Early July, a post in a Facebook group called “We Are Bangladesh” with more than 700,000 members gave vivid details of how a couple on Dhaka’s Topkhana Road had brutally tortured their 12-year-old domestic worker.
The post had six photos showing the horrific injuries on the girl’s body.
I was shocked by the photos, especially taken of one of the couple at the police station. I had known them for over a decade.
I had done several treks in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region with the man. Not only had I been at the couple’s wedding, I had thrown a bachelor party for the man at my home the night before. He was a graduate of the Institute of Business Administration, the most prestigious business school in Bangladesh, and had a flashy mid-level job in a large conglomerate.
His wife, a lawyer, was three months pregnant when police arrested her. The couple already had ten-month-old twins. They were a picture-perfect family. I couldn’t fathom how they could torture a child worker so pitilessly.
As news of their action and arrest spread, angry reactions poured in from all over. Many people demanded exemplary punishment for them, suggesting that they should be allowed to rot in jail.
I was disgusted by their deeds. I contacted the investigating officer to ask about the case. The officer said that the chances of them securing bail was close to zero. The case had generated a huge public outcry and the first information report that the police had prepared had gruesome descriptions of the girl’s injuries. After reading that, no judge would grant them bail.
The couple, Tanvir Ahsan Siddqui Pavel and Nahid Jahan Akhi, failed to secure bail at two consecutive hearings. They are still in jail, possibly facing a five- or ten-year sentence under the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act.
This case, however, far from being a one-off incident in Bangladesh. On July 31, police had arrested popular Dhalywood actress Eka for torturing her domestic worker. She was arrested from her apartment in the capital’s Hatirjheel after neighbors called 999 to report the incident.
Earlier in June 11, police had arrested a 27-year-old daughter of a landlord from Uttara area of the capital for pouring boiling rice water on an 18-year-old domestic worker named Miyasa Akhter. Akhter sustained burn injuries on 5% of her body. The woman was detained only because the doctor who had treated Akhter had the good sense to report the incident through a 999 call.
The data from the Manusher Jonno Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, said that at least 18 domestic workers were reported to have been tortured between January and May this year. As a consequence of this, eight workers had died.
Over the past year, 44 domestic workers have been subjected to various forms of torture in Bangladesh. Of them, 16 died. Twelve were raped, 12 sustained critical physical injuries and four committed suicide, said the data of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies, a non-governmental institution that tracks labour-related issues.
The institute said that over the past 15 years, 578 domestic workers had died in Bangladesh and 442 were injured in their workplaces.
An older study conducted by the Ain o Salish Kendra, which monitors the human rights situation in Bangladesh, said that between 2008 to 2011 there were 2,709 reported incidents of violence against domestic workers, 729 of which led to the deaths of child domestic workers.
This study particularly shed light on the vulnerability of child domestic workers in Bangladesh. According to a baseline survey of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF, there are approximately 4,00,000 child domestic workers in Bangladesh aged 6-17 years. They mostly come from the countryside and are sent to the urban areas by their poor parents to help support their households.
Invisible to the authorities
Since child domestic workers live in their employers’ homes and away from their parents, they are almost invisible and inaccessible to government inspectors, statisticians, NGO workers and even to neighbours. Many child workers suffer exploitation from their employers. Because they belong to the informal labour sector; they are excluded from legal protections.
The Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum, a child rights organisation based in Dhaka, in a research report said that suicide and the mysterious deaths of child domestic workers has increased since 2015.
As per the report, between 2013 and 2018, 25 child domestic workers were killed, 45 died or committed suicide and 29 were raped. The report suggested that in some cases, the children had probably been killed but their employers claimed that the deaths were the result of suicide.
While several research organisations and NGOs keep track of the torture of domestic workers, almost none of them have records on the legal cases filed against the perpetrators of the domestic worker abuse.
Yusuf Al Mamun, information coordinator of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies, said that his NGO had since the beginning of this year started to maintain records about the cases filed against those who mistreat their domestic workers but the database is still under construction.
“Interestingly, while working on this project, we found out that in most cases of domestic help abuse, the aggrieved parties either withdrew the case or police didn’t bring charge at all against the perpetrators,” said Mamun. “It is our assumption that the generally poor [parents or guardian] of domestic workers couldn’t muster courage or resources to fight legal battle against the employers.”
Taqbir Huda, coordinator at Justice for All Now, Bangladesh, said that legal recourse against a domestic help’s torture case depends a lot on the law or act under which the case is filed.
The aggrieved party can file a case under Women and Children Repression Prevention Act if an employer held a female or child domestic worker captive in his house and asked for ransom. This act is also applicable to workers who have been raped or if their sexual organs are injured. If the action of an employer does not fall under the category of “sexual torture”, charges cannot be brought against them under this law.
“You can’t also bring the charge under The Labour Act of 2006 because domestic work, especially the work conducted by child house labour, is not formally recognised under the Act,” Huda explained. “You can’t also bring any charge under the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010 as your house help is not your family member.”
In most cases of domestic worker abuse, charges can only be brought under the “cause harm’’ section of the Penal Code of 1860, Huda said. The maximum punishment under such section is usually 10 months-16 months of jail.
Bangladesh Labour Rights Journalists Forum President Quazi Abdul Hannan said that the image of domestic violence in newspapers is not the complete picture. “Only cases of torture or hospitalisation are reported in the newspapers,” said Hannan. “The actual image is much more horrible.”
He said child workers are treated as virtual slaves and their families often lack the financial means to seek legal redress against powerful employers, a situation that leads to virtual impunity for child abusers.
In an attempt to remedy this, Bangladesh’s Ministry of Labour and Employment had formulated a policy on domestic abuse titled the “Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy 2015”.
“This policy could have provided some relief for domestic workers by way of the country’s law recognising their right to earn a dignified livelihood – had it been implemented in any capacity.” said Hannan. “But unfortunately, almost six years after it was adopted by the government, the DWPWP 2015 remains largely unimplemented.”
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist.