What allows a person to be so cruel to domestic workers, even when they are children?
The death of 10-year-old Sadia, who was admitted to Mymensingh Medical Hospital to receive treatment for a wide variety of abuses, is yet another call to dispassionately evaluate a lurking social evil.
Violence against domestic help, especially minors, is a scourge which makes the headlines but remains unaddressed since money is often given to the family of the victim to stifle the matter. If the affected family members do not show interest in pursuing legal action, the law by itself often cannot work.
In the case of Sadia, the perpetrator is one Jhumur, the wife of a political leader in Sherpur. What makes the matter more disturbing is that the mistreatment of the child worker had been going on for a long time, which said political leader should have stopped.
Culturally approved mistreatment
To find the reasons behind the woman’s vicious nature, an in-depth look into her past is essential.
Did the wife grow up in a household where maids were beaten up regularly? This is an important question that is not being asked.
The nature to misbehave with those who work for us is linked to the environment in which we grow up. If a child sees his/her parents show affection, respect, and love to the persons working for them, that person will grow up as an adult who treats those working for him/her the same way.
Unfortunately, whenever a tragedy occurs involving domestic help, there is widespread revulsion but not enough analysis regarding the psychology of the perpetrators. The mere fact that the political leader did not intervene and stop his wife from beating up the child indicates that he was either indifferent to the issue or harboured the same ruthless attitude.
Since this person is linked to a party, it’s the organization’s duty to call him for a full explanation as to why a young worker was beaten in this manner over a prolonged period of time.
Unfortunately, in the real world, hushing up is often done to perfection and, since no tragedy has news value for more than a week, such incidents slowly fade away.
Just to refresh your memory -- a similar incident involving the wife of a teacher of Dhaka University came to light last year. In that case, the domestic worker did not die but, soon after her plight was reported in the media, the incident was suppressed.
A sordid past
Like many current social evils that have links to overlooked transgressions of the past, the abuse of domestic help is also a social malady that has its roots in the 70s and 80s. In the decades after independence which were marked by austerity, privation, and relentless social struggle at the same time, large numbers of young women came to the cities in search of work for food.
Instead of a monthly wage, the girls and women were given three meals a day for which they toiled from morning till late at night. This was due to the famine in 1974 which had forced millions to go to towns in search for work.
With the vulnerability of rural women only too apparent, an abhorrent culture to beat and misbehave developed. Since the working women could not go anywhere, the abuse often included sexual exploitation.
To be honest, many of us, who now appear to be shocked by maids being beaten or scalded, are actually denying a past where we saw such barbaric methods utilized by our own relatives, often on a daily basis.
In the 70s and 80s, almost all homes in Dhaka had maidservants, with the mistreatment varying in degree. Slapping, regarded as a negligible reprimand, was common, along with the usage of expletives.
Scalding with a hot spatula or iron was widespread and, sorry to say, the lady of the home was the culprit in most of these cases.
These women have now become senior citizens. One wonders if these people, many of whom are visibly religious, donning Islamic attire, ever feel any remorse for how they treated their maids.
Understandably, the children growing up in such households were subconsciously influenced by the savagery they witnessed.
What is more disconcerting is that many maids took beatings to be just another part of the working environment. If the abuse went too far, there was always the option to buy their silence with money.
So, when the option to work at garment factories came, women took up that opportunity with alacrity because, while the factories had long hours, they also provided a semblance of respectability, freedom, and the right to complain against any sort of harassment.
In current day Dhaka, finding domestic workers is tough because no young woman is enamoured with the idea of working in a house for fixed pay. Instead, they join factories, super shops, guard forces, and shopping malls where physical abuse is almost non-existent, thanks to the application of a basic labour policy.
The young are still helpless
However, for minors, household work is still the first step towards a life of earning. In an environment devoid of compassion, they easily become victims of torture.
In the case of Sadia, the help from the police came only after someone else in the area had noticed the bruises on her body and called 999.
Sadly, after fighting for 28 days, she finally succumbed to her wounds.
Common sense states that just scalding will not cause death; reportedly, her stomach was bloated abnormally when the police rescued her.
An in-depth report on the scale of torture needs to be made public, though it won’t be surprising if efforts are made to suppress its publication.
But, for the sake of justice, this is a must. Also needed is a complete psychological assessment of Jhumur, the wife, to ascertain what prompted her to resort to such inhumane behavior.
The truth is, without honestly facing the cruelties perpetrated by our relatives in the decades gone by, the affliction of domestic help abuse cannot be tackled effectively.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.