She and her family share their story with Kuensel in an effort to raise awareness on underage employment and its human impact

Society: In a small hut in Changzamtok, 18-year-old Dechen (name changed) is nursing her two-week-old baby. Outside the hut, her 78-year-old father, stepmother and brother are basking in the sun to beat the Thimphu cold.

This is the second time Dechen is meeting her family after she went missing.

Their last meeting was in September this year when her husband took her home to a remote village in Haa to find her family and check her census information. The village is a two-day walk from the dzongkhag headquarters and a day’s walk from Denchuka in Samtse.

“When I met her, she did not know her real name, age, family and village,” the husband said. “She was working as a maid in Paro then.”

Dechen was suspected dead by her family and villagers. The police registered her as a missing person.

To the multiple employees she worked for, she was known by different names.

“They called me names they liked. Some called me Dechen. Others called me Wangmo,” she said.

Dechen first parted from her grandfather and mentally challenged mother in 2007. Her uncle, who had bought the carcass of a bull for Nu 2,000 from a man in Samtse, and could not pay him, provided her as payment instead. She was aged nine then.

Later, Dechen’s family travelled to Samtse several times to ask the man to return her. But he refused, always raising the issue of the unpaid money.

On November 5, 2009, Dechen went missing.

The man for whom she had been working for till then, filed a missing persons case with the Samtse police station on November 23, 2009. But he never notified Dechen’s family.

In 2011, Dechen’s family became aware that she had gone missing. Since then her father and stepmother filed cases against Dechen’s employer in the courts in Samtse and Haa, the High Court and the Supreme Court. “Different courts passed different judgements but we never found our daughter,” the father said.

“Samtse court asked us to file the case in Haa since we were from Haa. The Haa court dismissed the case, stating there was no witness when she was first sent to work. The High Court convicted him and sent him to three years in prison for child trafficking. The Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s ruling and stated that if nothing is heard about Dechen for nine years or more, the court may presume that she is dead and only then the accused should pay compensatory damages to the girl’s parents for expenses incurred for the funeral rites of the deceased,” the father said.

In the meantime, Dechen had been to Thimphu, Gelephu, Wangduephodrang and Paro, changing employers and looking for a place to stay.

She said that her first employer did not give her proper food and clothes but instead beat her often. “So a neighbour, who we referred to as Sharchop Ap and Aum, kept me in their house for two nights and brought me to Thimphu,” she said. “I was kept in a house in a place called Taba and I was then sent to Gelephu to work for an uncle and aunty.”

Dechen claimed that the aunty often beat her with cables. “She beat me whenever I broke cups and mugs. She beat me when I couldn’t wash the dishes well.”

She was then brought to Wangduephodrang when the couple got transferred there. “Once I was beaten so badly that a neighbour, who was also a student, took pity on me and took me to his friend’s house, who then took me to work for a couple in Paro,” Dechen said.

She said she was treated well in Paro. “I just had to cook and clean the house.” Her previous employers required her to baby-sit and wash clothes besides cooking and cleaning the house.

In Paro, she met her future husband.

Her husband graduated from a vocational training institute and worked for the same employer. “He insisted we should track my family and go to the village once,” she said.

The husband, who today works for a cooperative, said that Dechen’s only memory of her family and village was of some officials taking her thumbprint. “She said that was the last time she saw her family,” he said.

Through tears, the husband revealed that taking his wife to her village had been a difficult ordeal.

With new demarcations and names of places changed tracking her village was not easy. “After reaching Samtse, we had to find some people who knew her family,” he said.

They met a man from her village, who said Dechen looked like her aunt, who is also mentally challenged. He volunteered to escort them to Dechen’s village.

“When we reached her home, people couldn’t believe that she had returned,” said the husband. “Her own family couldn’t believe it. Her aunt checked her body to see if she had the scars she obtained while herding cattle,” he said. “When I told her mother that her daughter had returned, she caressed her daughter’s face and examined it over and over again. She still doesn’t believe her daughter is alive.”

The husband said the uncle, who exchanged Dechen for the meat he bought, had always treated the family well. “Maybe he feels some guilt, I can sense that he is not comfortable.”

Dechen’s elder brother, who is currently in Thimphu along with their parents, said the thumbprint incident Dechen remembers took place in 2008 during the nationwide issuance of citizenship identity cards. The family is in Thimphu as their mother is undergoing medical treatment at the referral hospital.

“Her employer in Samtse brought her to Haa. Since she was aged below 15 years, she just had to give a thumbprint then,” said Dechen’s brother, who is today aged 28. “She was wearing pants. She looked happy. We never expected she would go missing.”

The brother said that Dechen suffered working for numerous people while the family suffered in their search for her. “My parents had to fight case after case and I worked so many odd jobs so that I could send money to them to bear the expenses. Our younger siblings had to go without food many times.”

Meanwhile, Dechen and her husband, after learning that there was a missing persons case filed against her, notified the family of the man from Samtse and then went to inform the Samtse police station. “Police asked us if we want to file a case,” the brother said. “We didn’t as we are all happy that she is alive.”

Dechen’s father, who is suffering from a hearing impairment, said he wants to file cases against all her employers for the physical and mental suffering Dechen and the family were put through. “But I am too old and my children do not want to go to court.”

Dechen said that she tries not to think of her past but that it is important to share her story so that others in her situation never give up and keep hoping. “I never thought I would have a family and live like I do today.”

Dechen’s husband said he is sharing their personal story to let people know the predicament of baby-sitters and of how much damage people can cause to others. “Many people from rural families send their children to baby-sit because they do not have enough to eat but people in urban places take advantage of the situation and exploit the vulnerable, especially girls,” he said. “I feel the government should ensure that our baby-sitters are well taken care of. They should be treated with dignity.”

Tashi Dema