World Day Against Child Labour 2004: Behind closed doors: child domestic labour

Too many children who are in domestic labour are victims of exploitation. As they clean, cook, care for their employer’s children, do heavy housework, they are deprived of rights due to them as children in international law — the right to play; visits with their family and friends; decent accommodation; and protection from sexual harassment or physical and mental abus

Too many children who are in domestic labour are victims of exploitation. As they clean, cook, care for their employer’s children, do heavy housework, they are deprived of rights due to them as children in international law — the right to play; visits with their family and friends; decent accommodation; and protection from sexual harassment or physical and mental abuse.

Children employed in private homes do not have access to the protection that is their right. Unlike other workers, they live behind closed doors, where no one witnesses their abuse and oppression.

Research suggests that, across the globe, more girls under the age of 16 are employed in domestic labour than in any other form of work. This form of child exploitation is the focus of growing global concern.

On 11th June 2004, the third World Day against Child Labour, the ILO focuses attention on child domestic labour with the release of a groundbreaking report in Geneva and across the world.

Let us each look into our own homes with open eyes. Children in domestic service are – above all – children.

Stories of domestic children

Senegal: Fatou Ndiaye is proud of herself

Fatou left her birthplace Monbaye at the tender age of 7. The daughter of poor peasants, she was obliged to leave her family to seek a better life in town.

Today, Fatou remembers the difficulties she faced when she first entered Dakar. "I came to the city in 1991. I was so small. I knew next to nothing. In the village I carried water, gathered wood. Work is very different here in town. I looked after babies, earning around 2,000 francs (US $3.60) a month. Sometimes I had kind employers; others beat me."

By the age of 13, Fatou was an experienced domestic worker able to wash, sweep and iron. Aged 15, her monthly salary was more than 10,000 F (US $18). Employed in a home, she worked for an employer whom she considered kind.

With her money, she provided for the needs of her mother and her two younger brothers. Sometimes she could even buy clothes for herself. And once a year, on the Festival of Tabaski, she returned to her village.

Fatou also joined an association of young working women of Khadimou Rassoul, where held the post of Assistant Secretary General. Here she learned what her rights were, how to organise and how to give voice to workers.

Her organisation, supported by the ILO and the non-governmental group ENDA Jeunesse Action, now has more than 300 members and has formed its own mutual insurance association through subscription. These funds help women when old age or maternity obliges them to set up their own income-generating activities (as employers prefer young women without children, believed to be more flexible).

As part of an effort to provide some stability in their precarious working lives, the women have set up their own health insurance, taken literacy classes and, when possible, sought higher-paying work.

The organisation has grown by stages. "We worked," says Fatou, "during all last year for four rights: the right to learn a trade; to read, to write; to organise; and the right to demand self-respect." These rights are starting to be recognised by employers. "They dare no longer mistreat us," she adds.

Fatou also takes pride in their participation in the May Day parade. "This surprised everyone. No one had ever imagined that we had the ability to defend our rights, voice our complaints by acting out our daily lives, or access the media. We had this idea and the ENDA supported us." Fatou was also delegated by her comrades to participate in the International meeting of Child and Youth Workers of West Africa.

Fatou concludes with a smile: "Now, I can be proud of myself."

Philippines: Gloria and the law that changed her life

Gloria was only 13 when she entered employment as a domestic worker in the Philippine city of Pasig. All Gloria wanted was to save money so she could attend secondary school back home in the countryside. But this proved impossible when her mother, Chedita - who had just remarried - started taking 75% of Gloria's wage.

Five months later Gloria was told to take care of an epileptic adult daughter of her employer. Already struggling to complete all the other domestic chores, Gloria was unable to cope with the sick woman. Her employers hit her for not taking proper care of their child.

Gloria's beatings worsened following an incident when the epileptic woman fell and hurt herself during a seizure. A child, brimful of guilt and fear, Gloria faced her punishments in silence.

This continued until one day Gloria's mother was horrified to witness her daughter being severely whipped. Chedita begged for the employers to release her daughter, but they refused. The beatings became more frequent.

Then Chedita heard that the Philippines had passed a law that forbade child abuse and exploitation. Days after contacting social workers to explain her daughter's plight, Gloria was removed from her abusive employer.

Before 1992, when the first comprehensive child protection laws were passed, a girl like Gloria may probably not have escaped her employer's abuses. But following campaigns by trade unions like the Federation of Free Workers and non-governmental organizations, national laws and children's lives are slowly improving.

Chedita was too poor to take care of her daughter, so Gloria was placed in a rescue home run by the Visayan Forum, an ILO-supported organization that works with child workers. The rescue home provided her with shelter and counselling, and helped her file a criminal case against her former employers.

Guatemala: A new life for Santa Eva

Santa Eva was found when she was only 12 years old by the facilitator of the Conrado de la Cruz Association action programme against child domestic labour. The Conrado de la Cruz Association works in collaboration with the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) on the prohibition of and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child domestic labour. Before joining the action programme, Santa had done all kinds of work. She went from working in a tortilla bakery to packing vegetables for export, then to domestic work in a private home. After a long and difficult year working, her health began to deteriorate.

When the facilitator included her in the group, Santa found it difficult to take part. However, as she talked with the team of facilitators on the action programme, the reason for this behaviour emerged. Santa was unhappy at being separated from her parents and family. When Santa's mother left her father, she abandoned Santa and her three younger brothers to marry another man and start a new family. It became necessary for Santa to find work immediately in a private home to feed and care for her three brothers.

The facilitators and the girls in her group played the role of advisors. Santa was able to pour out her heart to them about the "torture" of seeing her mother who lived only two blocks away with her new family while she and her brothers were abandoned. At times, she saw her mother in the market and was mistreated when she tried to speak to her.

The action programme provided Santa with a new living environment. Speaking of her life helped Santa to come to terms with her difficult situation, as she realized that most of the other girls shared many of her experiences and they all had to struggle to find other options.

"The objective of the Conrado de la Cruz Association is to support and to contribute to the elimination and prevention of child domestic labour, specifically involving girls from rural areas of the city", says Julián Oyales, Director of Conrado de la Cruz and coordinator of the ILO/IPEC action programme.

Santa has also recovered her physical and mental health through this programme, as well as being able to study and have hope for the future. She was able to finish her primary education through the action programme. She was interested in working in health and continued to study to be a nursing assistant. Santa's participation in Conrado de la Cruz has given her a new dimension and outlook on life.

Santa has impressive leadership qualities and skills when it comes to identifying other girls in her community who are suffering as she did. This is because she knows the area where she lives like the back of her hand and quickly recognizes other girls in risk situations. As a programme presenter she has joined the cause of Conrado de la Cruz and has been able to rescue girls who have had to work because their families have abandoned them or are desperate.

Today, Santa is 15 years old and she works for the association as a group presenter, participates in classes at the Education Centre, has done a computer course and is studying to be a nursing assistant. Once a victim herself, Santa now works to help others.