Eight-year-old Beenish did not know how to make roti for her employers in Gujranwala which put them in a rage. The husband and wife set Beenish on fire, burning 70 per cent of her body and she died soon after from her burns. If only this was a lone incident of a psychopath family. Just a few days before Beenish died, a young domestic worker in Lahore was raped and murdered by her employer, her parents most likely given shut-up money for they insisted it was a suicide and there was no need to pursue a postmortem.
A few months ago, a 17-year-old woman working in a Karachi home was found hanging from the ceiling. Initially termed a suicide, the police later found that the woman had been tortured and murdered. And of course who can forget ten-year-old Tayyaba, who was burnt and beaten to a pulp by her employers in Islamabad. Her parents too had been paid off to ‘forgive’ her abusers.
Parents of children like Beenish and Tayyaba force their daughters (and sometimes sons) to work as domestic workers, in order to pay off their debts. Deep poverty drives them to take loans just to feed their families for the wages they make are not enough to get by. At times their children are put to work in the homes of their debtors and in other cases parents pay off the instalments from their children’s wages.
Many of these children run back home to show their parents their bruised bodies, begging them not to send them back to their abusive employers, but go back they must for the loans have to be paid off.
Some of us have the luxury to celebrate ‘Women’s Day’ and ‘girl power’ but the reality for the vast majority of working girls and women is daily submission to abuse, torture and humiliation, not at the hands of men but the begums who expect servility for the price of a few thousand, that doesn’t even make it to the minimum wage. Socialite evenings are never complete without beautifully manicured women lamenting about their lying, cheating, thieving, lazy maids.
A friend recently mentioned that women never get together without talking about their maids. If you were to listen to these conversations frequently enough you too would begin to believe these hapless ladies were being exploited at the hands of their cunning young employees. But if you were to follow them home after dinner, you would see them shouting orders to young women and children who have no choice but to do their bidding.
We only raise our eyebrows about this form of abuse when we read of a domestic worker’s death in the newspaper, the everyday slaps and verbal abuse never make it to our newsfeed. Tazeen is a young woman that works for an upper-middle class family in Lahore. One day Tazeen allowed a visitor inside her employer’s home when she was supposed to make sure no one disturbed the lady of the house’s afternoon nap. This drove her employer into a rage and she began beating Tazeen with a bathroom viper. When the viper broke, her employer continued to beat her with a second viper and when that too broke, she took out a third and continued the beating.
Pakistanis love to claim that education will solve all of our problems: education se sab theek ho jaye ga, but the women behind these mundane acts of abuse and torture have often been educated at the best schools and colleges this country has to offer. One young woman told me, “My employer, who used to slap me whenever I would not do my work properly, was highly educated, she only spoke English with her children”.
The Punjab government has been working on a domestic worker bill and civil society activists are hopeful it will pass before the present government ends its term. Unfortunately, the chances that the bill will pass are low and the probability that it will be implemented at all, nearly non-existent. The bill, in its present form, will outlaw child labour in domestic service. This stipulation alone would empty a significant percentage of homes across the country of domestic workers, middle and upper class families are so reliant on and who they believe they have the right to abuse at will.
The bill also demands that employers pay the government-determined minimum wage to their domestic staff and provide them with at least one hour’s rest after every eight hours of work. The employer will have to ensure proper meals and adequate living quarters for every live-in employee. These conditions were not pulled out of thin air, they come from our labour laws. But since when did we consider the women and children working in our homes as workers? To many of us, they are not even properly human.
We live in palatial homes but put up our live-in staff in a quarter at the back of our homes that is often smaller than our luxury bathrooms. We cannot have a single meal without meat, but expect them to work like machines on a daily dose of stale bread, dal and sabzi, that is cooked separately because we don’t want our food to mix and be contaminated with theirs. Our utensils have to be separated from theirs as well, for they are paleed and we are not. We ask the children and young women who work for us to carry our sons’ and daughters’ backpacks to school, and while our children study hard in their expensive private schools we put these lesser beings to cleaning our toilets, making our beds and sweeping our floors.
What kind of education will it take to fix our humanity?
Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2018.