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Catholic child activist awarded ‘Gallantry Medal’ posthumously in Pakistan 

Ehsan Ullah Khan meets a shy and afraid Iqbal Masih by Aneladgames via Wikimedia Commons

Pakistan President Arif Alvi conferred the presidential 'Medal of Honour' to a 12-year-old Catholic boy, allegedly assassinated by Pakistan's carpet Mafia. 

The national awards ceremony was held on March 23 in Islamabad.

'Tamgha-e-Shujaat' or Medal of Gallantry' is one of its highest civilian awards in Pakistan.

Patras Masih, the elder brother of Iqbal received the award on his late brother's behalf at President’s House.

“I am sad. Iqbal should have been here to receive the award. It is an honour for the Christian community. I thank the president for remembering the martyrdom of my brother,” Patras told the media later. 

The Tamgha-e-Shujaat is a civic honour. For Iqbal, it came 27 years after his death in 1995.

“Following the Decorations Act, 1975 the term―Gallantry has been redefined to include―an act of bravery, heroism, courage and rendering dedicated services with selfless devotion in human rights and public service,” according to the official document.

Moreover, Pakistani rupees 800,000 (US$ 4406.50) is the grant amount of monetary benefit attached to the Tamgha-e-Shujaat when granted to awardees who are alive and Pakistani rupees 900,000 (US$ 4957.31) for posthumous or seriously disabled.

The poster boy of child labour
Iqbal Masih was the poster boy for activists against child labour and bonded labour in Pakistan.

He exposed the carpet mafia, urging the world not to buy carpets made by slave children.

At the age of four, he was sent to work by his family to help them pay off their debts. Iqbal's family borrowed Pakistani rupees 600 (US$ 3.30) from a man who owned a carpet weaving business named Ashad. In return, Iqbal was required to work as a carpet weaver until the debt was paid off.

When he was 10 years old, Iqbal learned that bonded labour had been declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. 

He escaped and tried to report his employer Ashad to the police, but the police brought him back to the factory seeking a ‘finder's fee’ for returning escaped bonded labourers.

Iqbal escaped a second time. The Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) freed him in 1992. 

He attended the BLLF School for former child slaves and quickly completed a four-year education in only two years. 

After joining the BLLF, he exposed bonded child labour in Pakistan’s carpet industry and helped win the release of about 3,000 other children from bonded labour. 

He toured Pakistan to raise awareness about child slavery. 

In 1994, when he was 11 years old, he became the youngest child to win the Reebok Human Rights Award for Youth in Action. He won international recognition as a leader of children and made speeches about child labour all over the world.

Iqbal was stunted and hunched from six years of malnutrition and slavery under inhuman conditions, says journalist Robin Gomes.

On the Easter Sunday of April 1995, Iqbal Masih was shot dead while visiting relatives in a village near Muridke, some 350 kilometers southeast of Islamabad. He was only 12 years old.

He was assassinated on April 16, 1995, allegedly by the carpet mafia, after receiving many threats for having closed companies that used child slaves.

Christian community elated
Christian community leaders in Pakistan expressed happiness and enthusiasm over the award.

Posting on Facebook, Davis Afzal Sahotra, the Christian general secretary of the Public Peace Welfare Organization in Punjab, said, “At a very young age, the national hero Iqbal Masih set an example of valour and bravery for children forced to work on low wages. Finally, he was honoured 27 years after his death.”

Pakistan banned child domestic labour by passing an amendment in 2020, making it illegal for children under the age of 18 to work in factories.

UNICEF says Pakistan has about 3.3 million child labourers. Many belong to already marginalized religious minority communities in the Muslim-majority nation.

“Sadly, our country faces the issue of laws not being implemented. It is as if the agencies close their eyes to such atrocities,” says Albert David, a member of Pakistan's National Commission for Minorities.  

He plans to initiate an awareness campaign to reach out to minority children involved in child labour.

“It’s a high point of my own social life. The latest award for a Catholic activist has renewed our commitment to continuing his mission in collaboration with the government and civil society,” he said.

 

Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), a media platform of the Catholic Church, aims to share Christ. RVA started in 1969 as a continental Catholic radio station to serve Asian countries in their respective local language, thus earning the tag “the Voice of Asian Christianity.”  Responding to the emerging context, RVA embraced media platforms to connect with the global Asian audience via its 21 language websites and various social media platforms.