Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School

Featured Judicial Decision: Addressing the Plight of Child Domestic Workers in Bangladesh

In a groundbreaking 2011 judgment, Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers Association v. The Cabinet Division (summary and full-text opinion available here), the Bangladesh Supreme Court addressed the multiple abuses to which child domestic laborers are subjected and highlighted the problems that girl children face when working in domestic settings.  Writing for the court, Justice Muhammad Imman Ali (click here to read an interview with Justice Ali), directed the government to take concrete steps to remedy these abuses and, in doing so, took a significant step toward protecting the rights of child domestic workers in Bangladesh. 

Citing research conducted by the Avon Global Center in response to a judicial research request by Justice Ali, the judgment describes the many forms of exploitation and physical and emotional abuse to which child domestic workers are exposed.  These include beating, scalding, branding with hot irons, denying children an education and lack of proper sleeping conditions, among others.[i]  Girl child laborers are particularly vulnerable.  Without the opportunity to receive an adequate education, girl child laborers are confined to domestic settings and face constraints on their potential from early childhood.[ii]  This contributes to a vicious cycle of poverty, whereby such girls are likely to find themselves in early marriage, and, like their parents before them, may then enter their own children into domestic service as one of the few avenues of providing for them.[iii]  Girl child domestic workers are also particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.[iv]  The Court noted that rapes and pregnancies bring great shame upon the young girl and her family and may lead to the girl to commit suicide.[v]  Girl domestic workers may also face the risk of murder at the hands of employers seeking to hide pregnancies resulting from rape.[vi] 

The Court also highlighted legal and other factors that contribute to the lack of adequate protections for child domestic workers.  For example, the Labour Act, 2006 does not extend labor law protections to domestic workers.[vii]  Furthermore, police and prosecutors may fail to prosecute abusive employers, as they are frequently affluent members of the community.[viii]  Protective legislation may prove difficult to enforce, especially in relation to girl domestic workers, as their work is performed within the confines of private homes, where it is difficult for the government to  monitor working conditions.[ix] 

In its holding, the Court directed the government to, among other things, take immediate steps to prohibit the employment of children below the age of twelve with a view to ensuring childhood education; implement provisions of the National Elimination of Child Labour Policy 2010 that would increase protections for child domestic workers; include “domestic workers” under the protections provided by the Labour Act, 2006; maintain a register with details about children entered into service with a view to combating trafficking; mandate health check-ups for domestic laborers and ensure proper medical treatment and compensation by employers for all domestic workers.[x]  Government compliance with this important judgment will serve to better protect some of the most vulnerable members of society, including girl domestic laborers and help break the cycle of violence, illiteracy and gender stereotypes that is perpetuated by child domestic labor.

[ii]Id. at20.

[iii] See id. at 10, 20

[iv]Id. at 3, 6, 22.

[v]Id. at 3, 6, 22.

[vi]Id. at 3, 6, 22.

[vii]Id. at 6, 11.

[viii]Id. at 4.

[ix]Id. at 12, 18.

[x]Id. at 24, 25.