Police vehicle carrying defendants arrives at a district court in Yangon, Myanmar, Dec. 15, 2017.
Police vehicle carrying defendants arrives at a district court in Yangon, Myanmar, Dec. 15, 2017.

A court in Myanmar sentenced four members of a family to as much as 16 years in prison with hard labor on Friday after finding them guilty of enslaving and abusing their two teenage maids, in a case that has prompted widespread public outrage over the girls' treatment.

The two girls were 11 and 12 when they were sent to the city from their poor village in Myanmar's delta to work as maids for a family that owned a tailor shop. Five years later, a local journalist heard allegations of child abuse at the shop and investigated, pretending he wanted a suit. He wrote an article about the girls' broken fingers and scars from cuts, burns and beatings.

Police then investigated and arrested six family members who were accused of locking up and torturing the girls for five years, stabbing them with scissors and knives, and burning them with an iron. They were charged with assault and violations of anti-trafficking and child protection laws.

Thandar, mother of Yarzar Tun who was sentenced fo
Thandar, mother of Yarzar Tun who was sentenced for allegedly abusing their house maids, cries outside a district court in Yangon, Myanmar, Dec.15, 2017.

After a trial lasting more than a year, a district court in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, on Friday sentenced the mother, Tin Thuzar, to 16 years and one month and two adult children to 13 years and one month, defense lawyer Hnin Su Aung said. The husband of one of the children also received a sentence of 13 years and one month.

The two others were freed after the judge ruled that they had not been involved, Hnin Su Aung said.  

Across Myanmar, tens of thousands of rural girls leave their families each year to become domestic workers in cities to provide money for their families, but often end up isolated and powerless. Child protection groups say maids are often underage and vulnerable to various forms of abuse, and that the country has no laws that specifically protect working children and ensure their health and safety on the job.

"There are often unreported abuse cases because of the victims' lack of knowledge of how to stand up to their employers and no labor laws that protect housemaids," said Tin Win, a child rights activist at the non-profit Yadana Maha children's educational group.

The widespread publicity given the case has put added pressure on the government of Aung San Suu Kyi to do more to counter human rights abuses. Thousands of young girls working as maids in the cities are from impoverished Kawmhu township, which is Suu Kyi's constituency.