Ten-year-old Sohagi Akhter was hospitalised when her employers poured boiling hot water on her after torturing her ruthlessly and repeatedly. Photo: Anisur Rahman
On March 12, 2009, 8-year-old domestic worker Shapla was beaten mercilessly with a searing hot iron spatula by her mistress. On August 8, 2009, 10-year-old Rekha was severely injured in an attempt to climb down a 22 storeyed building while trying to escape from her abusive employers. On August 27, 2010, 16-year-old Asma Akhter and her mother Salma Begum were cruelly tortured by the couple they worked for. On October 31, 2010, 10-year-old Sohagi Akhter was hospitalised when her employers poured boiling hot water on her after torturing her ruthlessly and repeatedly. On November 1, 2010, 35-year-old Solema Begum received a blow to the head from her employer, which led to her death.
These are just a few cases of violence towards domestic workers that have been reported to the law enforcement agencies amongst the thousands of similar incidents that occur daily in this country. And no, these crimes are not being committed by the uneducated and unaware, as we like to believe. Among the perpetrators are learned people, ranging from teachers, engineers to doctors and even lawyers. When one hears about such senseless violation of basic human rights, one really must wonder, why. Educated people from decent backgrounds don't suddenly become monsters. There must be an explanation for what seems to be a growing trend in this society.
When we think of people who commit murder, perversely dehumanise and mutilate their victims, we think of psychopaths and sadists and the mentally disturbed. While this may be true in certain cases, psychologists believe that it is possible for otherwise normal people who consider themselves decent human beings to sink into a routine in which they inflict physical and emotional pain on others while staying aloof to their suffering. Different dynamics, both social and psychological seem to be at work here to make people blind to the demon inside them.
According to experts, there are certain preconditions that can lead someone to become a torturer. A passionate belief that certain groups of people are superior to others is one of them. People with this ideology will justify their behavior by attributing it to the promotion of the betterment of society. An employer who tortures the little ‘servant girl’ in his/her home for stealing food or trinkets may actually believe they are punishing a thief to teach her a lesson. They may think their educational background and class in society makes them a better judge of what is right and wrong.
The torturer will also believe strongly in obedience and authority and will consider it acceptable to punish someone who they believe have undermined their authority. In most cases of violence toward domestic workers, the reasons for these beatings have been their failure to follow instructions regarding cooking, cleaning and other household chores. An open or unspoken support of this kind of behavior also encourages its continuation. Other members of the household often turn a blind eye when the torture commences and some even participate in the torture, making it acceptable.
There are just a few cases of violence towards domestic workers that have been reported to the polic
There are more than 20 lakh domestic workers in Dhaka and Chittagong alone. They deserve to be protected from abuse just as much as any other citizen in this country. Photo: zahedul i khan
The most immediate coping mechanism for a torturer is through the means of splitting his/her personality. If they are overwhelmed by what they have done, they learn to compartmentalise certain aspects of their lives in order to be normal in others. Psychologists often refer to this as “doubling.”
According to experts, torturers get their fundamental psychological support from dividing their world into “us” and “them,” a line of thinking which is similar to scapegoating. Devaluing a certain group of people makes them feel they are more important and worthwhile. Some of these torturers may also view their victims as subhuman, making their actions justifiable.
Research shows that often, people who inflict pain and suffering, do so because of their strong belief that the world is just. Social psychologists say that torturers do not differentiate between punishment and torture and believe that their victims “deserved what they got” or “had it coming to them.” This pattern of thinking leads to the torturer viewing their victim's suffering as further justification for its continuance.
Cruelty towards others begins in small steps. The torturer may start by using small punishments, such as harsh words, insults, a slap or two. If this seems acceptable, they will move on to the next level till it becomes easier and easier and part of a routine they follow without even trying to justify it. The tortured, will always victimise those they perceive as weaker than themselves, which is why most of the domestic workers who are tortured, raped and murdered are women and children. This pattern makes the mindset of a torturer similar to that of a bully.
The perpetrators of these crimes may try to fervently justify what they have done to themselves, but at the back of their minds they know they are committing a heinous crime. For this reason, they hide what they do from those outside their household. The practice of torture is made easier for these individuals because the society and the government aid and abet these crimes, whether admit it or not.
“There are no specific laws to protect domestic workers, as they are not included in our Labour Law,” says human rights lawyer Advocate Salma Ali, the executive director of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyer’s Association. “There is a guideline under construction at the moment but that is still work in progress. For now, even the victims the law enforcement officers manage to rescue have little or no legal representation. Often, the families of these workers belong to the same village or local community of their employers and they are often convinced to retract their initial statement to the police in return for a meagre financial compensation. The victims' families are poor and uneducated and will settle for far less money than we can get them if the case is brought to court. We can get the perpetrators to cover treatment costs as well as provide a large compensation for future support. However, these families are often threatened and their fear causes them to accept what they get and keep silent,” she continues.
“Teenage girls are often hired and made to work like bonded slaves. They do all the household work for very little money and their basic needs are barely met. These workers are often subjected to verbal, physical as well as sexual abuse and majority of these cases are not reported. If the girl dies or gets pregnant they may report the case, but these cases often get repressed, people mostly maintain their silence. Most of these workers do not have any family or people looking out for them, which is why they get victimised,” explains Ali.
Her statement may bring to mind questions regarding the role of the law enforcement agencies of this country and how well they perform their duties. According to Salma Ali, “The law enforcement officers are the most corrupt people in this country. They stand in the way of our work more than they actually help. They often get bribed by the perpetrators and bully the victim's families into either retracting their case or scare them away without recording their complaints. They act as a shalish (arbitration) and make negotiations with the victims on behalf of the perpetrators,” says Ali.
“The investigations are often incomplete when the final reports are handed in. Often doctors examining the victims get bribed and submit false medical reports. In a case where the perpetrators were both medical practitioners, they claimed they were suffering from mental issues and were incompetent to stand trail. We really cannot do much for the victims without the help of the government and the law enforcement agencies,” states Ali.
In an attempt to bring these domestic workers into the labour force and under the protection of the law, several civil society organisations and NGO's have worked together and submitted a memorandum as well as a code of conduct to the Ministry of Labour and Employment on January 9, 2008.
These outline the responsibilities of the employers towards the domestic workers they hire and define their role as well as that of the worker and the government. The memorandum states that a contract must be drawn up when a domestic worker is being hired. This contract will outline their duties, salary, leave time, hours of rest and relaxation, living quarters, education and medical facilities they can expect to receive etc. The workers must be registered with the nearest police station upon employment and records have to be kept about themselves, their families, their permanent address and employer's name and address.
The memorandum also covers maternity leave, work hours, the government's responsibility to fix wages, to monitor domestic workers, issue legal ramifications for any kind of abuse towards these workers. The memorandum also suggests the establishment of special monitoring cells where domestic workers can place complaints if any and a hotline they can call if they need assistance. It also suggests that children under the age of 14 should not be employed as domestic help.
There are more than 20 lakh domestic workers in Dhaka and Chittagong alone. They deserve to be a part of the labour force and have their income added to the national GDP. They deserve to be protected from abuse just as much as any other citizen in this country. Children like Rekha and Sohagi have a right to have a normal childhood, instead they will spend the rest of their lives trying to cope with the trauma they have been subjected to. The kind of trauma you and I cannot imagine in our worst nightmares. The kind of trauma that makes a 10-year-old think she would be safer jumping from a 22-storeyed building. It is up to the government and up to us to stop living in denial and stand up for their rights.