NEW DELHI — Child welfare officials filed suit Friday against a couple whose 13-year-old domestic worker was found locked in their house for several days without food while the family reportedly vacationed in Bangkok, an incident that raised questions here about the values of India’s expanding middle class.
The alleged mistreatment was even more shocking to many because the husband-and-wife employers were both doctors.
The girl, who was not identified, told local television reporters her food ran out soon after the family left on an extended holiday. With the doors and windows of the house sealed, she became increasingly hungry and desperate, eventually prying open a window and calling for help, which attracted the attention of neighbors. They called the charity Shakti Vahini, which helped rescue her.
The charity was unable to force open the door. She eventually was able to descend a ladder from the third floor Thursday evening. She was taken for a medical examination and then to a shelter.
The girl said her employers cut her and pulled out clumps of her hair as punishment.
“If I didn’t water the plants, they’d beat me. Last September I told them I wanted to go home, but they beat me more and warned me to behave,” she said.
A.K. Ojha, deputy police commissioner for southwest Delhi, confirmed that the girl had several bruises that suggested she had been beaten regularly. He said the police were beginning their investigation and that the immediate whereabouts of the employers were unknown.
According to police and charity workers, the girl was brought to Delhi and sold to a placement agency, which sent her to the couple’s house a year ago.
“They gave her only one meal a day, only two chapatis, no vegetables, nothing,” said Nishakant, the executive director of Shakti Vahini, who uses only one name. She received no wages, she told her rescuers, and was constantly watched through at least two closed-circuit TV cameras installed in the house.
Shakti Vahini, which is helping bring the case against the unnamed employers, said it also will push the Indian Medical Assn. to disbar the couple.
Statistics on the number of underage domestic workers in India are unavailable, but in a recent survey, Save The Children India found 50,000 in Kolkata alone and estimated that there are 2 million to 3 million nationwide.
Activists and labor experts say the exploitation of domestic workers is often driven less by money than by issues of caste or a desire to feel powerful.
Recent high-profile cases include the rescue of an 11-year-old girl from her doctor employer in Lucknow, a 9-year-old who worked for a senior government official and an another 11-year-old in Mumbai. All were allegedly abused by their employers.
A U.S. district judge in March awarded the maid of a counselor in the Indian Consulate General in New York $1.5 million after she accused the diplomat and her husband of harassment and slavery, forcing her to work 15-hour days for $70 a week. The diplomat returned home and India has rejected the judgment, citing diplomatic immunity.