Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School
Using the Courts to Increase Legal Protections for Child Domestic Workers in Bangladesh Interview with Bangladesh Supreme Court Justice Muhammad Imman Ali

Q. You recently authored a decision concerning child domestic laborers, Writ Petition No. 3598 of 2010, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA) v. The Cabinet Division and a publication for UNICEF, “Towards a Justice Delivery System for Children in Bangladesh.” What sparked your interest in the situation of children who come into contact with the law in Bangladesh, and specifically in child domestic workers?

A. In 2006 a death penalty case, The State v. Md. Roushan Mondal @ Hashem, 59 DLR 72, was brought to my hearing list when I was in the High Court Division. The accused was a child (below sixteen). The victim, a girl aged eight, was allegedly raped and suffocated to death. It was evident that the procedures laid down in the Children Act applicable to children accused of committing a crime were not followed at any time during the course of investigation, trial and final decision of the Court. The appeal could have been decided on half a page as we found that the death sentence was patently illegal, because the confession was illegally obtained (the accused was beaten into confessing his guilt) and there was no other evidence to support the conviction. However, we decided to expound the existing provisions of law that should have been applied and went into some detail about the provisions of juvenile justice nationally and internationally. After the judgment, I agreed to lecture to judges at the Judicial Administration Training Institute, lawyers, police personnel, probation officers and NGO workers at the Legal Education and Training Institute. I also agreed to compile a book setting out the procedures to be followed by relevant actors in cases involving children.

The case of the child domestic workers (BNWLA v. The Cabinet Division) was sparked by a spate of newspaper reports containing horrendous accounts of numerous young girls and some boys aged between the ages of six and sixteen being engaged in domestic work who were very badly abused physically and sometimes sexually to the extent of being made pregnant and killed in order to hide the rape and pregnancy. Often the impoverished parents did not have any idea about the plight of their children until the dead bodies were sent to their village.

Q. In BNWLA v. The Cabinet Division you examine the plight of child domestic workers in Bangladesh. What are some of the abuses that child domestic workers most often face, the challenges they encounter in obtaining legal redress and the effects of child domestic labor? Are there any problems that girl child domestic workers in particular experience?

A. “The Rapid Assessment of Child Labour Situation in Bangladesh” (2003) estimated that in the city of Dhaka alone there were about 120,000 child domestic laborers. Such domestic workers are not within the definition of “worker” in Bangladesh’s Labour Act 2006. Thus they do not get any of the paltry legal benefits that other workers can at least hope for. Physical and mental abuse of child domestic workers is rampant; sexual abuse is very common, particularly of girls, who become the targets of male members of the household as well as others who visit, including other employees such as drivers and gate-keepers. Economic exploitation is universal; sometimes the child workers do not get even the pitiful wages agreed upon with their parents. Forced detachment from the family at such an early age is itself a traumatic experience leading to psychological scarring for life. The children are confined in small unhygienic quarters and often deprived of nutritious food and kept away from social contact. They work long hours, have no free time and are deprived of education which feeds the vicious cycle of poverty. Above all, they miss out on their childhood. If they survive till puberty, often the girls are sent home as they become a risk for the employer. At home these girls are not welcome, as the poor parents feel a similar vulnerability with having a “grown” girl in the house who then becomes the target of the local riff-raff styling themselves as Romeos, as well as the burden of having an extra mouth to feed. Hence, the parents marry the girls off at an early age, almost invariably to an illiterate labourer, thus exposing the poor girls to all the grueling eventualities of child marriage. An illiterate girl generally becomes the parent of illiterate children.

Ed. Note: BNWLA v The Cabinet Division cited research conducted by the ACG in response to a judicial request by Judge Ali. For more information about requesting judicial research support, please click here.

Q. What are some of the key changes in law and policy that could improve the situation of child domestic workers in Bangladesh?

A. The National Child Policy 2010, the National Child Labour Elimination Policy, 2010 and the Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy, 2010, when implemented, will bring a certain amount of relief as mentioned in our judgment. Also, if child domestic workers are recognized as workers within the provisions of the Labour Act, then at least they will be relieved of the curse of forced labor up to the age of 12 and will thereby benefit from the compulsory education provided by the State at no cost. In our judgment we also recommended introduction of registration of domestic workers, both at the source village and where they are employed. This will enable monitoring of their movement and prevent trafficking.

Q. In your decision you issued several directives to the government of Bangladesh to address the problems faced by child domestic workers. What has been the reaction to those directives?

A. The immediate reaction was negative as the “benevolent” employers believe that they do a favor by employing these poor children who would otherwise starve. We noted in the judgment that no favor is being done to the children by employing them at a school-going age; in fact they are being handicapped for life and would remain vulnerable for the foreseeable future generations.

Q. Can the government of Bangladesh look to any other countries for helpful examples as it explores new avenues of protecting child domestic workers?

A. In our judgment we mentioned practices followed in neighboring India and Indonesia, which have comparable economic and social contexts, and which have sought to address the problems faced by child domestic laborers.

Q. What role can the judiciary play in increasing protections for vulnerable populations, including child domestic workers, and specifically, girl child domestic workers?

A. The judiciary can play a pro-active role to address the inequities that are all too visible. At least the illegal and unconstitutional activities of the authorities can be addressed. Personally, given the time, resources and opportunity, I would like to do more research into the plight of the girl child in Bangladesh and to bring about awareness among the so-called “civil society.”