The helpless help

7 mins read

Pakistan has many legislations for the protection of women and safeguarding women’s rights but the burning question is the implementation of those laws and delayed justice. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) approximately 1,000 women are killed in honour killings annually. These figures differ and do not fully reflect the scope of honour killings because these crimes are often underreported and stigmatised in society. The majority of the cases are reported from low-income households and the lower class of society, and the culprits are the same men who send their wives, sisters, and daughters to work as house help or domestic workers. Asma has been working in Defence since she was nine, along with her mother. Once she turned 13, her mother started sending her to houses on her own so that they could get earn more. “At first I used to accompany my mother and she used to ask for little help. Then gradually she made me work, it was like training me to learn household work and take charge,” said Asma, now 29 years old.

She worked in six houses at one time from 9 am till 6 pm every day until a few years back she was offered a full day of work by one of her employers. “They asked me to stay at their house for 12 hours and paid me more than the amount I was getting from all the six homes in total. So, my father and mother thought this was the best thing where I have less work and more money. And I will get food and clothes as well,” she narrated how her journey from a maid to a domestic worker changed.

The family was caring and Asma was also happy with the work, but then a relative of the family visited them over holidays and asked if Asma or any of her relatives could be sent with them as house help abroad.

“The idea of getting a chance to go out of the country was appealing, so my uncle sent off his 12-year-old daughter with them. For two years she didn’t return. After the girl’s family inquiring after about her persistently, the employers brought her back and said that they would not take her back as their house help,” Asma narrated.

The girl later shared that she was molested and mishandled by the employer family, and especially by their driver. Her family didn’t bother about this much because they were pocketing money every month in exchange.

After a few weeks, Asma’s cousin’s mother started looking for an eligible match for her daughter. “Her mother feared her being pregnant and nobody would marry her if they knew she was molested multiple times and was living in the same house for two years,” the domestic worker explained.

The girl was only 15 when she was married off to her uncle’s friend who was around 26 years old at that time just so that the family didn’t have to explain her situation to anyone. “My father tried intervening but couldn’t do much,” said Asma. “Her husband found out later about the assault she suffered and used to beat her even when she was pregnant,” she said, adding that even in this condition she went to work in houses to do cleaning and dishwashing work.

Cases such as Asma’s cousin aren’t rare but many domestic workers if asked shared horrific experiences and the problem is they do not speak about the harassment and do not believe in the judicial system.

“Nothing would have happened if we had complained too because the family had money and we hardly earn 20,000 a month. Also with all the police intervention and court hearings everyone in the surrounding who doesn’t know would also find out what had happened,” Asma said.

What does the law say?

In such cases where does the loophole exist and isn’t there anything that can help such workers? Laws exist, there are articles in the constitution, international labour laws, and domestic workers laws at the federal and provincial levels but what are all of these for when more than a million people are associated with the domestic work web and get molested, mishandled, and assaulted now and again.

“There are many legislations on the rights and legalities of the domestic workers but the implementation is nowhere to be seen. The state in such cases is not totally at fault but also the workers and their families do not come out to complain,” said family lawyer Fatima Butt.

She explained that the families of girls who are being molested and mishandled do not know the complexities of the judiciary system. They don’t know how to file a complaint and they fear that it won’t help them as they can lose work due to such cases.

Pakistani and international labour laws both are very strong and talk about the rights of the workers, be it equal wages, maternity leaves, contracts and agreements for work, union and trade rights, and many more but, similar to the situation of all other sections of the country, the judicial system in the country is very slow and doesn’t favour the poor. “Many do not report as they fear losing their job because the whole family mostly work in the same household or area. Speaking up can lead to losing their bread and butter but many articles in the laws support their rights. Article 4 of International Labour laws talks about prohibition of slavery, article 5 makes mention of torturing and mishandling of the worker and article 23 specifies equal pay and trade unions,” explained Butt, adding that what is going on nowadays is more of modern slavery. According to the Constitution of Pakistan Article 11, slavery and forced labour is not allowed while article 17 talks about freedom and unions and article 25 is against discrimination.

Other than the constitution and international laws, the provinces have also addressed domestic workers’ rights. “Punjab in 2019 passed the Domestic Workers Act that talks about almost all the rights that workers should get and are getting in the Western countries. Similarly, Sindh and Islamabad also have legislation on the said topic,” she said. However, despite such strong laws, the cases aren’t decreasing and that is all because of awareness and education.

“The laws are clear about contracts and agreements that include holidays, work details, maternity leaves, etc., but workers themselves avoid this paperwork because they don’t want to be bound legally. Hence, cases of molestation, rapes, mishandling, and physical assaults are done away with easily,” the family lawyer told.

The state can play a part in such cases but only when the case is reported. Majority of the time, such cases are not reported directly by the family but by a third person via social media. In major cases, families settle out of court and take money for their silence.

“Families of domestic workers are usually concerned with money so in many cases they take a one-time huge amount and give away their daughters as live-in maids where mostly they are mishandled but they don’t speak up against the crime for the sake of a running source of money,” she explained. She added that the situation of the country where educated and middle-class people don’t even get justice in time such workers avoid getting into court cases.

The other main factor is the fear of losing their job. They also fear monetary problems and shelter which they get while being live-in maids. If they have knowledge and awareness on how to complain maybe cases will increase in terms of reporting but then mostly their elders take money in exchange for taking back the complaint.

According to a report issued by the Hari Welfare Association, the Institute of Social Justice Pakistan, and the Institute of Labour Education and Research between 2010 and 2020, a total of 140 cases were reported of child worker abuse out of which 44 were murdered and 96 were tortured and raped. “The country has separate strict laws about murder and rape but nothing is done in such cases as well. Hundreds of cases aren’t even reported because families bring in the concept of honour in this and don’t report rape and molestation specifically,” Butt explained. She also said that in cases where in-house molestation and incest happen where family members are involved, the number of reported cases is very low because the factor of honour comes in. Parents mostly marry their daughters off and never report the crime because litigation is expensive. In cases where a report is lodged they settle it out of court.

Naureen Azeem narrated to Express Tribune what befell her 15-year-old maid. “One day my house help rang the bell and when I opened the door, she was standing perspiring and breathless. Upon inquiring, she said that two men followed her to my main gate and were trying to grab her from behind,” she said.

The two men had been following the girl for the last two weeks and used to tease her. “The next day, I informed my guard to keep an eye on those men and to stop them if they followed my maid. When the guard caught one of them, the neighbouring men questioned him. He was blunt and responded that she is just a maid and it doesn’t matter to her and they like this attention,” she said, lamented that men think it’s easy to molest or harass domestic workers as they are vulnerable in many ways, and the men in their families do not believe them and never lodge a complaint to the police on these women’s behalf.

Butt shared that Punjab has the highest number of cases with around 79 percent, Islamabad six percent, and then Sindh while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan hardly have any reported figures. “Education and awareness are the best way to curb this menace. Their thoughts are just for bread and butter and nothing else above and beyond that,” she said.

There has been some progress in the implementation of laws. The Domestic Workers Union was formed in 2015 and it has been vocal about many issues and many have joined the union. This has helped in more cases being reported but there still is a long way to go for domestic workers.

Asma stopped working for the family through whom her cousin was sent abroad but a neighbour of hers worked there. Through her neighbour she found out that the family that molested Asma’s cousin took another girl after a few years under the same condition of payinb some money to the maid’s family. “I think there should be check and balance from government in such cases because the cycle doesn’t break neither do the maids have the awareness to talk about what they go through in the homes they work in,” Asma said.

Article published in the Express Tribune on May 5 2024

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