Until the recent past when there were no enough schools in the remote parts of the country, most of the girls used to be sent out to urban centers by their families as baby-sitters. Drowned in poverty, the parents did not have any option but to send out their girls with the hope that they might earn some money for the family. As a result, many girls as young as 6 or 7 years old landed up in different families in the towns and cities as baby-sitters. The girls were usually paid a very nominal monthly wage in addition to free logistics such as food, clothing and accommodation. But the girls never got to see how much they were earning monthly since it was said to be directly given to their parents/guardians. Some of them worked for years even without any pay other than free food, clothing and accommodation. I think they were basically treated just like slaves. Some host families might have treated their baby-sitters well, but many of the former baby-sitters I have met so far do not have good experiences to share.
Born to a poor family in a remote village under Samtse Dzongkhag, Manju was compelled to start working as a baby-sitter for another family since as early as she was 6 or 7 years old, the age at which she herself indeed needed to be looked after. Without knowing anything about her job and the family she was moving into, she left the warmth of her home to live with her host family in Gedu. Her daily responsibilities included doing the dishes, cleaning the house and its surroundings, changing and washing the baby’s cloths and taking care of the child when the mother was not around. The mistress happened to be very lazy and tough. Manju gradually began to feel the pressure. She was compelled to carry the baby on her back all the time while his mother slept peacefully. A former neighbor says she still remembers seeing how she used to struggle washing cloths in cold water during winters. Manju says that the baby’s mother only took care of breastfeeding and left the rest all on her. “I used to be called into the bedroom even in the middle of the night to take care of the baby every time he woke up and I had to keep lulling him to sleep fighting my own drowsiness” says Manju. Despite all her efforts to live up to the expectations of her employers, she hardly managed to impress them. She was often punished for failing to do things without having to be told or for some minor mistakes she made. She says that she was even locked out of the house at night a couple of times for the reasons she does not remember today. She only remembers how she had to force herself to sleep at the doorstep for several hours fighting the biting cold of the winter until she was allowed to get in. She was never discriminated when it came to eating, but she says how she used to be compelled to finish up everything she had on her plate was often a torture. “I used to be beaten if I did not eat everything I was served” she says. She badly missed her home in the village and longed to return to her own parents, but every time she requested her Mistress if she could go back home, she refused to let her go. She spent several years working for that family. One day, she gathered her guts to tell her mistress that she wanted to go home for a brief period of time just to visit her parents as she missed them a lot. Fortunately, she was granted leave this time but on the condition that she would return soon. Then as soon as she arrived home, she begged her mother not to send her back to Gedu. She told her parents she never liked the place there. Her parents understood her and let her stay at home, helping them with domestic chores. But her happy moments did not last long. Soon she was once again invited by another family in the nearby town as a baby-sitter. Her mother had wanted to send her elder sister but since she protested wildly, Manju had to again move out the house to fulfill the wishes of her parents. Likewise, she spent almost her entire childhood baby-sitting in more than three different families and while some of them treated her well, others seemed to have left some dents in her life. Today, she is married and leads a happy life with her husband and a cute little son.
Likewise, I have met a couple of other girls who have been subjected to similar ordeals while working as baby-sitters. Since its establishment, RENEW has brought to limelight some of the most painful cases of innocent baby-sitters being exploited by their employers both physically and psychologically. But I feel there still needs to be done more to completely stop such exploitations in the society. Thanks to the importance the Royal Government of Bhutan attaches to education. We have schools in almost every village today and hence, we don’t have so many young girls staying at home idly nowadays. Having said that, I am not trying to portray that all the host families are ill-natured. There are, of course, many baby-sitters who have built their future just living with their host families. But it’s just sad that not everybody has the same heart to do that. I am still wondering how many Manjus could be out there in our society today.