Girlhood Interrupted

Hana Shams Ahmed

Published by the Star Weekend Magazine on 9 October 2009.

When Samia arrived at the lawyer’s office with her friend she was hoping to get advice on how to file for a divorce. The lawyer asked her some obvious questions about what was wrong with the relationship and whether she had children etc. When she told the lawyer that her husband had molested two teenage maids in the house, Samia expected the lawyer to be in full solidarity with her decision. The lawyer did not display much emotion, what she said in response shocked Samia instead. “This is quite normal for men of our country,” she said. Instead of pointing out to Samia that her husband had committed a punishable crime which she was an eye-witness to, the lawyer was showing her commiseration and in a meandering way saying that this was not serious enough for the dissolution of a marriage.

In another incident in a corporate office, a woman — involved in among other things, human rights activism — was complaining to her colleagues about how shoitan (evil) her young maid was. When asked what were among her greatest ‘sins’, she replied that the maid lapsed from her work regularly when she went out of the house and watched TV and received phone calls from her boyfriend!

The attitude and choice of words of the female lawyer and ‘human right defender’ points to how deeply embedded this acceptance of abuse of the underprivileged is. The discrimination and complete disregard of a domestic worker’s right to live like a human being has been discussed in the media in small columns, but has had little effect on societal outlook. The middle-aged approach of treating domestic workers as a human punching bag (sometimes literally) of everyone’s anger and frustration stays on, and is still the most exposed, yet invisible, form of human rights violation.

Girls are the most vulnerable among all groups of domestic workers. They are brought from the villages at an age when they are supposed to be playing tag at school with their friends. Overnight they become baby-sitters, kitchen helps, caretakers and nurses all-in-one. And if the lawyer’s words are anything to go by, they have to invariably face some form of sexual abuse from a male member of the family, where she does not even know the name of that form of abuse.

A nine-year-old domestic worker Tanzina used to be tortured by her employer (a doctor’s wife) and her two sons regularly at their house in Azimpur (Daily Star: July 9, 2009) until DB of Police rescued her and a case was filed against the persecutors.

A 12-year-old girl was rescued from a house of a doctor, who in collusion with his wife, had confined the girl in their house for six years and tortured her regularly until a labourer who used to work in the neighbourhood complained and she was rescued by police (Daily Star: August 14, 2009). She was so traumatised by her experience she could hardly speak. The girl had earlier revealed to the day labourer that the doctor used to beat her up regularly and “do bad things” to her body parts which she did not understand. The previous week her face had been dipped into a bowl of hot water because she did not do her work properly. Her nearest relative, her grandfather, refused to file a case because he said he did not have the money to fight a case, so a general diary was filed at the police station instead!

Another teenage domestic worker was raped by a union parishad chairman in Dimla upazila of Nilphamari (Daily Star: July 27, 2009). While she was being rescued by her parents and taken to a hospital in a bloody state she was kidnapped by the rapist’s goons. She managed to escape after a couple of days and filed a case against him with her parents’ help.

Those who have the responsibility of protecting these girls sometime seem to be no different from a common criminal. Two lawyers raped a young domestic worker at one of the lawyers’ house in Dhanmondi Lake Circus (Janakantha: August 3, 2009) while she was sleeping. The lawyers threatened to kill her if she spoke to anyone about it.

Another little girl Rubina was beaten up mercilessly by her employer Arju who blamed this nine-year-old for causing diarrhoea to her child by her unhygienic cooking standards (Janakantha, August 31, 2009). She poured hot water over her head. Then she tied up her hands and feet and with an orna, took her to the bathroom and beat her up with an iron rod and tried to muffle her screams for help by turning on the shower. A few days earlier she had chopped off her hair with a boti. She also had other more ‘moderate’ forms of torture — like not letting her eat properly!

Unfortunately, our system has failed to protect these children from the worst forms of abuse. Ain o Salish Kendro (ASK) keeps records of girls who have faced some form of abuse in homes. In 2008, 110 cases were reported and a total of 54 cases were filed against some form of abuse on a girl domestic worker. In 2009, till date, there have been 64 reports and 38 cases filed. But these figures don’t paint the actual picture as this and other organisations only keep records of cases that have been filed at the police station and have been published in the media. Individual investigation into homes is an impossible task, which is also why there is no data of the actual number of children who are employed in homes. And it is not within the jurisdiction of any outsider to go into a house and enquire about the well-being of people who work in homes, whether they are adults or children.

Poverty drives poor parents to send their young girls to work at homes hundreds of miles away, knowing well that there is every possibility that she will be treated badly, beaten up, not fed well, tortured, raped, or even killed. The right to be protected from any form of sexual abuse is breached by these families these families, for whom it is in practice a privilege to be able to protect their daughters.

But it is not just the extreme form of physical abuse that is so worrying of this society with its convoluted moral standards. It is how this form of abuse inflicted on a certain class of people is not even considered getting outraged at or even worth acknowledging.

The only way to stop such atrocious crimes is to legislate specifically for children who work inside homes, including limited working hours, minimum wage, and minimum standard treatment. A hotline should be introduced, especially to raise awareness on abuse and sexual abuse.

Their little shoulders take a heavy burden. They are forced by our utterly inequitable and grotesquely uneven development process to leave their sheltered lives in their homes and come and work. The least we can do for them is to treat them with respect and look out for their welfare whether they are in our home or someone else’s. No social change can ever happen unless we break out of this conventional system and step forward and stop these crimes.

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