My house-helper told me what she watched on the news last night. A thirteen year-old child slave in Dhaka was beaten mercilessly by her owners, and by the owners’ own children. They pulled her nails off. They tried to strangle her. She was beaten so much that her body was covered with bruises. She left the building with the excuse of emptying the trash and then she ran to the slum and hid. People there called the police and took the girl to the hospital. The police asked her owner what happened and he said that the girl had fallen down the stairs and had fallen while trying to clean a ceiling fan.

It’s such a normal story that I am surprised that it made the news. The Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies has surveyed the child-slaves in 10,000 homes in Dhaka: 17% complained of sexual abuse. 47% were assaulted physically, 63% were forced to work beyond their capacities. 83% were scolded for tiny mistakes. 68% were suffering from depression. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics said that in 2003, there were 2 million children doing domestic work.

In Bangladesh, between the years of 2000-2004, 9 of these child slaves went missing, 97 were tortured, 139 were killed, and 40 raped. And these are the the registered cases — so in a country where the justice system is fraught with corruption, I can promise that there are many other such incidents, though unrecorded.

Ruma is one of them. She works for the family in the above apartment. Her family is dirt poor, so they gave her to this rich family, with the understanding that they will pay the dowry when Ruma gets married. Ruma has been working for them for years now, and I think she is about 11 or 12 now. Ruma does get to see her family about three times a year. And she does get some time off work to play on the roof or come visit me. But she does not receive the same food as the family. She is constantly scolded for little things. One time a sock went missing and her owner said that she would kill Ruma if the sock was not found. Ruma was crying with fear. A few hours later, another neighbor returned the sock!! There have been occasions when we can hear Ruma being beaten. One time, when the noise of crying lasted for hours, I went upstairs to talk to them. They complained of Ruma’s disobedience, and I told them that she is too little to work so hard — she is just the age of my littlest sister. There have been other times when she is beaten in front of us.

It is hard to know what to do. I am teaching Ruma how to read whenever I get the chance and I give her a glass of milk now and then. I stand up for her whenever she is scolded in front of me. But it seems so little. If only there was a way of complaining to some social worker or filing an anonymous case or something.

Just recently, I was up on the roof and Ruma came, and I just hugged her for about three minutes, asking her about her day. She had to leave soon, so our interaction lasted just those three minutes. Later she came up to me and whispered, “Didn’t we have fun on the roof!”