Domestic helps usually live in their employers’ homes and serve them 24/7, often in exchange for a small amount of money.
Even though the Labour Law allows only children aged 14 or above to work a maximum of 30 hours a week in non-hazardous occupations, an estimated 3.45 million children aged between five
and seven have slipped through the net.
They enter the domestic help profession to support themselves and their families. These workers are often physically or sexually abused by members of their employers’ families, but cases filed over such incidents are often settled outside court in exchange for money.
According to Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), the number of reported incidents of violence against domestic workers is pitifully low: 32 in the first nine months of this year, and 26 in 2016.
The most profile among them involves 11-year-old Sabina, who was tortured by the wife of army officer Lt Col Taslim Ahsan for splattering egg yolk when cooking.
On July 4, Sabina was found in the Mirpur cantonment area with severe burns and bruises in her face, wrists, chest and back. Statistically, the case filed against Ayesha Latifa over the incident will not be settled in court.
A study by Bangladesh Nari Sangbadik Kendra – Girl Child Domestic Worker’s situation in Bangladesh – said the employers managed to settle 70% of such cases outside court by offering money to the domestic helps’ families.
Cricketer Shahadat Hossain and his wife Jesmin Jahan Nitto were accused by their 11-year-old domestic worker, Mahfuza Akhter Happy, of assaulting her in September 2015.
However, Happy later changed her statement and said that she had fallen down the stairs which fractured her left foot, caused blood clots around her eyes and bruises on her hands and back.
In most cases, the employers evaded justice. One or two lakh taka is a huge amount for poor families of domestic helps. The victims cannot continue their cases and eventually agree to settle the matters with their employers in exchange for money
A BSAF study found that 80% of the domestic helps were female children. Among them, 53.3% became victims of physical violence and 20% of sexual violence.
Between January 2013 and September this year, 24 domestic help children were killed, 24 were raped, 72 were physically tortured, and 32 died in unclear circumstances.
Atiqua Binte Baqui, an advocacy officer for Shapla Neer, an NGO working on child rights, told the Dhaka Tribune that victims withdrawing complaints or changing their statements in exchange for money was a rampant practice.
“These are the main obstructions to ensuring justice and exemplary punishment for the perpetrators,” she said.
“In most cases, the employers evade justice. One or two lakh taka is a huge amount for poor families of domestic helps (so) eventually agree to settle the matters with their employers in exchange for money.”
Atiqua said on many occasions, the domestic workers had to leave their jobs without monetary compensation.
The BSAF study found only 60% domestic worker are aware of their human rights and they learn this from television or school.
“It makes it difficult for them as they are not aware of their rights and they decide to settle cases when pressed by their employers,” Fahmida Akhter Rinky, a lawyer for Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association, told the Dhaka Tribune.
Fahmida said the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy 2015 mandates employing domestic workers through a written contract.
“Most employers are not interested in it while domestic helps are unaware of it. Implementing it would lower incidents of violence against domestic helps,” she said.
Rights activists have stressed the necessity for a law to protect the rights of the workers and have pointed out that a change of mindset is equally important.
“Many people think they can treat their domestic workers like slaves and beat them whenever they want and punish them in any way they like,” Abdullah Al Mamun, programme coordinator of Manusher Jonno Foundation, said.
“We need to change our mindset, while society needs more preventive measures instead of protective thinking.”
30% cases unresolved
Convictions of employers for torturing their domestic helps is rare, with the BSAF study finding that 30% of cases filed over violence against domestic workers go unsolved.
Aduri, 11, was one of the lucky few. She was found in a city dustbin with cut and burn marks all over her body in September 2013. Her employer Nourin Jahan Nodi was sentenced to life imprisonment and fined Tk1 lakh four years later for her crime.
Rights group Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) said 40 domestic workers had died as a result of physical assault by their employers in 2016. The majority of them were aged either 18 or below. A year before that, 32 household helps died for similar reasons. Thirteen were aged 7-12 and 15 others were aged between 13 and 18.
Another victim, Shohagy, had sued her employers for torturing her in 2010. After seven years, her case remains unresolved as the witnesses continue to skip hearings.
Advocate Fahmida Akhter Rinky, who regularly deals with violence against women and children cases, told the Dhaka Tribune: “Their economic condition is not good and they cannot continue coming to court on days of the hearings. It’s a lengthy process.”
She said fast investigation could ensure swift disposal of the cases and justice.
The BSAF said that a number of deaths of domestic workers had been called suicide by the employers.
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, BSAF Director Abdus Sahid Mahmud explained that the perpetrators tried to evade justice.
“If the perpetrators are not brought to book, such incidents will keep taking place as the employers are influential, whereas the victims are poor and helpless,” he said.
PROMINENT CASES OF TORTURE
Domestic help Mahfuza Akhter Happy, 11, had accused Cricketer Shahadat Hossain and his wife Jesmin Jahan Nitto, of assaulting her in September 2015. Police later arrested Jesmin on October 4 and Shahadat surrendered the following day. On September 6, 2015, journalist Khandkar Mozzamel Haque found Happy lying injured on a road in Sangbadik Colony area of Pallabi in Dhaka. She then said that Shahadat and his wife tortured her. However, Happy later changed her statement and said that she had fallen down the stairs which fractured her left foot, caused blood clots around the eyes and bruises on her hands and back. Court sources say the case was settled with money.
Eleven-year-old Sabina was tortured by Ayesha Latifa, wife of Lt Col Taslim Ahsan, for splattering egg yolk while cooking. On July 4, Sabina was found in the Mirpur cantonment area with severe burns and bruises in her face, wrists, chest and back. According to court sources, the case is still under investigation and no charge sheet has been submitted.
Aduri, 11, was one of the lucky few who received justice. She was found in a city dustbin with cut and burn marks all over her body in September 2013. Her employer Nowrin Jahan Nadi was sentenced to life imprisonment and fined Tk1 lakh four years later for her crime.