Ever since I was a child I have seen seeing domestic workers around my household, performing everyday chores and helping with little tasks. Luckily, I was brought up in a house where I was taught that these people are as much human as I am.
But seeing television screens and newspaper pages filled with stories of domestic workers being physically and mentally assaulted makes me realise how badly our society is failing at so many levels.
Recently, I stumbled upon at least a dozen stories of abuse and violence against domestic helpers, on mainstream as well as social media. One of these involved killing a 16 years old boy named Akhtar in the house of an elected MPA. Sadly, these stories are not only limited to our TV/computer/phone screens but these are told so frequently around us that we often develop immunity against them; we simply take no effect, unless of course something happened closer to home. Even then, chances are you shall be standing there, at the ‘crime scene,’ as a passive spectator.
There are not one but various personal encounters that I have had with people who were either the victim or the aggressor. I remember a poor woman telling me about having served a well educated woman for a wage that was ‘peanuts,’ only because she had been threatened that she’d be charged with theft and burglary and handed to the police if she quit.
I once met a female domestic worker whose daughter had been kidnapped from a house she used to work at, while the owners of the house would beat her because their reputation was at stake. Of course, no FIR was registered, and the girl was never seen again.
I have come across people who hire very young children to work in their homes and then mistreat them. These poor little souls are not allowed to eat the same food and sometimes even denied the common facilities such as a room fan or a small bed to sleep on. They are forced to wake up as and when required during the night, while they have to work all day long.
What’s more, they are deprived of their right to education, and any slightest chance of catching some playtime which is due to children their age.
I have seen people shopping in huge malls, eating at the most expensive restaurants and cafés while their helpers are left to hold their handbags or kids.
But how can I or anyone like me complain about this situation when we are also a part of it? If we are not directly involved in these awful activities then we are watching them happen around us and doing absolutely nothing to help.
I think of myself as most ineligible to make any judgment in this regard. Once a friend of mine engaged in an argument with her maid and ended up slapping across her face. I was in the same room where this middle-aged woman was utterly humiliated, and I did not do anything about it. I knew it was wrong, too wrong rather, yet I chose to keep quiet and didn’t interfere.
Today, when I read about such incidents, or even the more gruesome ones, in newspapers, I cannot help but think how wrong I was that very day. If someone who was around Akhtar or little Tayyaba when they were tortured had intervened, perhaps their lives would have been much different.
There is no suitable policy that protects our domestic workers. A decent policy, strong protection bill, and a lot of opening of our hearts and minds are the need of the time.