by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star Cover Story, October 6, 2006]
Madhabi Majhi changed her statement about being pushed from the roof of a six-storied building after her torturer’s sister threatened to kill her.
September 17 began like any other day. The quiet neighbourhood of the residential area in Dhanmondi was still deep in slumber in the early hours of the morning. The numerous schools in every nook and corner were still closed and only a few people were seen walking around groggy-eyed thinking of the day ahead. Suddenly all hell broke loose. Shrieks and screams broke through the early morning air. It was barely six in the morning. The body of a young girl came flying from the rooftop of a house and landed on top of the steel railings of the garage of a neighbouring house. To the horror of bystanders, within moments the body of yet another young girl started falling from the rooftop of the same house, got only momentarily tangled up between the branches of a tree and fell to the ground. Fifteen-year-old Moni Mala died on the spot and 10-year-old Madhabi Majhi was rushed to the National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation (NITOR) in a critical condition.
Both Madhabi and Moni, along with another 10-year-old girl Mukta were housemaids at the residence of 46-year-old Sunil Majumder, senior vice-president of Eastern Bank Ltd and his wife 38-year-old Kalpana Majumder at flat 5/B of House No. 46, Road No. 10/A in Dhanmondi. The couple has two sons the elder is a student of BUET and the younger, a student of class 8. They had bought the flat about five months ago and had been living there ever since. Madhabi had been working at their house for nearly a year now. The three of them together had to do all kinds of work at the house from washing clothes, doing the dishes, cutting and cleaning vegetables, cleaning the bathrooms, dusting furniture etc. But it was not the work that Madhabi was scared of, it was the wrath of the mistress of the house that traumatised the three children throughout their stay there. At even the slightest mistake Kalpana would lash out at them with a bamboo stick, hitting them mercilessly until she was satisfied that the punishment was sufficient. None of them were ever let out of the house and spent their days in virtual confinement of the four walls. This statement was validated by what the caretaker of the house Saiful Islam said. “When I saw the two girls’ bodies I did not know which house they had come from,” says Saiful, “I knocked at the wrong flat and asked them if their house maids were missing.”
Through the dreary corridors and filthy wards of the NITOR it was not an easy task to locate Madhabi. Nurses and attendants were sparse to say the least, even in the emergency ward and there was not a single doctor in sight. We finally found her lying helplessly in bed with both her legs in a cast and no one by her side. At the sight of visitors she tried to sit up and her face contorted quickly with the obvious excruciating pain she was going through.
She found it extremely difficult to talk and through sobs and sniffs she finally claimed that she had jumped from the roof of the house early in the morning of September 17th with Moni in a desperate attempt to escape the brutality of her mistress Kalpana Majumder. According to Madhabi, the night before the incident Kalpana had beat up the three girls mercilessly for wanting to visit their village homes. Unable to bear the torture and humiliation she and Moni decided that they could not take it anymore and had to leave the house in any way possible. Not being able to contact their parents or anyone else for help Madhabi now claimed they decided the best way to escape the hands of their sadistic tormentor was to jump to their freedom from the rooftop of the house. This conflicted with the statement Madhabi had made in the police report where she said that it was Kalpana Majumder who had pushed her and Moni Mala off the rooftop.
Fifteen-year-old Moni Mala fell to her death when her employer Kalpana Majumdar allegedly threw her off the terrace of a six-storied building.
Strangely, Madhabi’s mother did not come to see her from their village home in Rangpur despite her daughter being in such a critical situation. Her father only came to see her once and then disappeared. According to Shahnaz, a member of a Mahila Parishad, whose son is also admitted at the hospital and is staying in the same ward as Madhabi, Kalpana’s sister comes to Madhabi every single day and threatens the poor, helpless girl not to speak to the police or journalists. “She brings food for her and tells her that it was because of her that her sister is having to eat jail food, so if she doesn’t do as she says she will break both of her legs and send her to beg on the streets”, says Shahnaz, “I tried to intervene once by saying that she was only a child and not to treat her so badly. She just looked at me viciously and ordered me to leave immediately and mind my own business.” Madhabi wants to get back on her feet again but others in the ward agree to her complaint that even the doctors were not properly looking into her treatment.
Both Madhabi and Moni Lal bore the trademarks of torture. Both of them appeared severely malnourished. Madhabi has very short-cropped hair while all of Moni’s hair had recently been shaved off. This is a general practice in many households – where girl domestic maids have to have their hair shorn off as soon as they comes to work on the pretext of removing lice in their hair. In reality it serves to humiliate them and make a clear distinction between their classes. Although Kalpana’s two sons and husband were aware of the assaults taking place in the house not much was done to stop her. But according to Madhabi Sunil Majumder and his sons were busy most of the time. “He was a very kind man,” says Madhabi, “He used to tell his wife to give us food whenever he was there but she refused to feed us properly.”
The names of Madhabi and Moni have just been added to a long list of brutally tortured child domestic workers for whom justice will forever remain elusive. A spokesperson from Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers Association (BNWLA) which provides legal aid and has conducted more than two hundred such cases of repression on domestic workers over the last two decades explains that poverty is the main reason why these crimes go unpunished and makes way for more perpetrators to repeat such merciless acts.
BNWLA only gets involved with such cases where the plaintiff comes to them to ask for legal support, but where the police becomes a plaintiff (as in Madhabi’s case) there is not much that they can do to intervene. “Even when we represent the plaintiff in most of the cases the poor families are paid a good amount of money and they usually withdraw the case,” says the spokesperson, “We are unable to do anything in cases like these because if the plaintiff withdraws the case the law prevents us from intervening any further and in most of these cases the victims are under 18 years old and do not have the authority to give consent. Although many of the girls do give consent and say that they want to stay with us, at one point they demur and want to go back to their parents. Then we really have nothing much to do. We cannot force them to stay with us. In 1 million cases you might find one person who wants to stay with us and seek justice and punishment for the perpetrators.”
Kalpana Majumdar, who allegedly killed one of her maids and maimed another when she pushed them off the roof top
Although he did not go into any details why the post mortem report is taking so long to file, the Chief Investigation Officer Shariful Islam feels confident that there will be a conviction in this case. “Even if she [Kalpana Majumder] does not get the death penalty I am sure she will be sentenced to life imprisonment”, says Islam. He agrees that in most of these cases the two parties come to an understanding when the offender pays a handsome amount of money to the poor victim’s family he assures that he is the plaintiff in this case and will come under no such agreement. Islam did not seem aware of the fact that Madhabi was receiving death threats from Kalpana’s sister, but says that what she said in her original police statement about being pushed from the rooftop will stand and no amount of influence from the defendant’s family will make him change that.
In May 2004, the whole country watched in horror as 10-year-old Mostakina revealed how her employer Fatema Doza persecuted her. From making her drink her children’s urine to putting a heated iron to her arms her methods of torture sounded medieval but it was happening in the 21st century. In March of the same year, Shirin, a 14-year-old domestic worker in Rajshahi was raped and killed by her employers.
The roof of the garage where Moni Mala fell to her death
In 2005 15-year-old Fancy was the victim of a sadistic brother and sister duo Shayesta Shajid and Miraj of Salimullah Road in Mohammadpur who at the vaguest excuse would slap and punch her in the abdomen. They would hit her on the head until blood started to ooze and use a heated cooking spoon to scald different parts of her body. At one point they beat her mercilessly and left her for dead by the Buriganga riverbank where she miraculously survived to tell her tale.
Eight-year-old Yasin, 12-year-old Hasna, 18-year-old Noorjahan, 20-year-old Tahera and many other like her are all victims of a heartless society where home-workers are regarded as lesser human beings, as members of a lower class who can be exploited and abused at will.
Such violent crimes against defenceless victims are not exactly a new phenomenon. Besides the ones that end up in death or grievous bodily harm acts of violence that abuse the very basic human right to live with dignity take place every day all across the country. The victims are usually young children working as domestic help who are too scared to protest or to even know how to protest for that matter, making them even better targets. The violence usually starts by bad-mouthing and shouting for something as simple as not responding to Begum sahiba’s calls soon enough to occasional slaps and ear-pulling for breaking a glass or plate. Many of these self-righteous employers make outrageous claims saying they are actually doing them a favour by providing them shelter in the house and food three times a day.
Local people shout in anger as police came to arrest Kalpana Majumdar, the alleged killer of the Moni Mala
|Public wrath over the death of Moni Mala. Will it be enough justice for victims?|
But what is amazing is that the perpetrators are not cruel, murderous villains but regular, middle-class apparently loving, caring mothers and wives. It is not just the extreme forms of violence but also the everyday discrimination that these child workers are made to face. Most of the times home workers are not even referred to by their names, ‘chheri’, ‘chhemri’ and ‘pichchi’ are usually the calling names of choice. They are usually the first ones to wake up in the morning and the last one to get the cold meals at night. They are usually forced to eat the leftovers of the other children of the house and instead of throwing food away and thus committing a sin, the three-day old food is served to these housemaids. At many homes they are not allowed to watch TV when they want to and if they are seen resting they are shouted at for being lazy. Their 16-hour workday also includes giving massages to any member of the household and being at the beck and call of the family members all day. If they occasionally do fall ill they are given over-the-counter medicines and sometimes a doctor’s visit means that the money will be charged from her already meagre salary.
Madhabi’s fate is hanging very loosely in a balance. On the one hand there is enough evidence to put Kalpana Majumder behind bars forever: on the other hand if past records are anything to go by and according to BNWLA sources so far no one has ever been convicted of torturing or killing a home worker. So, along with Madhabi, a few hundred more home-workers toil at our homes, fighting a losing battle for their survival. Madhabi’s torturer is not an isolated individual who ‘is just mentally disturbed’; criminals like her live in our midst and, armed with a perpetual impunity, perpetrate unheard-of brutalities and tortures on home-workers, most of whom live in abject poverty.
Often teenaged or child homemakers are treated like prisoners, beaten for the slightest mistakes and with no way to escape
This is slavery, a modern one. The characteristics of this may be new but it has all the traits of the age-old system of bonded labour where men and women had to work from dawn to dusk to make ends meet. In ‘modern democratic’ Bangladesh, there exists a group of young girls, who, just for a few hundred taka, work from six in the morning to ten at night. The employers, most of whom wear a genteel, urbane face in front of the world, at times exploit them physically, sexually even.
This is a story of unabated exploitation and sheer humiliation of girls as young as ten. Behind the curtains that hide this ugly face of our seemingly genteel households, stand an army of corrupt savage employers, who given the merest pretext would burn or maim their domestic helps with a ferocity that will put any professional torturer to shame.
In our society, because the perpetrators are rich and mighty, these crimes, heinous though they are, have been going on unabated. This would have been eating at our conscience if we had one; so, even when the story of Madhabi’s plights have been read by some suave gentleman in his nouveau riche drawing room, sipping a cup of tea, someone like Madhabi somewhere is going through the same old acts of bestiality– it could be a burning cooking spoon or a utensil-full hot water, her head could be shaved, or she could be pushed off the edge to die. One can never guess how many Madhabis it will take to arouse our sleeping conscience.