Who Was Iqbal Masih?
Iqbal Masih was four years old when his father sold him into slavery. He was forced to work more than twelve hours a day. He was constantly beaten, verbally abused, and chained to his loom by the carpet factory owner. On December 2, 1994, when Iqbal visited the Broad Meadows Middle School, he looked much younger than his twelve years: his growth had been stunted by severe malnutrition and years of cramped immobility in front of a loom.
There are an estimated 20 million bonded laborers in Pakistan today; at least 7.5 million of these bonded laborers are children. More than 500,000 children, like Iqbal, work in the carpet industry. Because carpet factory owners, usually rich and influential men in their communities, are often under the protection of the local police, laws against enslaving children are seldom enforced.
In 1992 Iqbal's life changed dramatically. He and some other children stole away from their carpet factory to attend a freedom day celebration held by the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF). At the gathering they learned about their rights. Iqbal was moved to give an impromptu and eloquent speech about his sufferings which was printed in the local papers. Afterwards he refused to return to his owner. On his own initiative, he contacted a BLLF lawyer and obtained a letter of freedom which he presented to his former master.
Iqbal was an articulate, confident, and powerful speaker and an uncompromising critic of child servitude. Iqbal's words of encouragement to other children and his willingness to speak out against child slavery had helped free many other illegally bonded children. At the time of his death, he was enrolled in a school for freed bonded children, where he was a bright and energetic student. His dream for the future was to become a lawyer. That way, he reasoned, he could continue to fight for freedom on behalf of Pakistan's seven and a half million illegally enslaved children.