Iqbal Masih was born in 1983 in Muridke, a commercial city outside of Lahore in Punjab, Pakistan, into a poor Christianfamily.At age four, he was put to work by his family to pay off their debts.Iqbal’s family borrowed 600 rupees(less than USD$6.00) from a local employer who owned a carpet weaving business. In return, Iqbal was required to work as a carpet weaver until the debt was paid off. Every day, he would rise before dawn and make his way along dark country roads to the factory, where he and most of the other children were tightly bound with chains to the carpet looms to prevent escape. He would work 120 hours a week, seven days a week, with only a 30-minute break. He made 1 rupee a day for the loan, but the loan continued to increase because of his family and interest.
Escape and activism
At the age of 10, Iqbal escaped his slavery, after learning that bonded labour was declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.He escaped and then went to the police to report Arshad, but the police brought him back to Arshad, who told the police to tie him upside down if he tried to escape again. Iqbal escaped a second time and he attended the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) School for former child slaves and quickly completed a four-year education in only two years.Iqbal helped over 3,000 Pakistani children that were in bonded labour to escape to freedom and made speeches about child labour throughout the world.
He expressed a desire to become a lawyer to better equip him to free bonded labourers, and he began to visit other countries including Sweden and the United Statesto share his story, encouraging others to join the fight to eradicate child slavery.
In 1994 he received the Reebok Human Rights Award in Boston and in his acceptance speech he said: “I am one of those millions of children who are suffering in Pakistan through bonded labour and child labour, but I am lucky that due to the efforts of Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), I go out in freedom I am standing in front of you here today. After my freedom, I joined BLLF School and I am studying in that school now. For us slave children, Ehsan Ullah Khan and BLLF have done the same work that Abraham Lincoln did for the slaves of America. Today, you are free and I am free too.”
“Iqbal Masih, a brave and eloquent boy who attended several international conferences to denounce the hardships of child weavers in Pakistan, was shot dead with a shotgun while he and some friends were cycling in their village of Muridke, near Lahore”.
Iqbal was fatally shot by Ashraf Hero, a heroin addict, while visiting relatives in Muridke, Pakistan on 16 April 1995, Easter Sunday.He was 12 years old at the time. His mother said she did not believe her son had been the victim of a plot by the “carpet mafia”. However, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front disagreed because Iqbal had received death threats from individuals connected to the Pakistani carpet industry.
His funeral was attended by approximately 800 mourners. The Little Hero: One Boy’s Fight for Freedomtells the story of his legacy.
Following his death, Pakistani economic elites responded to declining carpet sales by denying the use of bonded child labor in their factories and employing the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to brutally harass and arrest activists working for the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF). The Pakistani press conducted a smear campaign against the BLLF, arguing that child laborers receive high wages and favorable working conditions.
- Iqbal’s cause inspired the creation of organizations such as Free The Children,a Canada-based charity and youth movement, and the Iqbal Masih Shaheed Children Foundation,which has started over 20 schools in Pakistan.
- In 1994, Iqbal visited Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, Massachusetts,and spoke to 7th graders about his life. When the students learned of his death, they decided to raise money and build a school in his honor in Kasur, Pakistan.
- Iqbal’s story was depicted in a book entitled Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo,a fictional story based on true events, from the point of view of a girl named Fatima.
- In 1994 he received the Reebok Youth in Action Award.
- In 1996 the Movimiento Cultural Cristiano (MCC- Christian Cultural Movement) and Camino Juvenil Solidario (CJS- Youth Solidarity Path) promoted the 16 of April as International Day against Child Slavery in Spain and South America
- In 1998 the newly formed Istituto Comprensivo Iqbal Masih, a comprehensive education institute comprising several schools in Trieste, Italy, was named after him.
- In 2000 he received a posthumous World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child and the Piazzale dei Traghetti Iqbal Masih was inaugurated in Genoa, Italy.
- In 2009 the United States Congress established the annual Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor.
- On 16 April 2012, the Council of Santiago, after a proposal of Movimiento Cultural Cristiano, inaugurates a Square named after Iqbal in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
- The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthion grounds of prevention of child labour and female education. Satyarthi mentioned Masih in his Nobel Peace Prize award speech, dedicating it to him and other “martyrs”.
- In 2016, the “X Iqbal Masih Rugby Tournament” was held in Catania, Sicily.
- On 17 April 2017, the University of Salamanca committed itself to celebrate every 16 April as a Day Against Child Slavery on behalf of Iqbal Masih.