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The girl’s screams

A horror story from India.

The girl’s screams were brittle and desperate. Neighbors in the suburban housing complex looked up and saw a child crying for help from an upstairs balcony. She was 13 and worked as a maid for a couple who had gone on vacation to Thailand. They had left her locked inside their apartment.

After a firefighter rescued her, the girl described a life akin to slavery, child welfare officials said. Her uncle had sold her to a job placement agency, which sold her to the couple, both doctors. The girl was paid nothing. She said the couple barely fed her and beat her if her work did not meet expectations. She said they used closed-circuit cameras to make certain she did not take extra food.

“Akin to” slavery? What? How could it be any more exactly slavery? She was sold; she was not paid; she was all but starved; she was beaten; she was imprisoned. That’s not “akin to” slavery, it’s slavery itself, and of the very worst kind – brutal, sadistic, exploitative.

Honestly, what a disgusting tale – and it’s commonplace in India, so we can’t console ourselves with the thought that it’s an anomaly. How disgusting that two adults with enough intelligence and discipline and good fortune to train as doctors could treat a child that way. Think about it. Project yourselves into those two people – starving a child day in and day out, while forcing her to do your shitwork, and beating her when she doesn’t do it to your liking. Did you project? What’s it like? What does it feel like? I tried it, and I can’t really do it. I can imagine starting to act like that, but I can’t imagine going on acting like it, because the horror and guilt would stop me. It’s pretty much that simple. What I don’t understand is, why didn’t it stop them? Why doesn’t it stop people like that?

I always have this problem. I have it when trying to imagine being a Nazi grunt in charge of herding people into the gas chamber; I have it when trying to imagine being a man throwing stones at the head of a woman buried up to her neck; I have it when trying to imagine being a Saudi employer torturing her Indonesian maid. I don’t have it when trying to imagine being an Eichmann, but I have it with the up close and personal savagery. I don’t understand how normal people – people normal enough to become doctors – can do it.

It’s depressing that so many people can do it. It’s the most depressing thing about human beings.

Indian law offers limited safeguards and limited enforcement to protect such children, and public attitudes are usually permissive in a society where even in the lowest rungs of the middle class, families often have at least one live-in servant.

“There is a huge, huge demand,” said Ravi Kant, a lawyer with Shakti Vahini, a nonprofit group that combats child trafficking. “The demand is so huge that the government is tending toward regulation rather than saying our children should not work but should be in school.”

Well that’s a non sequitur. The fact that “the demand” is huge isn’t a reason for the government to meet the demand. If there were a huge demand for fresh babies to serve in high-end restaurants, would the government tend toward regulation rather than saying our babies should not be eaten?

Mala Bhandari, who runs Childline, a government hot line for child workers, said India’s urbanization and the rise of two-income families were driving demand for domestic help. Children are cheaper and more pliant than adults; Ms. Bhandari said a family might pay a child servant only $40 a month, less than half the wage commonly paid to an adult, if such servants are paid at all.

Well yes; I think we all managed to figure that much out. I think we all grasp that children are “more pliant” than adults because they’re much smaller and weaker, and that they’re cheaper for the same reasons. We get that. That part is not what’s mystifying.

Societal attitudes toward servants are often shaped by ingrained mores about caste and class. Many servants, especially children, come from poor families among the lower Hindu castes or tribal groups, often from poor states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.

Well, maybe that explains it. No doubt if I’d grown up convinced that certain people were from “lower castes” I would be able to brutalize a child the way the two doctors did. That is perhaps the best reason for saying egalitarianism should be the building block of all morality. (See the first article of the UDHR.)

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t understand how normal people – people normal enough to become doctors – can do it.

    I’m not sure what normalcy has to do with being able to obtain an M.D. I’d say that, aside from moral issues, it takes a certain kind of single-mindedness and persistence to earn one.

    Pertinent to the moral issues, an M.D. is no guarantee that the holder is a decent human being.

  2. says

    Well that’s a non sequitur. The fact that “the demand” is huge isn’t a reason for the government to meet the demand. If there were a huge demand for fresh babies to serve in high-end restaurants, would the government tend toward regulation rather than saying our babies should not be eaten?

    There is a pragmatic reason for it. No law can subsist if neither the population nor the government agree with it. A regulated market may be a better choice than a black market, at least in the short run. This especially true if, as the article states, people in government are the ones in the financial situation that benefits from this.

  3. ash says

    I figure that having a live-in maid in india is also a kind of meme. Only the really wealthy in this country do that. Or maybe it’s because in America it’s harder to get away with not paying them!

  4. Blondin says

    It’s very difficult to project yourself into these sorts of positions but Milgram & Zimbardo imply that they may not be impossible for many of us to fall into given the ‘right’ environment.

  5. Deepak Shetty says

    The fact that “the demand” is huge
    The tragedy is that the demand is from both sides. a lot of village folk have too many starving children. They figure it is better that their children get some food than none and they see it as an opportunity for the child to have a life in the big cities. Its all fucked up.

  6. DaveL says

    Contrast this:

    “There is a huge, huge demand,” said Ravi Kant, a lawyer with Shakti Vahini, a nonprofit group that combats child trafficking. “The demand is so huge that the government is tending toward regulation rather than saying our children should not work but should be in school.”

    with this:

    Children are cheaper and more pliant than adults; Ms. Bhandari said a family might pay a child servant only $40 a month, less than half the wage commonly paid to an adult, if such servants are paid at all.

    Apparently demand for domestic help is huge enough for the government to condone slavery but not so huge that people are willing to pay the going rate for adults.

  7. Desert Son, OM says

    As Ms. Daisy Cutter notes:

    Pertinent to the moral issues, an M.D. is no guarantee that the holder is a decent human being.

    At the risk of Godwin: Josef Mengele.

    Further: William Palmer, Thomas Neill Cream, Robert George Clements, Michael Swango, Marcel Petiot, John Bodkin Adams, Jeffrey R. MacDonald, and those physicians that were complicit in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

    And that list is just what I could muster via quick Wikipedia search.

    It would be nice if M.D. also meant “basically decent, compassionate, empathetic, inclined to the welfare of others.”

    But it doesn’t (to be fair, it doesn’t mean sociopath, either, of course). It just means “completed a series of benchmarks to earn a degree allowing to test for license to practice medicine specific to a national or state entity under the guidelines enshrined by law therein.”

    I don’t know if there is research demonstrating the effectiveness of professional ethics education. Compartmentalization may also play a factor in the subject article: “I am doctor” separated from “I have a house-cleaning object that I don’t consider in human terms,” including socio-cultural influences and factors. The Milgram and Stanford prison experiments demonstrate how chillingly easy it can sometimes be for “normal” people to become the monsters we may imagine ourselves unlikely to embody.

    Still learning,

    Robert

  8. Desert Son, OM says

    Ah, late to the keyboard once again. Thanks to Blondin at #4 for reference to the research of Milgram and Zimbardo.

    Still learning,

    Robert

  9. Rudi says

    The vast majority (all?) of us in the west are complicit in child slavery in one way or another. Where d’you think those cheap trainers came from? Who harvested the coffee you had at breakfast?

    While it is easy to be disgusted at the behaviour of active child abusers like these arsehole doctors, we find it less easy to admit that our priveleged lifestyle in effect supports child slavery every single day of our lives.

  10. Gordon Willis says

    Children are also more dependent, more eager to please, more likely to blame themselves if they are blamed, less able to reason maturely about their condition. All that adult knowledge that lies behind the careless assumption “children are cheaper” is total condemnation and should be a source of deepest shame.

    Did you project? What’s it like? What does it feel like? I tried it, and I can’t really do it.

    Isn’t it “culture”? it blinds us completely, or rather it creates a selective blindness, according to what we learn, and are selfishly pleased to learn, about the relative value of human beings of this “station” or that. The more I think of it, the more it seems to me that we have to eschew not only religion, but also culture and tradition. We have to rethink our lives, not just once, but every day, every moment. Do you think we can do it?

  11. says

    You missed one out: Try to project yourself into the position of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian father who kept his daughter in a basement prison for 24 years, raping her some 3000 times and making her pregnant 8 times.

    I have this vision of the world as a cutaway drawing, showing all the women and girls held captive underground like that, because their father’s are powerful enough to drag them into the soundproofed cellar and lock the door. Wikipedia alone has 17 pages of celibrated cases; how many haven’t been discovered yet?

    Fritl made a statement that said he had to imprison his daughter because she wouldn’t accept his authority, but instead was running around with the wrong people, a bad element. If there’s a worse element than her father, I don’t know what it’d look like…

    Sorry, this isn’t about domestics in India, but it isn’t about little girls being given to priests to be wives of the gods, either, or any of the zillions of other such exploitative situations in the world… But Fritzl always comes to mind; he’s an individual with a face. I don’t know what those Indian doctors look like, but Fritzl is the face of this whole kind of horror.

  12. Gordon Willis says

    Sorry, this isn’t about domestics in India

    What you say is completely relevant, MEFoley, so don’t apologise. Fritzl “naturally” thought that his views couldn’t be wrong, and that his behaviour, being natural to him, must be right. That’s the way of “culture”, to allow us to blind ourselves to the cruelty and the degrading selfishness of our “privileges”.

  13. Gordon Willis says

    They figure it is better that their children get some food than none and they see it as an opportunity for the child to have a life in the big cities. Its all fucked up.

    But it doesn’t have to be fucked up. People who want someone to help at home can still care about the people they employ. Why is it such a problem? Why is the natural human response: “it’s good for us that there are so many poor whom we can exploit just as we please”?

  14. Deepak Shetty says

    @Gordon Willis
    Why is it such a problem?
    Because the parent trained to have as many kids as possible now feels he has no choice than to send his children to be servants. Whether they are fed enough or paid enough or taken good care of is irrelevant.

  15. Gordon Willis says

    You miss my point, Deepak. I was asking, why is it such a problem for the employers to care for the children they employ.

  16. smrnda says

    With the term ‘akin to slavery’ people, particularly Americans, tend to have the idea that a person is only a slave if there actually exists some legal document that states the slave is the property of the master. This is how Americans – often libertarians -can see conditions where employers have near total control over their workers as not slavery. They totally ignore that with a certain level of inequality in power or wealth, one side really has total control over the other without needing to actually ‘own’ them.

    As for these people being MDs, I agree with the compartmentalization. Plus, I’ve seen the same thing happen – a manager at a factory feels the need to get ergonomic chairs so that people working in the office will not have sore backs while supporting a work environment on the factory floor where worker safety is just not considered an issue and workers are getting injured left and right. It’s the whole idea that people of other races or lower classes aren’t human the same way. I think it just comes naturally to some people with a certain degree of privilege. They can distance themselves from the people they exploit.

  17. Deepak Shetty says

    @Gordon Willis
    why is it such a problem for the employers to care for the children they employ.
    I’d say people who would care probably wouldn’t employ children anyway. Cases like the one in the article aren’t the norm (with my limited experience) though – usually you would get reasonable food and some salary (one of the reason the salary is usually lower for children is that they lodge with the employers – whereas an adult usually doesn’t). The other factor I can think of – is that a good number of the employers are middle class , not necessarily the rich – so they pay as little as they can(which isn’t to say the rich pay better).

  18. Sili says

    I can’t imagine what it would take to lock up a child and go on holiday like that.

    I would at least have put out a bowl of water for her.

  19. Jim says

    @17

    How do you train someone to have as many kids as possible? It must be the poor parents’ fault then. I thought you need training (education, rather) not to have too many kids.

    The system is rotten. You have a large class of uneducated poor people who never learned their rights, exploited to the hilt by people who take them for granted. In spite of all this talk about high-tech cities, India remains a backward country. These poor people never received any benefit of the so called independence. They just swapped one set of masters with another set(new and improved, now with more melanin!).

    Decades ago when I moved to US from India, I was surprised I don’t have to be fearful of police brutality (Rodney King and other example notwithstanding) or be scared when you see a cop’s car in your rear view mirror. If this is how someone from the educated upper class feels like about police, you can imagine how scared the unfortunate poor be of their masters. The injustice meted out by these guys makes me angry, and ashamed for being part – though I can smugly claim I never did this – of a class which to this day, sustains such practices. You can find how common this is if you search for ‘Child labour in India’ (and while you are it, search the images too). I have seen this all around while growing up, I did not know it was wrong at that time. Whether they were maltreated or not depended on the “master”, but that does not mean they have any rights. The poor are unaware of the possibility of any other kind of life. And politicians keep them that way. Who needs an intelligent electorate?

    Do you think these doctors will be punished by the law? I doubt it, with a glacial justice system, 24-hour news cycle, corrupt police force and influence peddling they will soon be free. But they will make sure the screams don’t get out next time.

  20. mnb0 says

    “Did you project? What’s it like? What does it feel like?”
    I tried and I only felt disgust. Apparently that’s not what those people feel.
    I feel that when imagining being Eichmann too.

    As far as comparing to slavery goes I’d say that the majority of Surinamese slaves were better off than this girl. That was not because the Dutch slave owners were such nice people, it was because slaves in Suriname were pretty expensive.
    Which makes the expression “akin to slavery” even worse.

  21. Deepak Shetty says

    @Jim
    How do you train someone to have as many kids as possible?
    Religion is one way. Children being god’s gift, no contraceptives, any time access to women etc etc.

  22. BigRed says

    I’m a bit surprised that this hasn’t been stressed more but I think you make the issue rather clear at the end:

    No doubt if I’d grown up convinced that certain people were from “lower castes” I would be able to brutalize a child the way the two doctors did.

    The SS guard at the concentration camp has been trained to see Jews (and Roma, Homosexuals, Mentally Disabled, Communists, …) as subhumans so there’s really not empathy left that could trigger disgust at oneself. Same, depending on the context, for lower castes, women, different ethnicities, poor people (or some of the rhetoric I read coming from US right-wing circles regarding “Liberals”).

    That you and your commenters (I include myself) cannot project themselves into this situation simply means that we’re not desensitized enough. So the real question for me is how one prevents this kind of desensitizing from taking hold so quickly because it seems to work awfully well in a lot of societies, among all social and economic classes.

  23. says

    in answer to the question of why uneducated, poor, and rural parents are inclined to have as many children as possible:

    In addition to the religious idea that children are a blessing and a gift from god(s), and fulfill a woman’s True Purpose[TM], lack of access to effective contraception makes it challenging to control family size even if parents want to. Then there is the added complication that each kid that makes it to the age of 7 or so can be a helper on the farm, and can also be expected to provide care for the parents in their old age. High infant/child mortality means that it takes numerous babies to ensure that a sufficient number survive long enough to be useful. A number of years ago, some studies determined that providing health care to children was significantly more effective at reducing birth rates in poor rural populations than just providing contraception – parents are motivated not to have more babies when they see the kids they already have growing up healthy. (The potential risk of population “bulge” when more babies start living longer can be reduced if people are looking not just at their own kids but at their extended family and wider community.)

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