The Overcrowded Barracoon
A 10-year-old child is awaiting death in the general ward of Meherpur General Hospital. Her face bears the mark of the scalding of a hot cooking stick, her hands, back and head bruised. Shantona, the child in context, is the daughter of a poor farmer who was sent to Dhaka to work at the home of a middle class family in Dhaka. When the family took her in every assurance was given that she would be taken care of, instead she was tortured regularly, from dawn to midnight, given one task after the other by all the family members, most of them grown-ups. When this child could not take it no longer, she was beaten, scalded with a hot burning iron-stick that people in this part of the world use for cooking. The abuses that Shantona has gone through are staggering. The nature of torture that she has endured no human can make a fellow human a victim to. “Your child will be happy, she will play with our family members, do some light work”--this is all the family members told the poor child's father to coax him. Hafizuddin, Shantona's father, agreed to send her away because he did not earn enough to feed his family.
This is a classical tale of poverty, exploitation and slavery. Hundreds and thousands of children work at Bangladesh middle and upper class households, most of whom, from mild to harsh go through different kinds of maltreatment and torture. The nature may vary from psychological to physical but abuses remain abuses, torture can only be described torture. So when the house-owner's son or daughter goes out to play the domestic-worker (modern day term for the slavers' houseboy) will run errands. Some forms of discrimination are soft, the maid's name will be changed if it is the same as the mistress's, and because no contract exists between the employer and employee, the masters and mistresses can hire and fire any time they want. Some of these children are sexually exploited, again the form of these exploitations vary.
During the forlorn days of slavery, slaves were kept in the barracoon before they were sold. All the time, till they died, the slaves were regularly given food, so that they could do the work properly. And as he needed to pay a good price to buy a slave, a slave-owner would at least feed his slaves, give them medicine when they were taken ill. But the situation has changed in modern day Bangladesh. One does not need to do anything to get a slave, in this poor country a few kind words will do, the father of a child of 10 or 12 will agree immediately after he has been approached. And if that child is taken ill, or is tortured to such an extent that he or she will die, there is no need to do anything-- Just throw that child out of the house or dump that child somewhere. That is exactly what Shantona's torturers did; they left her to a ditch somewhere in Meherpur where she was noticed by a group of kind strangers who took her to the hospital. History suggests that the Shantona's torturers will remain at large. They will pay five/ten thousand Taka to the “victim's” family and the victim's family, poor as they are, will take it on the chin and move on.
In every household in urban Bangladesh there exists someone like Shantona who for a meagre salary of a few hundred takas expose themselves to humiliation, not to mention the torture that Shantona has gone through. The sad part of this sordid tale is that most of the abusers (if not all of them) belong to the suave, genteel middle and upper class of the society, who over a cup of tea regularly laments the country getting more and more corrupt, or wonder at what to buy for this year's Eid. They say their prayers, kiss their own children, and with the hands that spill a poor child's blood eat their food, regularly, without a shred of remorse on the barbaric abuses they have made another human being subject to.
The logic that is being given many a time by the slave-owners for employing these slave-children is that these poor children will otherwise face oblivion. If one looks at the tasteless but expensive clothes that adorn, in however vulgar ways, the malls of Dhaka, one will forget it for a flickering moment that it is the capital of one of the world's poorest countries. Our apathy is to be primarily blamed. Poor parents in the villages should be made aware about the risks of succumbing to the sweet words of the rich townsfolk, and must be warned of the possible dangers of sending their children to the towns for work. But the ultimate solution is perhaps a massive industrialisation; this inhuman, barbaric tradition does not exist in societies where people are better educated, where there are more job opportunities. The government's food for education scheme should be widened to make sure that no child drops out before completing his or her secondary school exams. A strong, vibrant social service run by the government and non-government agencies must be created to keep an eye on possible drop-outs, and a generous allocation has to be made to make sure that education remains free for all up to higher secondary level. Slavery was abolished when it became too expensive to keep a slave; to abolish this modern form of slavery the government needs to make life difficult for the slave-owners. The choice is simple: We can shed a few drops of crocodile tears at “the loss of such an innocent soul, at such a tender age”, or we can take an affirmative action to stop such future events. The choice is ours; it is now really up to us.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007