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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Maid Abuse

Q. There has been a rise of maid abuse cases (i.e., servants who are ill-treated) in certain countries around the world. What is it in the psychology of humans that make us turn violent against these servants? Why do people who appear calm suddenly lose control of themselves even when the servant commits a minor mistake such as purchasing the wrong brand of bread?

A. I must say, this is the first I have heard of this phenomenon, and my literature search turned up virtually no published studies of this problem. So, my answer will have to be quite speculative. Obviously, circumstances will differ in each case of this kind of abuse, depending on the personality and stressors or the employer and employee.

The risk of violence and/or verbal abuse on the part of the employer will be increased by factors known generally to be associated with violence: e.g., a past history of violence; personality disorder; a mood disorder (e.g., bipolar disorder); substance abuse; a history of childhood abuse in the perpetrator, etc. In addition--and perhaps more relevant to your question--there may be social class effects operating in such cases of maid abuse.

Some evidence shows that lower socioeconomic class and disparities in social class may be associated, respectively, with increased risk of victimization and increased rates of psychological distress (see, e.g., I. Belek, Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 2000 Feb;35(2):94-101). We also know that inequality of power is sometimes associated with violence; e.g., marriages with male-dominant or female-dominant patterns have higher rates of violence than more egalitarian marriages (Coleman & Straus, Violence Vict 1986 Summer;1(2):141-57).

It seems plausible that both power-based and gender-based disparities might be operating in some of the cases of maid abuse you point to--but I am only speculating. Or perhaps some people in a position to hire such servants regard themselves as having the right to treat these employees any way they please?

October 2002

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