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.)