The brutal violence perpetrated against a 16-year-old domestic worker employed in the household of former Cabinet minister Rishad Bathiudeen in Colombo has sparked justifiable outrage in the country.
The young girl, who hails from an impoverished family in Thalawakele in the central hills, was admitted to the Colombo National Hospital with severe burn injuries and kept on life support before she died. A post-mortem revealed the girl had 72 burn wounds on her body and appeared to have been raped over a prolonged period.
At a press briefing recently, the child’s mother revealed the terrible conditions under which her daughter had laboured. During her service at the Bathiudeen residence, the girl had complained incessantly about harassment and said the lady of the house routinely assaulted her with a broom. She begged her mother to allow her to return home to escape the abuse. The jury is still out on whether the young girl’s death was suicide, because of the torture and rape she had endured, or manslaughter at the hands of someone in the household.
Hishalini’s tragic end, and the abuse she had to endure at such a tender age, shocks the conscience. But her fate is also emblematic of problems that have plagued vulnerable and marginalised plantation communities for generations. Families like hers live in abject poverty, with lenders breathing down their necks and rampant alcohol abuse and sexual exploitation in the community that makes girl children particularly vulnerable.
It is also another damning indictment against predatory microfinance lenders and an economic situation in Sri Lanka that is driving citizens to hunger and destitution.
The 16-year-old was practically forced to enter domestic service to lift her family out of crushing poverty. Hishalini had two younger sisters and offered to take the job to help her mother to pay back microfinance loans and keep the family alive.
The abuse she faced is also the result of the failure of successive governments to adopt a proper legal framework for domestic service that would protect employees and impose contractual obligations upon those who employ maids for residential work.
Therefore, her tragic demise has heightened calls for domestic service to be brought within the ambit of Sri Lanka’s labour laws. Marching for justice for Hishalini on Wednesday, the Domestic Workers Union in Batticaloa called on the Government to prevent abuse against domestic workers by implementing a legal framework for domestic work. The Union was formed in 2004 after a similar incident of brutal violence against a domestic worker. Formalising domestic labour would give workers contracts and impose conditions on employers that would be subject to scrutiny by the Labour Department. Labour law reform would also ensure domestic workers have a formal complaints mechanism and the right to have their disputes mediated by the department, which could be a deterrent to abuse and exploitation.
The legality of the Bathiudeen family employing a 16-year-old for domestic labour remains an open-ended question. In January 2021, Sri Lanka raised the minimum age of employment from 14 to 16 following an amendment to the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act No. 47 of 1956. The new change in the law meant that children between the ages of 16 and 18 years could only be recruited for jobs that did not pose a threat to their life, health, education, and moral development. Employers are strictly prohibited from recruiting 16-18 year-olds for unsafe jobs or jobs that require them to work at night.
But there is no question that their treatment of the girl warrants a criminal investigation that brings the perpetrators before the courts of law to answer for their crimes. It is sincerely hoped that with the life of a child so recklessly snuffed out, authorities will make #JusticeForHishalini a priority, and prosecute those responsible for her death without fear or favour.