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     Volume 5 Issue 122 | December 1, 2006 |

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Human Rights

Out of Darkness

Andrew Morris

If there's one quality that strikes me as most characteristic of Bangladeshis, it's resilience: the ability to weather a storm, to cope with the unexpected, to get on with life in the face of immense challenge. And believe me, they don't come much more resilient than Madhabi Majhi.

Madhabi showing a neatly coloured page from a drawing book

You will recall that she was the 10 year-old home worker allegedly thrown from a 6th floor balcony by her employer (SWM, October 6, 2006). Unlike her 15-year-old co-worker, Moni Mala, who was killed in the incident, Madhabi's fall was broken by a tree. She was lucky to survive, emerging from this trauma with two broken legs. There was further horror when she was abducted from the hospital where she was recuperating by the very family who'd employed her and been involved in the incident. Fortunately, Madhabi was rescued by Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA) not long afterwards and finally taken into safe keeping.

We have been able to visit her on several occasions since, and can report, with considerable relief, that she seems to have taken the first steps on the long road to recovery. At the BNWLA hostel, she is one of 120 survivors of trafficking (such as 15-year-old Mahmuda whose story of abduction and exploitation as a sex worker in Mumbai was featured in last week's SWM), acid attacks, rape, sexual abuse as well as HIV and AIDS victims. There, she is being well looked after and receiving counselling. The staff report her psychological progress as being slow but steady. Meanwhile, a medical diagnosis on the condition of her legs is still awaited, once the plaster is removed.

Let's not forget: we are talking here about a very young child, whose life experience already includes beating, torture and the threat of murder. It is almost impossible to grasp. At a time of life when most of us could call on our parents if we awoke from dark dreams in the middle of the night, if we fell down in the school playground, or if a bully pinched us during class, this little girl was cast adrift on a sea of waking nightmare. It turned positively surreal when the hospital, that embodiment of safety and care, proved unsafe enough to allow for an alarming kidnapping.

As a young boy I sometimes reflected on what would happen if I was attacked in the town centre and the police looked on, laughing, or simply turned away with a shrug. It was a child's vision of a total breakdown of security, in which the figures in society that you needed to rely on above all others turned out to be unreliable wisps of smoke. The feeling that resulted back then was one of panic: the sudden realisation that there was simply nothing between you and your worst fears. The difference between my childlike fears and Madhabi's was simply this: for her this was no flight of fancy --it was a terrifying reality.

I'm no expert on trauma, but this would seem to me to constitute a series of events extreme enough to destroy a young mind for ever. And indeed, on our first visit, while she was still at the hospital, Madhabi was petrified and unable to speak. But now, just two months on, it is a different girl sitting up on the bed.

Pale light enters the small neat room in the hostel where she sleeps, and squawking crows balance on the huge leaves outside the window. Inside, Madhabi sits, laughing occasionally and engaging with her visitors. It is a miracle that she can ever trust anyone again, but she seems to receive our visits with a warm smile, and now chatters away quite happily. Each time we leave, we've got into the habit of exchanging a firm handshake, Madhabi bemused but delighted by such strange western customs.

It is a miracle that she can smile after going through such pain and trauma

Donations from well-wishers have enabled us to buy her a few small presents. On the first visit, we took her a teddy bear. She received it gravely, and stroked its head. When asked what she would name it, she said “Bear”.

We've also given her colouring books and story books. She has coloured in the pictures with great care. Can we read anything into this attentiveness, this obvious desire to please the people who brought the gifts? Difficult to say in some ways it wouldn't have been surprising had she taken a red crayon and slashed her way through each page. But what is absolutely certain, as a psychiatrist colleague points out, is that nothing which happens after such a horrific event is insignificant. When asked what presents she would like next, she first suggested a red sari for her mother, and then a little red car to play with. It is a delight to be able to bring her some pleasure in this way, to offer love in a life which has seen precious little love of late.

As she leafs through the story book pages, pointing out what she sees, it's obvious that here is an agile young mind, but one clearly in need of stretching. The text is beyond her, but luckily the pages are teeming with colourful pictures of Hindu princes and princesses. Here, for example, is a handsome suitor on bended knee, before his beloved. When asked what she sees, Madhabi replies that there is a man and a woman. And what are they doing? This draws a blank: they are simply a man and a woman on a page. This girl needs her imagination exercised, her mind trained, her sense of play developed, and she needs adults who care for her. In short, it occurs to you as you look on, she needs to be in school, in the company of her peers.

Like so many child home workers, Madhabi has so far been denied an education, in flagrant violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Bangladesh is a signatory. The outright abolition of child domestic work may be a long way off, but laws are urgently needed which would oblige families to provide education for the children in their employ, if only for a few hours a day, so that girls like Madhabi can exercise their basic human rights.

Once she recovers, the most likely future seems for her to be reintegrated back into her own family, who will be given support to ensure she receives such an education, monitored by a Community Care Committee led by a local professional female, under the aegis of BNWLA.

Her story calls to mind a tale told recently by a colleague, working as a teacher in Rangpur. On his way to work one day, he fell into conversation with his rickshaw driver, who told of how he was about to send his daughter into domestic servitude, as he couldn't afford to keep her at home. My colleague interrupted him, and impressed on him the need to educate his daughter, with all the long-term benefits this would entail, despite the short-term financial hardship. Getting down from the rickshaw, he thought nothing more of it.

A full two years later, there was a knock at his door. The visitor, whom he didn't recognise, said he was that rickshaw driver, and that following their conversation he had in fact sent his daughter to school, where she now stood third in her class. My colleague accepted the invitation to visit their home one day and gave the driver his mobile number. The next day, the phone rang, and there, on the other end, was a little girl's voice, saying simply this: “Before I was in darkness, but now I am in the light”.

What a joy it would be to hear the same words one day on the lips of Madhabi Majhi.

Photo credit: Andrew Morris



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