Satyarthi called him a martyr.
An award ‘Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labour’ in Iqbal’s name was started by the United States Congress.
Iqbal's life inspired the foundation of organisations such as 'Free The Children', a Canada-based charity and youth movement, and the Iqbal Masih Shaheed Children Foundation, which runs several schools in Pakistan.
He was honoured by the ‘Reebok Youth in Action Award’ in 1994.
In 1996, the MCC- Christian Cultural Movement and CJS- Youth Solidarity Path promoted the 16 of April as International Day against Child Slavery in Spain and South America.
In 1998, the Istituto Comprensivo Iqbal Masih, a comprehensive education institute chain in Trieste, Italy, was named after Iqbal.
In 2000, he posthumously received a World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child.
On 16 April 2012, the Council of Santiago inaugurated a Square named after Iqbal in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.