Ayesha Begum (name changed), 15, came to the capital Dhaka in search of work. She found a job as a domestic help with a family in Mohakhali area. A few days later, the man of the house raped her when his wife was out. After that, he would rape her whenever the family was out. When Ayesha became pregnant, she took up the matter with the family, but was branded 'characterless' and thrown out. Helpless, she took refuge in a neighbor's house in Kamrangirchar, where she gave birth to a baby girl. A few days later, when Ayesha went to the man in Mohakhali demanding her rights as well as the baby's, the angry family tortured her.
Today, Bangladeshi society is dotted with Ayeshas. Young women are tortured and physically harassed, irrespective of whether they are working in urban or rural areas. It is a fact that is being constantly highlighted by the media.
The UN report 'State of the World's Children 2006' says, "Children in domestic service are among the most invisible child laborers. Their life and labor are entirely dependent on the whims of their employer. The number of children involved in domestic service around the world is unquantifiable, since formal employment contracts are rarely involved...But the numbers certainly run into millions."
The report goes on to say, "All too often domestic service becomes a 24-hour job, with the child perpetually on call and subject to the whims of all family members. In addition, children in domestic service are especially susceptible to physical and psychological harm. Many are forced to undertake tasks that are completely inappropriate to their age and physical strength...Child domestic workers frequently suffer physical abuse as punishment for an ill-performed task or simply as a routine means of ensuring their submission. They are also at extreme risk of sexual abuse. Rapid assessment research in El Salvador found that 66 per cent of girls in domestic service reported having been physically or psychologically abused, many of them sexually, and that the threat of sexual advances from employers was ever-present."
According to a survey conducted by Bangladesh-based Mass-Line Media Centre (MMC), an NGO, some 16 maidservants, mostly minors, were raped in the first three months of 2005. During this period, two domestic helps died because of termination of pregnancy. Nine maidservants were murdered, one committed suicide, while 12 children were subject to physical torture. Those who become pregnant as a result of rape are not accepted by their parents. Ostracized by their family and society, they turn to prostitution to make a living.
Statistics published by UNICEF in May 1999 showed that 45 per cent of the children working as domestic help did not receive any wages. According to another survey by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, out of 42.5 million children aged between 5 and 17, about eight million children were found to be involved in some sort of labor as of January 1, 2003; and two million children used to work as domestic help. A vast majority of them were female children aged between 10 and 16 who were forced to do all kinds of odd jobs for little payment.
Of the140 floating child sex workers surveyed by Bangladeshi NGO Shaishab in 1991, 100 used to work as domestic help. They were either raped or sexually tortured by the male employers or other family members. And they ultimately ended up as sex workers because their families refused to accept them.
Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association, says, "Almost every family from lower-middle class to upper class has at least one domestic help. In many cases, they have to do all the work. Although slavery is non-existent, these domestic help work like slaves."
According to Bangladeshi lawyers, it has been clearly stated in the Section 13 of Women and Children Torture (Amendment) Act 2003 that if it is proved that a child is born as a result of rape, he/she will be an heir to the property of the father. The father will support the child financially and will recognize him/her legally. If a child is born during trial, the government is responsible for the upbringing of the child. But this law is hardly practiced in Bangladesh.
Article 32(1) of the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 - of which Bangladesh is a signatory - calls for the recognition of the right of children to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with their education, or to be harmful to their health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. Article 34 of the Convention requires that "States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse". Bangladesh, it appears, is a long way from achieving these goals.
Many organizations that work to promote child rights have put forward various suggestions on various occasions to deal with the issue. Their suggestions include: a greater role by the media, active role of community and religious leaders, mobilizing public opinion, giving serious punishment to the offenders and enacting a new law, if necessary. The government, however, seems to have turned a deaf ear so far.