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Helping the help

Published Jul 02, 2012 04:03pm


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Abject poverty, lack of resources and education force many people in countries such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to accept jobs that offer meager salaries, minimum respect and zero welfare. Many people work as domestic workers, that include agricultural labour, domestic help, such as maids and kitchen helpers, and bonded labour. They accept to work at lowest possible wages because most of them do not have bargaining power or any other option.

The total number of domestic workers in India varies from 1.5 to 20 million. According to Sujata Gothoskar, a researcher and the author of case study of domestic workers, 1.48 per cent of the total global workforce is employed in India.

In Pakistan, the estimates suggest that up to 8.5 million of the population comprises of domestic workers. It is also believed that the domestic workers’ sector remains the largest employment sector in the country.

The irony is that Pakistani domestic workers, despite of their massive population, are not covered under minimum wage legislation. Most of them are underpaid and work extra hours, making them more susceptible to physical abuse, job insecurity and most importantly sexual abuse and harassment.

Maliha Hussain, Program Director of Mehergarh and member of Alliance against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) said that up to 91 per cent of the female domestic workers in Pakistan claim to have been sexually harassed or abused by their employers.

Hussain said, “Many people are currently working to eliminate evils such as honour killings, acid attacks and child marriages, however, the sexual assault and harassment that domestic workers face every day, is greatly unaddressed.”

Pakistan is not the only country where domestic workers, especially maids, are exploited due to their socio-economic and cultural problems.In India, though leap years ahead of Pakistan otherwise, domestic workers face a similar plight.

I believe that our indifference towards the plight of domestic workers, which also include our very own maids, stems from the preconceived notion that low-wage workers are ‘innate criminals’. The fact that they earn low does not signify that their ethical values should by default be assumed low. Their economic problems, coupled with their social status, make them easy targets for the scavengers ready to take advantage of their misfortunes.

The fact that most of us suppress and abuse the underprivileged, and people who cannot fight back, is not only a proof of how regressive our society has become but also signifies the death of our conscience.

Yasmin*, a domestic servant-cum-nanny, said, “I have worked at seven different households and have faced sexual advances from men living at six of those. Some men are more subtle, others are blatant in their ‘invitations’ but none respect us.”

“My previous employer attacked me in his wife’s absence and when I reported the incident to his wife, she started blaming me for my ‘unchaste’ nature. In the end, I lost my job and my reputation went with it,” she added.

It is true that most women deny allegations levelled against their husbands, sons and brothers and blame maids for ‘flaunting’ themselves publicly. However, it is important to understand that our society, which lacks basic principles greatly, is in dire need of cure. Unless we open our eyes to the reality and accept the situation, we will not be able to eradicate the evils prevalent in our society. Acceptance is always the first step towards rectifying the wrongs.

Firmly believing that our family members are above suspicion and incapable of committing such detestable acts can only be attributed to our indifference towards the plight of other humans.

However, many women know that their beloveds have abused maids, but consider their hands tied and continue to live in denial.

“I know the truth about my husband and his fetish for female servants but what are my options. I am neither educated nor working anywhere and with three children to feed, cannot afford to leave him either. All I can do is change the maid which serves no purpose,” said a wife on condition of anonymity.

Her words and helplessness made me wonder how many women in Pakistan live in constant fear of being left by their husbands and continue to tolerate such despicable acts because their options are limited. I asked her if the agony and pain that she has been enduring was worth the sacrifice, however, did not receive a legible answer.

The burning question is that what factors have turned us into such an immoral society where relationships are neither trusted nor respected?

In my opinion, gender-segregation is one of the most important factors why most of us are unable to develop a healthy relationship with the opposite sex. As children, we are taught to live in clearly demarcated territories and restrict our affiliations with similar sex groups. Hence, as adults, we simply cannot break-free from the year old prejudices which sometimes results in negative frustration.

Another factor is a lack of accountability.

“When the abuser knows that he will never be held accountable for his acts, why would he stop? Usually maids and other domestic workers do not even file an official complaint because they know that it’s their word against the elites’. This mindset must change,” said Hussain.

“The amendment introduced in section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code penalises abusers and harassers. We encourage domestic servants to contact the nearest local police station because they can conveniently lodge an FIR against the culprit. We also ask them to gather evidence by either recording the conversation or making a video of the incident through cell phones as most of them own one,” she added.

Hussain’s extensive research and experience in safeguarding the interest of working women also proves that a large percentage of abusers know fully well that what they are doing is immoral. However, the lack of accountability and the knowledge that most servants will never lodge an official complaint are definite motivators.

Whether the desire to exploit the vulnerable workers is psychological or physical, it is significant to realise that unless actions are taken to punish the abusers, the misery of the aforementioned wife and maids like Yasmin will only continue. It might sound rhetorical but victims need support from the family members of involved abusers.

Had the wife or the abused maid reported the crime to the authorities, the lives of many, directly or indirectly affected by the abuse, would have been less miserable, if not perfect.

In countries, where it is extremely difficult to safeguard the interests of domestic workers because of their ever-expanding population, speaking out against the crime and supporting the victims, is essentially important. Unless the victims are supported and precedents are set, the society will continue to indulge in such heinous crimes.

*Identity concealed due to security reasons.

The writer is a Reporter at

Faiza Mirza


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (14) Closed

ALi Jul 03, 2012 07:10am
It is extremely one sided and ofcourse moulded in a way that we feel so pitty about the situation exist in our housholds. But i dont actually totally agree with you, this problem is an extension of many minor problems. If we talk about the domestic voilance or women working in housholds , we are actually bounding the extent of this problem. The angle of looking these matter should be broad enough that it should cover up the workforce regardless of housholds or working women, who actually take benifit of being harrassed. Our society is so much complexed with the issue related to harrassment. The need is to discuss this issue in a wider range of connected issue.
Sohaib YAHIA Jul 03, 2012 03:50am
Right on dot! Too much emphasis on gender-segregation since the beginning is the root cause of such negative display of frustrations. Also important to note is that households that are fortunately free from sexual abuse curse, the abuse takes different forms there like extended working hours, no care on health and hygiene of the domestic worker and so on and so forth. This is a sad reflection of mindset of people from this part of the world whose history is blotted with horrifying rulers and slaves concept tales.
dhk Jul 03, 2012 04:05pm
"opening up gradually" ... suspicious intent, i see.
Muhammad Ikram Jul 04, 2012 06:46am
Why most of the time we are just raising the issues, and left it behind like a past days. We should also analyse all these matters with the teaching of ISLAM, the news/story should not be taken as past days, we have to work on from the deep roots of our society to improved and develop eternal moral strength of self accountability / ALLAH Fear. As per pure teaching of ISLAM "What you love/expect for your self same for the other" But it need allot of sacrifices, that may be in any form. If we want to groomed our society for piece/honor, tolerance and purity, so we should opt these sacrifices otherwise we and our society will be enlightened. Regards
Ijaz Mir Jul 02, 2012 10:21pm
In early seventies I took a job in Kenya. haired a domestic servant. One day for some reason I sacked him.. He took his salary and left happily. Next day he was back with the labour union representative with a bill for overtime and working on Sunday And fine for not displaying domestic servant rules and not keeping register for timing. This happened 42 years ago in a African country. Why we do not have this type of rules ? Regarding sleeping with the maids is common traditions. Olden days war bounty men and women were turned into slaves, Master can sleep with her and use her but she gets freedom if she bears a child, I believe this is still valid law in some countries.
nosheen Jul 03, 2012 12:09pm
If gender segregation is the only reason than there shoud be no sexual harassment in west.
Khizr Jul 03, 2012 12:28am
Very thought provoking article on one of the socials evils of the society. It is a sad sad situation that our cumulative social morals are on a decline for so long.
aysha Jul 03, 2012 02:09am
A salute the writer for bringing up that sensitive issue.
sana Jul 04, 2012 07:42am
Though the writer has raised a very valid point and we should do efforts to get rid of this sort of social curse! but i tend to agree with Nosheen that writer should not have concluded the reason for such problems by writing that gender segregation as one of the most imprtant factors! hence i agree with Nosheen when she says "If gender segregation is the only reason than there shoud be no sexual harassment in west"!
Bikram Singh Jul 02, 2012 11:21am
beautiful at heart as well
Jutt Jul 03, 2012 10:11am
I agree with the writer at her depicting the miserable condition of the domestic workers and her concern to protect the rights of the domestic workers in menial jobs. The low wage workers are known as 'innate criminal' and being less fortunate the law enforcing agencies the police in particular takes advantage of the aforementioned innocents by inflicting sexual harassment towards the less privileged and not chasing the case. Consequently the sexually abused minors and females are in a great fix leaving everything up to their destiny continue suffering from both sides. A few years ago while working for an NGO for those subject to HIV aids, a police official revealed it to me in an interview that he became subject to HIV aids by indulging in sexual activities with those females caught up with their boy friends in the parks, beach and vising places; they took them to the police station and did what they wanted to do. We really need to protect the rights of the domestic workers by providing them legal aid and awareness through media.
Abdul Wahab Jul 02, 2012 03:47pm
In continuation of the first one --- Sheer hyprocrisy prevailing in every nook of our country has prevailed upon our citizens not to abstain from sexual pleasures without much caring for its repercussions. If maids are being misused, quite few, as many would like to opt for pleasure for the sake of extra money or benefit, there are rampant stories that male servants are similarly exploited by female section in houses. Those who are supposed to register cases and fight for the rights of sexually oppressed are in the habit of exploiting sexually whoever they can except a tiny minority. In fact headlessly we are heading towards a disaster which will leave nothing behind if we didn't act swiftly and went for an overall disection of the society addressing each and every section by plugging all loopholes. Are we ready for that?
Abdul Wahab Jul 02, 2012 03:46pm
Well what is happening is the result of utter confusion and mayhem we are in, due to years of inaction and slumber. We don't act upon what we preach. We are a so-called muslim society living in a country earned in the name of Islam. We are neither muslims nor adherents of any other religion. We do what is convenient to us. There is no coherent policy or driving force to guide the society or take culprits to tasks. Instead of opening up gradually, we have come out too abruptly and want to enjoy without heeding to limits.
Muhammad Ikram Jul 04, 2012 11:11am
Why most of the time we are just raising the issues, and left it behind like a past days. We should also analyse all these matters with the teaching of ISLAM, the news/story should not be taken as past days, we have to work on from the deep roots of our society to improved and develop eternal moral strength of self accountability / ALLAH Fear.