<%-- Page Title--%> Cover Story <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 154 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 14 , 2004

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Saving Mostakina

Shamim Ahsan
Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Down the long corridors of Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) at the One-Stop Crisis Centre sits a little girl with a plastic doll in her hand. In her orange and red floral printed dress and two little ponytails at the top of her head, she could be anyone's child. Except for the claw marks all over her young cheeks, the nasty gash at the corner of one eye, the severe burns down both her arms. Who would tolerate such abuse silently in this day and age? What kind of a person would inflict such torture on anyone, let alone a child?

Mostakina is the ten-year-old domestic "servant" girl everyone saw on the news last week, with blood oozing out of the side of her face. Rescued from the house of her employers, Dr. ABM Jamal and Dr. Fatema Doza, Mostakina had been suffering such cruelty for the past one year.

"I never told anyone," says Mostakina, when asked whether she had gone to anyone for help. "I was afraid she would beat me even more."

As any child would, Mostakina sometimes broke a few things or thread would come out of a piece of clothing she had washed. Considering the age of the girl, and the fact that she did practically all the housework except cooking -- from cleaning the floors to washing and ironing clothes -- it really wasn't much. But Fatema Doza, a doctor at DMCH, beat Mostakina for the most minor mistakes. She would claw at her face and hit her with anything, from sticks and brooms to bread rollers. The "Bua" would also be hit and slapped and made to drink dirty water when the dishes weren't washed clean enough. Mostakina was made to drink Doza's children's urine. "She would even spit on my rice," she says.

Mostakina was not paid any monthly salary, usually on the pretext of it being extracted against the price of the things she had broken or ruined. She would also not be given anything to eat the day she broke anything. Even when she was, it was a bit of one piece of fish split many ways.

Two months ago, after Doza put a heated electric iron to Mostakina's arm, the girl tried to run away. But before she could get very far, the darwan caught her and brought her back. Last week, when some thread came out of another apparel, Doza hit Mostakina on the face with a bread roller and burnt her other arm with the iron. It was only when the injured girl went to put out the garbage that a conscientious neighbour saw her condition and called the police.

"I want her to be punished," says the little girl. "I don't want Phupa (Dr. ABM Jamal) to be punished. He never hit me. He asked Phupi not to hit me. But she wouldn't listen. She would beat me when he was at the hospital. If he protested when he got home, she would beat him too with a broom.

"The last time she did this," says Mostakina, "he told her not to hit another person's child. If I died, how would they face the consequences, who would pay for the court case, he asked her. She said it would be good if I really did die.

Sub-Inspector Baqui was loitering in Katabon intersection when he received a call from the police headquarters at around 12.30 pm. He was instructed to go to an apartment building at 2/10 Paribagh behind PG hospital where a minor girl with serious injuries was to be found. In 15 minutes Baqui was at the apartment building gate and the darwan led him to the particular flat. But he couldn't enter the house as it was locked. Upon instruction the girl readily came to the verandah and talked to Baqui who stood on the street. Baqui was confirmed about the incident. He then decided to wait in the second floor in the landlord's apartment as he was told that Dr. Jamal, who went to bring his son back from school, would return soon. At around 1.20 pm Jamal came back home and when asked about the beating up of their housemaid, he simply denied that any such incident had taken place. Baqui then told that he had already talked to the girl and Jamal didn't have any option but to allow him in. "I was shocked when the girl was brought before me the scar with a diametre of about one and a half inches, just a couple of inches beneath her left eye was still fresh, with a blackish shadow all around it", says Baqui. "There were also burn injuries, perhaps one or two days old, long and straight on both her forearms. When I asked her she related how she was burnt with a heated iron, her voice choking with suppressed tears. I found marks of beating on almost all over her body; The woman seemed to have beaten her with virtually everything she could lay her hands on. I have never seen such inhuman torture on such a small child in the six years of service," Baqui narrates.

Around 2.40pm the housewife returned home upon her husband's phone call. "She first denied of ever putting the iron on her face, and started to scold the girl right before me asking her why she lied to me. Upon my insistence she later conceded that she sometimes gave her 'mild beatings', but that was due to Mostakina's intolerable naughtiness or when she committed some 'grave sins' like breaking a tea-cup or for not sweeping up the floors as good as the woman wanted. Her husband also corroborated her accusations saying that Mostakina was by nature a little naughty but he admitted that it wasn't right for his wife to treat her that way. He then tried to condone his wife's behaviour saying that she sometimes couldn't keep her cool and did these things in the heat of the moment," Baqui. The couple was arrested and brought to Ramna thana and Baqui lodged a case under the Special Act for Prevention of Women and Children Repression 2000, as the plaintiff.

Mostakina is, in a sense, lucky. Unlike many others who have been subjected to similar kind of brutality and will continue to suffer indefinitely Mostakina has at least been rescued from her tormentors. But the big question now is will her tormentors be brought to justice? If past records are any indication there is almost no chance to see the perpetrators get punished.

In March of this year, Shirin, a 14-year-old domestic worker in Rajshahi was raped and killed. Though her employers said she committed suicide and hung herself, police suspected they had something to do with the murder and arrested them. Shirin's mother said she did not want any trouble and that the money she could get was all that mattered. But the next day, Shirin's employer Sharmin Sultana Dipa, who often used to beat her, confessed strangling Dipa to death and hanging her. It is still not known who raped the teenager.

Hasna Hena worked for a woman in Mirpur. Another maid at the house would do things wrong and blame Hasna for it. When one day she put too many tea leaves in a cup of tea Hasna had made for her mistress, the woman tossed away the cup, beat Hasna and threw her out of the house. Hasna's uncle later took her to the police and the hospital. After two months at the hospital, Hasna joined a shelter home, Proshanti.

Banu is another domestic worker who joined the shelter home after spending a month in the hospital after being beaten by her employer. The list -- of only those who have actually filed cases -- goes on.

Bangladesh National Women's Lawyers Association, better known as BNWLA, a human rights organisation that provides legal aid, is handling Mostakina's case and has the experience of conducting more than two hundred such cases of repression on domestic workers over the last two decades. But it has succeeded in getting the offender/s punished in only seven or eight cases. The data provided by Mominul Islam Shuruz, Senior Investigation Officer of BNWLA, lists various reasons for such a piteous record.

A large number of cases fizzle out even before they are taken up in the court while many more end midway after good initial progress. Money does the trick in most cases. The only thing an offender has to do is get hold of the parents or guardians of the victim and offer a few thousand taka, and everything is settled. For a father who is forced to send his nine or 10-year-old daughter away from home so that she can earn her own food, money matters a lot. "10,000 taka for some bruises here and there appears too tempting an offer to reject," says Shuruz. Besides, he adds, for a poor, illiterate villager, police and court are jhamela (trouble), and compromise in exchange of monetary compensation seems a logical and even profitable option. Shuruz then relates an incident involving a brutal killing of a 14 year-old domestic help who was slaughtered by a kitchen knife by the housewife. After one or two hearings the victim's father stopped co-operating with us. We kept watch on him and one day we found him having lunch in the very house where his daughter worked and got brutally killed. When I asked him why he gave up the fight he seemed to have his answer ready: 'Shaheb has given me 40 thousand taka. Besides, what is the use of going to court? I am not going to get my daughter back.'"

What many might find impossible to imagine is that simple to some.

And once there is a settlement between offenders and the victim's family, the third party, that is BNWLA, which is providing legal aid, has to simply wash its hands of the case. "If we still persist, which we can technically do, we might find ourselves in more trouble. There have been cases where we were made to look as if we had ulterior motive or some profit to make out of the case in the guise of helping the victims," Shuruz explains.

Police, as everywhere, play their dirty tricks here as well. Since they are directly involved in all the different stages of a case, from submitting the FIR (First Information Report) to submission of the charge sheet and it is they who conduct the entire investigation, they can influence the fate of a particular case to a great extent. "Police often intentionally leave big gaps while framing charges so that they can allow criminals to get off the hook in exchange of money. On the other hand the accused party -- in this case the doctor couple -- has a lot to offer. And if money fails to deliver they will wield their social, and if need be, even political influence. That they will escape punishment is almost a certainty," Shuruz cannot help being pessimistic.

An interesting pattern can be detected in the incidents of violence against domestic help. Once the initial shock subsides, a conscious or unconscious urge to paint the 'brutal offence' as a 'mistake' begins to gain strength. The police who have rescued the victim, the doctors who have treated the serious wounds, the lawyer who is contesting on the victim's behalf and finally even the judge who is deciding the case, start to believe in the 'mistake theory' with growing conviction each day. But why does it happen this way?

No doubt, poverty of the victim and corruption of the law-enforcing agency are often responsible for justice being denied, but there is another underlying force, far stronger and more complex in nature, at play. Abusing domestic help is not just another form of violence. It ensues from a very acute sense of class-awareness that is deeply buried in the collective consciousness of the so-called half-educated, middle-class bhodrolok. Once the vision gets blurred, he cannot see a person as a human being, but tends to differentiate between human beings using artificial criteria. Many of us, members of the so-called middle class, are thus quite biased and prejudicial in our judgement when considerating something we consider below our status -- domestic workers are easily relegated to lesser human beings who don't deserve equal treatment.

Even after seeing the 10-year-old bearing such ferocious, raw marks of brutality comments like "you see, domestic workers are such a trouble", "whatever you say maidservants are also no dervishes", "sometimes, you just cannot bear with them", "they are all ungrateful thieves" are common. "I have even heard judges talking about how roguish these domestic workers really are," says Shuruz. No law, no honest police officer can solve it unless we rectify our corrupt, partial perspective.

Mostakina's future is uncertain. Her mother passed away before she can remember. She was brought up by a neighbour. Her father later remarried and someone from her village brought her to the doctor couple. Her father hasn't visited her in the past year. After her treatment is completed, she will go into BNWLA's shelter home, Proshanti. Beyond that, as is the case with many other girls there, no one really knows.


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