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Helping the help

July 02, 2012


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