Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A peculiar institution

In my last post I mentioned femmes de ménage. It's really just French for a housekeeper/cleaning lady, but in Madagascar the term has come to refer to children who work as domestic servants.

Most of what I've learned about these girls (and they're almost always girls, as the term indicates) comes from the staff at the various children's centers with which I'm working. So far as I know at the moment, femmes de ménage are the children of poor families, sent by their parents to work for wealthy Malagasies. They generally make some kind of wage, which I'm told tops out at about 60,000 AR or ariary ($30) per month. Not only is that less than the minimum wage of 77,000 AR ($36.50) per month, but the girls generally work long hours, sometimes up to twenty hours a day. Most of them live in abysmal conditions, sleeping on the floor in their employers' (or patrons') kitchens, and eating two meagre meals a day of either leftovers or plain rice. Although they usually make a nominal wage, they rarely collect it themselves; either their parents collect it directly, or they send it home themselves to support their families.

As bad as this practice is, it's hard not to sympathize with the plight of Madagascar's rural poor, who struggle simply to feed and house themselves. For them, sending their children to work can be a necessity. What's really infuriating about the femmes de ménage are their patrons, some of whom have succeeded in using the juvenile justice system to reduce their child servants to child slaves.

There's a pattern to these cases, according to my information: the patrons of a child femme de ménage brings the child to court on a petty charge, usually theft. The child is tried and sent to a children's center, like the ones with which I'm working. The femme de ménage, now branded a thief, is unable to collect wages. And there you have it: a child servant, by virtue of a petty conviction, is retroactively rendered little better than a slave. Meanwhile, the patron is free to find another servant. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The cycle can be even more maddening. In some cases, the patron will fabricate charges, and then blackmail the child's' parents into an informal agreement to reimbursement him for the alleged thefts. At the same time, the patron convinces the courts to craft a formal reimbursement order against the child. The patron avoids any obligation to pay even the meagre wages he owes his femme de ménage, and profits twice from a double reimbursement. As far as I've learned, however, the femmes de ménage are almost invariably convicted, while patrons are almost never prosecuted, despite the clear illegality of child labor under Malagasy law.

Under the circumstances, the fact that some of the girls are in fact guilty of theft is almost by the by. Most of their convictions pale into insignificance next to the crimes of their patrons: child labor at best, blackmail, fraud, and physical and sexual abuse at worst. And yet it's the children who land in court.

Even the worst child exploiters seem to go unpunished. A good example came up just this week at the children's court in a nearby town. A woman, who by all accounts was extremely rich, brought a nine-year-old boy to the family court, demanding that the judge relieve her of him. She described him as an unbearable burden, fit only to be a ward of the state. In fact, it emerged that she had adopted him as an infant and used him as a domestic slave ever since. Despite her wealth (she drove a Mercedes Benz to court, an incredible luxury in this country), the boy had slept in her kitchen and eaten two meals a day his entire life. He had lash marks on his back. The judge agreed to sever the boy's connection with the woman, and threatened to have her arrested if she ever approached the boy again, but she was not charged with anything. After nine years of exploitation, it was that easy for her to unburden herself of her child servant.

This case raises a frustrating question: how can a person who has exploited a child from birth walk into a courtroom, essentially confess her crime to the judge, and walk out a free woman? As is often the case in poor countries, the question really has two parts. First, how are the procedures for charging someone with a crime supposed to work? And second, why don't they work? The first part of the question should be relatively easy to answer. Either the judge has the power to charge someone on his own initiative (or sua sponte, as we say), or he doesn't. The second, however, is more complicated. If judges here actually can bring charges sua sponte, why don't they? Are they corrupt? Are they scared of retribution? Are they resigned to the dysfunction that surrounds them? If judges actually can't bring charges, why doesn't someone else?

The asymmetry is galling: in Madagascar, as far as I can tell, if a child exploiter and a child servant walk into court together, the child will stay behind to be processed by the justice system, and the adult will walk out to repeat the cycle. Hopefully I'll learn to understand the problem better over the next couple of weeks, as I speak with local judges and lawyers.

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