Trace the murky past to curb domestic help abuse!
It's heartening to find that the National Human Rights Commission has not forgotten the case of Khadija, a domestic help, whose harrowing account of torture shocked us back in 2013. Reportedly, the ministry of home has been ordered to pay a reparation of Taka Fifty thousand with the relevant authority asked to investigate as to why the actual case of torture of the young girl was distorted.
Unquestionably, these moves will add a much needed humane dimension to the issue of the rights of the domestic maid. But to stop this abomination, one needs to go back to the past, during the days of austerity and privation right after independence, when scarcity of food triggered the rise of the culture of employing rural girls and women as domestic help at urban homes.
The three meal deal of the late 70s: To trace the roots of the culture of misbehaving with domestic helps, we need to go back to the economically turbulent period of the late seventies. The famine in 74' forced millions to come to the cities to seek work and at that time, women were employed not for a monthly salary but for regular meals. For this writer, who is just as old as the country, the memories of rationing topped with frugal living in the decade after independence are still vivid.
Women who were employed at homes were usually given coarse rice, a little vegetable, salt and chillies to finish their meal, which they did happily since the main family table saw meat served once a week. During this time, women who were employed at homes faced exploitation since their vulnerable situation turned them into silent victims.
This exploitation was two pronged: often, young maids had to provide sexual favours to the masters of the house in secret and secondly, they were physically beaten by the mistresses of the house for the slightest of mistakes. The usage of a heated spatula to scar a young girl's body, markings with a hot iron, cutting off the hair or locking up in a dark toilet are not new. These inhumane practices existed in the past, in a period which we are made to believe was better in terms of human to human interaction.
Sorry to say, the seeds of domestic abuse were sown by our own relatives. I can recall several aunts of our area who were notorious for their mistreatment of domestic maids. Today, these same aunts are devout and resort to countless religious exclamations while talking. Regrettably, society forgets too fast and therefore, the roots of the aberration are cautiously pushed under the rag.
By the 80s, the practice of giving a monthly salary was introduced though the beatings, using of expletives and other obscenities never ceased. At about this time, the first batch of women maids from Bangladesh went to the middle-east. Many domestic maids opted to go abroad with the rationale: I am beaten here and get paid a pittance so if I get paid more overseas then the occasional mistreatment can be overlooked.
The practice of hushing up with money: The common trend is to dangle money in front of the victim's family whenever physical abuse becomes public or if the media gets a whiff of the barbaric punishments which a domestic maid or a boy had to endure. Just about a year ago, the name of a university professor came up when the torture of a young domestic help by his wife became public. I am guessing the girl's family was silenced with money; understandably, nothing was heard of the case later on.
In similar fashion, many cases of domestic help abuse are hushed up with cash. As a result, the habit of mistreating less fortunate people never dies out. What is disconcerting is that a firm belief takes hold that with money, all such incidents can be erased. Add to this the tendency to resort to bribery to totally distort a case to make the victim look like the perpetrator of a crime.
Of course, in 2020, getting domestic help is often tough because hardly any woman coming from the rural areas harbour the desire to work at private homes. They prefer garment factories with specified working hours and a guarantee of fair treatment.
However, some young boys and girls are still employed at homes as their first job. While many educated and enlightened families treat such people with kindness, the scourge of ill treatment persists. In countless cases, the young helps are made to work long hours at a nominal salary; they are often intimidated or made to stay with false promises of better pay in the future.
Naturally, the Khadija case creates a premise for hope though a radical overhaul of social mindset has to take place if people are to find security plus happiness working as domestic supports. In the late 80s, the TV sitcom, Bohubrihi, set a commendable template for the just and humane treatment of those who work for us. In that series, the head of an upper middle class household, Mr Sobhan (played by Abul Hayat), was generous to a fault towards the domestic staff, often tolerating their idiosyncrasies plus caprices.
Obviously, real life cannot be like a TV drama but a message about properly treating people who work for us was fed to the nation long time ago. Unfortunately, it did little to trigger positive change.
A practical approach: To curb violence plus molestation of domestic helps, the ward commissioner's office can play a role with a special team sent around to all homes in a specific ward for first hand assessments. This project can also be linked up with development agencies working for human rights and the media. Or how about multinationals focusing on the issue as part of CSR?
Naturally, blending social work with a humane objective will provide tangible returns in terms of brand popularity. If they rope in the media then it's a 'win-win' for all sides. Not to mention, the publicity will earn them the accolade for being benevolent. Once development bodies provide the funds, the ward commissioner's office can help with manpower while the media inclusion will be for transparency.
Perhaps development agencies need to look into this approach instead of wasting funds following trite formulas which hardly provide a practical long term solution to violations of human rights.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka