issue 240 - February 1993
Maids of all work
Horror stories about child labour imply that girls have it easy.
Researchers, focussing on factories and streets, forget the place
where millions of girls work almost all the time for next to nothing.
Judith Ennew takes a look behind closed doors.
Maria has to sit sideways to fit her legs under the school desk. But that is not the only reason why she looks uncomfortable. At 16, with a mature figure, she stands out from her fellow First Grade pupils, the chattering little girls and boys with whom she is taking the first steps to literacy.
In truth, Maria is not keen to learn to read. The world is a blur to her, full of rules she barely understands. Words and numbers are simply part of the fog. Maria is a domestic servant in Lima, Peru. The heavy grey skies, endless traffic noise, the maze of streets full of unknown people are quite different from the high Andes where she grew up.
'When I arrived in Lima I knew nothing,' says her sister Patricia. 'The Señora taught me everything, the names of things, even how to buy bread. Everything was different, the customs, the food, the music. The house had so many rooms, so many things, electric gadgets I didn't know how to use.
Patricia and Maria are daughters of subsistence farmers. Rural life was hard, but the mountain air was clear and they knew everyone in the village, every step of the surrounding countryside. The problem came when they passed puberty and the small tenant holding could not support four adults and six children. So they went off to Lima on the battered bus that comes to their village once a week, with a distant relative Aunt Delia, an earlier migrant back on a visit.
Aunt Delia promised the girls' parents that she would find them work and schooling. The promise was city life, money and education, as it is for thousands of their contemporaries all over the world.
Domestic work is an almost entirely female occupation, mirroring the bonds between women and the home. For children, it also mirrors the bond between child and family. Many unpaid or poorly-paid domestic workers are migrant girls like Maria and Patricia who live in as servants, but are described as 'family', entrusted to the care of people they call 'aunt' or 'godmother'.
'I live in the house of a lady whom I call "aunt," out of respect', says 16-year-old Gladys. 'But really she isn't a relative. I never knew her before. She said she wanted to provide me with an education, but with the idea I should do all the chores in her house.'
Payment is often in kind. A 1990 survey of girls working as domestic servants in Lima found that 10 per cent received no salary at all, or only pocket money. The rest barely earned enough to cover basic necessities. The food they receive tends to be family leftovers, eaten after the employers have finished, off a plastic plate. Food and clothing sent by their families may be appropriated. Sleeping accommodation tends to be truly basic. One girl was found to sleep under the kitchen table; another in a windowless cupboard previously used for the family dog.
Child domestic workers are normally trapped in their employers' houses, on call for 24 hours a day. Rural parents may be aware that the children they entrust to the 'aunt' or recruiting agent are destined for exploitative domestic work. They may see this as the only possible way for their daugthers to obtain schooling and a job later on. But a girl like Maria, exhausted after an 18-hour day, may go to class only to fall asleep over her lessons. And there is little opportunity to do any homework.
School failure is thus added to their social isolation. They seldom have time or the chance to make friends. So they feel the failure as theirs alone. Their illiteracy means that they cannot write home to their families; most lose touch altogether. Maria is almost totally unable to communicate. Dumb amidst her classmates, she answers questions in mumbled monosyllables. She can neither read, write nor draw.
The long-term effects of this emotional deprivation can be devastating. A child-hood characterized by orders, punishment and fear may leave a girl with no sense of self-worth and unable to make lasting relationships. Emotional neediness also fosters sexual exploitation. Lonely, isolated girls may fall in love with any man who gives them attention: 'I met Miguel at a fiesta,' says 15-year-old Gloria, nursing her baby son. 'We made love; it was good; I felt happy and protected. He made lots of promises, but then he left me.'
Frequently, this lover is a member of the employer household. Respectable families think nothing of asking a friend, visiting the countryside, to 'bring back a pretty girl'. It is commonplace for the sons to use the maids for sexual satisfaction - from the family's point of view, this is preferable to their visiting prostitutes. Ironically, if the girl becomes pregnant, she is likely to be thrown out onto the street and forced into prostitution to keep herself and her child.
However grim the life of a 'maid of all work', the girls continue to arrive from the countryside - all over the world. Increasing rural poverty accelerates the process. In north-east Thailand, for example, recruiting agents persuade parents to hand over their girls for jobs as maids, factory workers or prostitutes so that they can pay off their debts. Research in Peru shows that girls are increasingly arriving at under 10 years old, although nearly half are between 14 and 16. In Bangladesh, the age of six or seven is not uncommon for a servant. At puberty, the girl will be forced to leave, so as to avoid sexual jealousy.
Domestic workers of any age are largely unprotected by law. In Peru no permission is needed to employ minors. There are no fixed hours and time off on public holidays can easily be cancelled at the whim of the employer.
A typical working day for 14-year-old Augustina starts at six when she goes out to buy food for the family's breakfast. She then cleans the house, goes shopping again, prepares lunch. 'After that I have to wash clothes so I don't eat until 3.00 pm. Then there is the ironing or something else. I go to school from 6.30 to 11.00 pm, but I've never done my homework and when I get back, the Sefiora ticks me off. I still have to wash the dishes before I go to bed.' Augustina's lament is painful. 'I don't know what to do. How can I put up with this life? Is it like this for everyone, or just for me?'
The stories of these Peruvian girls are repeated in all developing countries. Their young and silent presence is in the background of household after household. Seen but not heard, they are the most muted group of the world's hundreds of millions of child labourers. The plight of children on the streets, for example, has received much more attention; but they are visible and often seen as a public nuisance. Domestics are hidden away. In the words of a 1982 UN report, the condition of 'maids of all work' is tantamount to slavery.
The nature of child domestic servitude varies a little from country to country, with the degree of exploitation often corresponding to the degree of poverty and family desperation. However, only in a very few countries has proper research been carried out, although Anti-Slavery International has recently taken up these children's plight as a priority for action.
The isolation of their lives works against them. It is far easier for a public outcry to be raised against child labour in factories and workshops. We do not see the maids' day-to-day drudgery, nor hear the despairing voice of Augustina: 'How can I put up with this life? Is it like this for everyone, or just me?'
Judith Ennew is a researcher and wnter on children's issues, active in the international child nghts lobby. She is currently Director of Y Care International.