Recently, an 11-year-old girl was brutally tortured by her employer. The victim, Sabina, bruised, battered, and scarred badly, was admitted to a hospital.
The distressing photo of the child -- who was a domestic worker -- being beaten went viral on social media and caused outrage. As per the statement of the victim, the accused used to torture the girl, over different issues, with utensils.
Within a week, there was another barbaric incident, where a woman allegedly burned the back of her 10-year-old domestic help. In past years, we have witnessed many shocking incidents of child oppression, where children have been beaten to death by their employers.
Laws relating to child labour are not always the same with that of the West. While in many countries in the West, a person under the age of 18 is not allowed to work, in Bangladesh, adolescents (children between the age of 14 and 18) or even a child just over 12 are allowed to work in certain circumstances.
Harsh reality and ugly truths
If the law in Bangladesh prohibits all forms of labour by a person under 18, then the law will stand as an obstacle to the welfare of the child. Sadly, our socio-economic conditions very often demand a person under 18 to engage in work for their livelihood, and sometimes to provide for their families.
Having very little welfare facilities provided by the state, such labour becomes necessary to survive. Though the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (as amended) has attempted to strike a balance between the need of a person under 18 to work and his health, safety, and need for education -- it is silent about protecting the rights of the domestic help.
The parliament enacted many laws to protect children of our country from various and typical offenses. There are many relevant legislations eg The Child Act 2013, Penal Code 1860, Nari-O-Shisho Nirjaton Daman Ain 2000 (as amended), etc. There is a National Helpline Centre for Violence Against Women and Children with a dedicated 24-hour telephone helpline.
These small children toil long hours to support their poor families
Nari O Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain is considered as one the most potentially effective laws for addressing violence against children. This act contains several provisions for the prevention of offenses related to oppression on children. Sadly, there is no special legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers.
However, in 2015, the government approved the draft of “Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy-2015.”
Do you know the law?
Bangladesh has cleared its first-ever policy for domestic workers, setting 14 as the minimum age for employment. It states that domestic workers of 14 years of age minimum can be employed to perform “light work” and those above 18 years of age are eligible for heavy work.
In order to appoint someone 12 years of age, the employer must negotiate the terms with a legal guardian of the child, under the presence of a third party witness. It also states that all domestic workers are entitled to a healthy and safe space for sleeping while they are off duty.
In addition, they must have the scope for prayer as per their religion. When in sickness, the domestic worker must be excused from work. But our reality is something else altogether.
Heavy burdens on small shoulders
Many young children work as domestic help in the hopes of surviving and to keep the dream of their families alive. They leave behind their parents, home, siblings in their small villages. Like thousands of other workers, these small children toil long hours to support their poor families.
They too must have dreams of going to school and playing in the playground. In rural areas, every family struggles for subsistence. Misery and woe are indispensable parts of their lives.
Can we ever imagine living a life without our children? Anything in this world would be easier for a parent than living without children, but thousands of parents in our country are forced to send their children to work, who become domestic help.
Without a place to call home, without parents, without education, or any form of freedom or friends, they are robbed of their childhoods.
Sabina is one of the thousands of victims of child oppression that happen almost every day somewhere in Bangladesh. We cannot give a piece of her robbed childhood back to her, but it’s time to rethink whether or not we are fairly treating our domestic help who sacrifice everything for us.
Miti Sanjana is a Barrister-at-law from Honorable Society of Lincoln’s Inn and an Advocate of Supreme Court of Bangladesh.