After years of enslavement, abused child maids look to the future
THE teenager stares at her crippled hands, broken after torture techniques endured over five years of life as a slave.
“I want to continue my studies when my hands are recovered,” she said.
Ma Ma San Kay Khine, 16, is one of two former slaves freed after an investigation into human rights violations in Yangon’s Kyauktada township. The girls left their village five years ago and came to Yangon to help support their families. They had to leave school to become housemaids at the age of 11 and 12 to earn as little as K15,000 a month.
“I studied until 2nd Standard at my village school and I went to Yangon to work as a maid when the school closed for the summer. I never went back,” said Ma San Kay Khine.
Earning money in the big city was not as easy as the girls expected. But they never imagined how terrible the experience would be.
“They bent my fingers back one after another and told me to shut up when I cried. So I didn’t dare cry,” said Ma San Kay Khine, her face expressionless.
The years of physical and psychological abuse that ensued at the Ava tailoring shop included attacks with scissors and heated blades. The girls, whose bodies still bear the scars, said they would be beaten whenever their employers thought they weren’t working hard enough. They were beaten whenever the children they cared for cried.
The case was first reported in June by Myanmar Now chief correspondent Ko Swe Win, who filed a case with the Kyauktada township police. When the police failed to act, Ko Swe Win referred the matter to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission. When he found that the commission had tried to resolve the matter with a quiet cash payout instead of bringing criminal charges, Ko Swe Win went public last month. The revelations were widely covered in local media, prompting public outrage and the subsequent arrest of the defendants.
The Yangon Region anti-human trafficking unit has opened an investigation and the trial has been going on since the end of last month. Police Captain Myo Thein of the anti-human trafficking unit told The Myanmar Times that his unit had been alerted to the case via social media.
By the time the case opened, the girls were in hospital under the care of the Ministry of Welfare, Relief and Resettlement and reunited with their families. Surgeons operated on Ma San Kay Khine’s right arm and the fingers of her right hand on October 5. The hospital is not charging the girls for the treatment, said the lead surgeon, Dr Khin Maung Myint of Yangon General.
“I checked her this morning. Her condition is good and she is performing physical exercises well,” he told The Myanmar Times on October 18.
During a meeting with a reporter last month, Ma San Kay Khine could barely mumble her name. She answered in monosyllables, and did not seem to know her age.
Thazin, though also scarred with several wounds and injuries caused by sharp objects, appears to have withstood the torment better than Ma San Kay Khine.
Asked their views on the arrest of their alleged torturers, neither said much, but both smiled.
Child domestic workers as young as 11 years old can be seen all over Myanmar.
Since 2014, in collaboration with the International Labour Organization, Myanmar has undertaken a project called Myanmar Program on the Elimination of Child Labour (MyPEC). According to the ILO’s website, this program is aimed at reducing child labour.
U Myint Aye, the executive director of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters organisation, which promotes awareness of universal human rights and the rights of the abused, spoke to The Myanmar Times about torture.
“No one should be subjected to torture by anyone. Torture is something we have to fight. The police must not torture, a family must not torture their housemaids and a boss must not torture workers,” he said.
Aaron Greenberg, chief of child protection at UNICEF Myanmar, said child protection systems had to be made a key part of the government’s reform agenda.
“Child protection has gained momentum in Myanmar over recent years, not so much because of the number of cases of violence reported, but out of awareness that it was a glaring gap in addressing child rights in the country,” he said.
“The public outcry around the case of the two girls shows that the public is not willing to tolerate such abuse, and sends a strong signal that people are willing to play their part in protecting every child in Myanmar.”
Dr Aung Myat Kyaw Sein, a professor and rector of psychology at Mawlamyine University, said the girls must be suffering psychological as well as physical pain.
“First of all, they will lose trust in people, and may be afraid to go to work. They will never be free of the worry about the dangers of work,” he said.
These two teenage maids were isolated from their families and endured years of abuse in Kyauktada township, one of Yangon’s busiest neighbourhoods. If two girls can be enslaved for five years in the middle of the city, how many more are in danger across Yangon’s other 30 townships?
Ma San Kay Khine, a 17-year-old Myanmar child maid, shows her scarred arms and twisted fingers while recovering in her family’s village in Kawhmu township outside of Yangon.