Zohra Shah: The harsh lives of girls in servitude

In too many homes around the world, there are separate plates, glasses and teacups for the 'servants'

An Indian pedestrian walks past a flat in an apartment block were a domestic servant was allegedly tortured at Vasant Kunj in New Delhi on October 1, 2013. A teenage girl working as a maid in India's capital was recovering in hospital after being rescued from a home where campaigners said she was slashed with knives and mauled by dogs. AFP PHOTO/ SAJJAD HUSSAIN (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP)
Powered by automated translation

In the film Heaven Without People, about a family in Beirut gathered at home for Easter lunch, the maid unobtrusively fills up water glasses around the dining table as banter flows among siblings.

She asks the woman of the house if she should bring out the dessert yet; makes countless trips from the kitchen to the dining table, bearing food and clearing dishes in an invisible manner that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a house with domestic help. At one point in the film, a son-in-law hurls an accusation at the maid, yelling at her to go back to Sri Lanka. She corrects him: she's from Ethiopia.

That scene drifted to mind while reading a report from Beirut this week of 37 Ethiopian women, domestic workers all, thrown out by their former employers and forced to sleep on the street.

Abysmal as this is, the reality is also that this could be anywhere. Cruelty is never the exclusive preserve of any one region or people. Nor is racism the worst plight to befall domestic workers, who are often denied being called anything more dignified than servants.

In several urban cities, there are also separate elevators in apartment complexes for domestic staff – a form of class apartheid that has only been made worse in the pandemic

Across countries, economically advanced or not, there is similarity in the array of degrading treatment meted out to domestic workers who are often underage, vulnerable and abused in ways perpetuated for too long: a worrying number are underpaid, lack social security, are discriminated against and robbed of dignity.

In too many homes around the world, there are separate plates, glasses and teacups for the 'servants'.

In several urban cities, there are also separate elevators in apartment complexes for domestic staff – a form of class apartheid that has only been made worse in the pandemic, since new fears of catching the virus conveniently further ancient prejudices.

Last week, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, a little girl, Zohra Shah, aged eight, died because she accidentally let some expensive parrots out of a cage. She had opened the cage to feed the birds. Her employers were so angry that they beat her unconscious and left her in a hospital, where she died from her injuries.

A line in the report carried in The National read: "Siddiqui [the employer] kicked the girl in her private parts and there were bruises on her entire body and she was bleeding."

To pit stories like what happened to Zohra against what the international community has agreed that every child deserves is an exercise in understanding how far we fall short when it comes to protecting children.

It shows how egregiously society can fail to watch over the "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family," as it says in the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child. "The child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth".

On a routine basis across the world, we see households carry out subversions of these standards and make a parody of justice and what it means to treat another like human beings.

According to the International Labour Organisation, there are an estimated 152 million children engaged in physical labour. Seventy-two million of them are in hazardous work.

A child sells a balloon during the Eid al-Fitr festival in Karachi on May 24, 2020. Muslims around the world are celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festival, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. / AFP / Asif HASSAN
A child sells a balloon during Eid in Karachi, May 24. Asif Hassan / AFP

When it comes to how many people treat their domestic employees, the Indian subcontinent is not short on evidence. No laws apply to the unorganised sector of domestic workers. Dubious “maid placement agencies” are often in the news for trafficking girls from villages in poorer states and luring them to cities. Many families in villages frequently sell their children, often girls, to middlemen in the hope that they will earn money and send it back home to feed the rest of the family.

In 2012, a New Delhi couple, both doctors, locked their 13-year-old maid in their apartment and flew to Bangkok for a vacation. The girl was hired through an agency from the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. “Left her to starve” was the phrase used in some news reports. Other reports, aiming for balance, said she had access to eggs and Maggi noodles, as if that somehow absolves her employers.

NEW DELHI, INDIA - APRIL 4: Dr Sanjay Verma (L) and Dr Sumita Verma (R) are produced at Dwarka Court after their arrest on April 4, 2012 in New Delhi, India. The couple were arrested for locking their 13-year-old maid in their house whilst they went to Thailand for a holiday. (Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Dr Sanjay Verma (L) and Dr Sumita Verma produced in court after their arrest on April 4, 2012 in New Delhi, India. The couple were arrested for locking their 13-year-old maid in their house while they went to Thailand for a holiday. Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The couple was arrested upon their return from Bangkok. They had been spending nights in mall car parks in order to avoid the police. Also arrested was the middleman from the agency.But around the world arrests are the exception rather than the norm in such cases.

In India, domestic workers have the added misery of not being backed by unions. They are routinely overworked, don't get a weekly off, are expected to be on call 18 hours a day and have no freedom. The deeply casteist and classist nature of the society in which they operate only exacerbates their degradation. There are numerous reports of abuse of underage domestic workers, in particular. A draft national policy on that could grant them rights, finally regulate the sector, ensure minimum wages and protect them from other forms of exploitation is still in its early stages.

But the data is opaque, and so it can be difficult to know where to begin. Tripti Lahiri, author of the book Maid in India: Stories of Inequality and Opportunity Inside Our Homes, has spoken about how, in her research efforts, it was difficult to find even basic data on the total number of domestic workers. Dated government figures and those from KPMG, an accounting firm, were completely different. India's 2011 national census estimated that 3.9 million people are employed as domestic workers by private households, and 2.6 million of them are women. The actual figures are anybody's guess.

Three days ago, we carried in these pages Kunal Purohit's piece that spoke of the invisibility of India's millions of migrant workers. "Their invisibility is best captured by the fact that in its eighth decade of being independent, the country is yet to have precise data around the number of the workers".

But even if there were data and laws to protect the rights of the millions of voiceless workers, not just in India or Pakistan or across the Middle East, a fundamental question remains. Who will hold up a mirror to the often-educated households who think those who treat their “help” cruelly are other people, aberrations, and then still insist on separate tea cups for their own, let's face it, servants?

Nivriti Butalia is an assistant comment editor at The National