We must fight the scourge of child domestic labour

COMMENT

Moyna cannot sit at the table and eat with the rest of the household. She is the other — in the house, but not a member of the house. Her humanity is reduced to the work she does. Those people around her do not know who she is as a person. She functions in the background; keeps the household running. She is a six-year-old domestic worker in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. 

“I wake up at six in the morning and go to bed at midnight,” she says. “My daily chores include sweeping and wiping the floors and stairs, doing the dishes and laundry, opening the main gate downstairs, switching on machines, a little bit of shopping, cleaning the toilet.”

In the morning, her workload is particularly heavy, Moyna tells a researcher with the Bangladesh-based Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom Society: “I help to prepare breakfast, and I eat two breads for myself in a hurry. The same situation arises during lunch and dinner time; I always eat last.” 

Moyna has no father, and her mother remarried a man who beat her for no reason, which is why her grandmother sent her to Dhaka to work. She has never been to school. Her employer does not allow her to watch TV or talk to outsiders, and makes her wear worn-out clothes. She is slapped or verbally abused for small mishaps, and brutally beaten and locked up for up to 24 hours without food for what her employer considers more severe offences.

Moyna is one of hundreds of thousands of child domestic workers in the South Asian nation, and her story is far from unique. It could be from any other corner of the globe. Child labour in domestic work is a pandemic. The International Labour Organisation estimates that more than 17-million children around the world are involved in domestic work in a home other than their own. The vast majority of them are girls, and most are younger than 14 years. Employers often prefer young girls because they can be easily controlled. 

Unlike the current Covid-19 pandemic, this pandemic is entirely human-made — and it is entirely up to us to eradicate it. One important reason why eradicating child domestic work is hard is that it is socially accepted in many countries. Sometimes it is even regarded as positive, and as preferable to other work. That is especially true in the case of girls, for whom domestic work is thought of as offering a protective family environment and a sort of apprenticeship for marriage.

Abusive treatment

In reality, child labour in domestic work often takes place in slavery-like conditions. Child domestic workers work long and gruelling hours: sometimes for very little pay; sometimes just for leftover food and very basic accommodation. Typically, there is no employment contract, and they can be fired at the snap of a finger. They are frequently subjected to degrading treatment, including physical, sexual and verbal abuse, which can do irreversible damage to their physical and psychological health and wellbeing, or even result in death, as in the recent case of Salome Zacharia, which sent a shock wave through Tanzanian society.

Salome was only 17 years old and working in a household in the Arusha region in the north of the country. Her employer accused her of stealing 50 000 shillings (about $20) and beat her with a stick until she was covered with blood to find out where the money was. When the girl confessed to having sent the money to her mother who was in need, her employer locked her up in a room without food for two days. A concerned neighbour eventually convinced the employer to take the girl to a hospital because of her deteriorating condition. Salome died in the hospital a few days later. When law-enforcement officers and the media investigated the incident, they found that it was the daughter of the household who stole the money and gave it to Salome.

The media typically focuses on such extreme excesses of violence against child domestic workers, but we need to pay more attention to practices that may seem innocuous yet carry an insidious message that lays the foundation for violence. Expecting child domestic workers to sleep and eat on the floor, hidden away in the kitchen or some small room; collectively referring to them as “those kind of people,” as in “you know those kind of people steal”; and disproportionately berating them for minor mistakes, to give just a few common examples, is treating them as less than human — and that opens the door for cruelty. 

We also need to acknowledge the larger context of power and gender relations. As long as it is viewed as okay for a man to beat a woman, or for an adult to beat a child, how can we expect people to understand that it is not okay to beat a domestic worker? When we observe behaviour that denies the equal respect owed to everyone, regardless of gender, age, or social status, we should be outraged by the indignity of it. But outrage is not enough. We need to say and do something, rather than look the other way. 

We cannot keep telling ourselves, “That is just how things are,” because that is not how things have to be. Social attitudes can be changed. It is unacceptable that societies around the globe accept that some children are being deprived of their fundamental rights and robbed of their childhood. Let us no longer accept what is unacceptable. We must do better, and we cannot wait for governments to solve the problem. Child labour in domestic work is foremost a social problem, and it is up to each one of us to act now.

Dr Jacqueline Halima Mgumia is a lecturer in the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Dar es Salaam. Dr Rainer Ebert is a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics

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