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     Volume 4 Issue 48 | May 27, 2005 |

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Crimes of the Normal and Respected

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Newspapers are often vilified for desensitising readers because they print stories of horror and crime over and over again but few will have the gall to say that such stories should not be made public. What's more, there are some incidents that occur almost every day yet they do not fail to make one feel sick at the brutality involved.

When you read about an eight-year-old domestic maid being clubbed to death with a rolling pin, the scenario is eerily familiar as innumerable such incidents have been reported. But it still fills most of us (hopefully) with horror and dismay. Horror that educated adults with the given 'respectability' of being middle class can inflict so much pain on a helpless child. Dismay that the child whose short life had already been marred by neglect and deprivation, could not survive the ordeal.

Rupali, only eight years old, was brought to Dhaka all the way from Gaibanda to work for Atiar Rahman, a better off relative in Paikpara Mirpur. She was supposed to look after his five year old daughter. This was only a month ago. Selina Akhter, Rahman's wife slapped Rupali over something as trivial as not making the bread on time. This prompted her husband to reprimand Selina and at one point he slapped his wife.

Later when her husband had gone to the office, Selina lost no time in taking her revenge on the poor, helpless child. She started beating her mercilessly with a rolling pin until there were no more places to hit.

When Rahman came back he found Rupali in a terrible state, with bruises all over her body and her temperature running alarmingly high. He took her to Suhrwardy Hospital where the doctors referred her to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). On the way to DMCH, the cab driver kept asking about the child which made the couple get angry. The cab driver found a police patrol on the way. But by this time the girl had breathed her last. The policeman arrested the couple.

With the death of this child and the arrest of the couple it may seem to be the end of another grisly news story. Tomorrow it will be another couple and another little girl.

Several disturbing trends can be discerned from these crimes. One, domestic workers are little more than slaves especially if they are minors and more so if they are girls. The notion of child rights are nowhere in sight. Second, the perpetrators are usually educated, respected in society and so have the means to influence the legal proceedings so that they can go scot-free. The fact that so many such incidents have occurred where the domestic worker was either mutilated or killed by the senseless torture indicates that there is a tacit acceptance of abuse of domestic workers among the privileged classes: Of course you shouldn't kill them, but there's nothing wrong in giving them a few kicks and slaps to discipline them. The topic of many conversations between housewives is about domestic maids and how they give their mistresses a hard time. Very few conversations centre on the services that these housemaids perform and how such help can be aptly awarded.

The most disconcerting fact, however, that comes out of all this is that many among us are sick, depraved and sadistic. By any psychiatric evaluation standards, individuals who continuously torture other individuals, who can burn someone's back with heated utensils or scald someone's face with an iron- these people cannot be considered 'normal'.

But why then are these 'abnormal' people being allowed to do normal things like hold a responsible job or even bring up their own children? The answer is not that simple. Perhaps it's because the victims are 'unimportant', expendable members of society and the criminals, law enforcers and policy makers are the more privileged members. They have more immunity and can get away with, literally, murder.

The vicious cycle continues. Poverty will force families to make their children work in households with absolutely no idea whether the employers will keep their children safe, give them enough to eat or even allow them to live. With no accountability and a legal system that, in spite of stringent laws, is constantly thwarted by influence and the power of money, employers of domestic workers get the impunity they need to continue to exploit and abuse their employees.

So is there a way out of this sickness that seems to be part and parcel of the relatively privileged classes? There might be if we could recognise this disease in our own houses, sometimes in ourselves. Drama serials depict the intrigues and hypocrisies of middleclass or rich families. They could easily deal with the plight of domestic workers at the hands of their employers. Public service oriented advertisements, billboards, radio and TV programmes -- the means are endless through which people can be made to realise that domestic workers provide an invaluable service, one that should be rewarded with decent pay, living conditions and sane working hours. Most of all they can be used to deter the tendency to use violence against domestic workers by establishing the fact that it is a crime, one that is morally reprehensible and punishable by law.

The sad fact is that for most human beings, a crime is not a crime until one gets caught. It becomes a condonable transgression when one is caught but then set free. Thus the news of one dead child domestic worker and the arrest of her torturers is not the end of the story. Whether the culprits are punished and whether such punishment discourages other sadistic employers--that should constitute the conclusion.


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