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     Volume 7 Issue 35 | August 29, 2008 |

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Where is the Justice for Ratna?

Zeenat Khan

On June 27th, 2008, an investigative report in the Daily Star's online Friday magazine appeared, titled "A Scalding Wake-Up Call", detailing how a 14-year-old girl named Ratna endured brutal abuse at the hands of her employer over a period of nine months. Around that time, this horrific abuse story garnered a measure of media coverage. Ratna suffered multiple bodily injuries at the hand of Wahida Akther Shanta, the wife of Sylhet's Chief Judicial Magistrate Rafiqul Alam. Readers received a graphic account of how Ratna was systematically abused; accompanying the piece was a photo display of the poor girl's torture marks that many found disturbing.

Inhuman treatment towards domestic workers in Bangladesh and other developing countries is not a new phenomenon. Such abuse has been going on for centuries and yet nothing was ever done, legally, to prevent it, let alone bring the perpetrators to justice (as far as I know, being away for many years). It is commendable that the media now a days is much more vocal about such horrific crimes. However, I ask, what happens after the story is printed and the next day's issues fill up the newspaper pages? I know the answer: people like Ratna become yesterday's story and are put away in a cold file, never again to see the light of day. I am no stranger to seeing these kinds of abuses of home workers. They are often employed under false pretences, convinced by employers that their life will be better from the one they had before. The unimaginable pain and suffering of an empty stomach compel poor people to come and work for well-to-do members of society. Yet Ratna did not come to this earth to endure horrific torture at the hands of a monster, disguised behind a mask of a "bhadro mahila." It may have been Ratna's unfortunate destiny to be born into a family where a near-blind father and a poor mother could not feed her. These parents trusted the household of a respectable law officer, without having any idea that behind their picket fence, their beautiful house is occupied by a "she-devil". If Wahida Akther was mentally insane, then she probably would not be held responsible for her actions. However, she was not insane. Her actions were pre-meditated, and Ratna was her only victim. Her torture plan was well thought out. She left no visible marks on the bare parts of this little girl's body but instead chose body parts that were covered. The hardest thing for me to read was when she took pliers to sniff off one of Ratna's nipples!

Ratna survived the most gruesome torture at the hands of her employer

Where is the justice for Ratna? One of the great and tragic ironies of this brutal situation is that the Sylhet magistrate, Rafiqul Alam, a person responsible for upholding the law in his district, remained clueless as to what was going on in his own house. How could he not know that his wife was secretly hurting an innocent girl under their protection? He saw the bruises on Ratna, and after inquiring once and being dismissed by his wife (because she was hinting at possible obscene scenarios), he chose to ignore the girl's plight by giving up his inquiry. Unbelievably (or perhaps believably) a man's fear of his wife's wrath overrode his civil responsibilities as a government official, a protector of the law.

More appalling was the revelation that the "members of the shusil samaj" were 'outraged'; I had no idea that such a medieval, feudal concept of a secret society exists in modern Bangladesh. The article specifically stated that the members of "shusil samaj" have objected to the media coverage of the Ratna story and others similar to this, on grounds of it being a convoluted conspiracy theory of class resentment from the domestic workers. In short, this faceless 'class' implied that domestic workers exaggerate their plight because of a latent hatred for their employers. Such a claim is absurd, and very transparent to an objective viewer. For one, Ratna's abuse was certainly not exaggerated. The graphic pictures were proof enough. Moreover, an objective reader can see that this "shusil samaj" is merely trying to protect its flagrant abuses of the law (which is poorly enforced as it is) in the name of elite entitlement. They pervert the argument, diffusing the situation into a quibble over haves and have-nots, distracting public focus from the very serious, inhuman actions perpetrated by Wahida Akther. The "shusil samaj's" notions and desire for censorship are antithetical to the heart of a democratic society: the free flow of open information.

On a more personal note, these abuse stories are very much a reality for me, for as long as I can remember. Fifty years ago, society turned a blind eye to the existing abuse of household workers- "ayahs", cooks, farmhands, part-time workers -in households across the country. No one said anything; no one protested. It would be rather hypocritical of me to deny that I never witnessed any such abuse. When I was a little girl, I had seen household staff treated as possessions. One said or did to them as one pleased. "Ayahs" and younger domestic help faced a lot of cruelty, and, in many instances, beatings. As a young girl myself, at the time I had no voice and did not have the courage to protest such travesty. I do remember my very own "ayah" sometimes got beatings because a task was not done right. Even after 40 years, I shudder at some of the memories that are going to remain with me forever. One family member took custody of a fatherless girl, Maya, in order to educate her in Islamic mores. Instead of receiving this education, she became nothing more than a kitchen helper, beaten regularly for the slightest infraction, some imagined, some real. This article will, in a very minimal way, bring some vindication to her, in my mind, as her plight remains silenced. This article is also tribute to my own "ayah", Zharful, who was adopted when she was about 10 years old from an orphanage in Chandpur. I could not do anything to help her. She was separated from her only sister when the orphanage let go of her, and she never saw her sister again. In her new home, she was never treated as an adopted daughter nor did she share any privileges. Finally, after years of verbal and physical abuse, she ran away from her adopted house at about Ratna's age.

I often wonder how a person lives with himself or herself after causing such pain to another human being! I recently got an explanation from another family member of mine for such actions behind such monstrosities. According to him, back then, women in most families got no formal education to broaden their minds. As a result, the women who abused domestic "help" felt like prisoners themselves in gilded cages, and thus tormented other less fortunate prisoners in their control. By that line of reasoning, then, in today's society educated women would not carry on such monstrous acts behind closed doors, as they would be 'liberated' and 'enlightened' and wouldn't need to inflict their own anguish on others. Yet, today, many of these same women continue with such abuses, because they enjoy the protection of coming from a certain class. They suffer no actual vengeance, above a mild censure by the media (if caught). As a result, they resort to more and more violent methods. In a civilised society, when a story of such a heinous nature gets out, the woman would first be arrested (in this instance, Wahida Akther), and then she would be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Social status or position should not exempt that person from getting punished after causing such unspeakable pain on another human being. Are we not all children of this universe? Then who is deciding that a certain class go unpunished?

Abusers abuse because they have NO conscience. In the case of Wahida Akther, they also abuse because, for the most part, they get away with it. If society took a stronger hold in protecting all its citizens, then such cases would be very few and far between. So, we must keep the vigil alive, for Ratna, Zharful, Maya, and the many others before them. Let us write about them without stripping them of their human dignity, and rendering them into a grotesque circus show to entertain people over their morning <>cha<> and biscuit. At the same time, we must make for a harder, stronger slogan on the worker's behalf: "No More." Let Bangladeshi citizens protest and gather. Let citizens petition for a law in Ratna's name to enforce protection of the innocent, the underaged, and the disadvantaged domestic workers who, astoundingly, still have no voice in Bangladesh as they do in other great societies. Without full protection of all members of a nation, the nation will never thrive. Without protection of human rights, a democracy is a democracy only in name. Let us arrest the abusers, take them to court, and prosecute them, and so set a firm, unwavering example for all the other abusers who live without fear or shame.

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