Bottom of the Ladder: Exploitation and Abuse of Girl Domestic Workers in Guinea

Bottom of the Ladder: Exploitation and Abuse of Girl Domestic Workers in Guinea

Bottom of the Ladder: Exploitation and Abuse of Girl Domestic Workers in Guinea

I have to get up at 4a.m. and work up to 10p.m. I wash the laundry, clean the house, do the dishes, buy things at the market, and look after the children. I am told I get 15,000GNF [US$2.50] per month, but I have never seen that money. –Thérèse I., age 14

Sometimes my employers beat me or insult me. When I say I am tried or sick, they beat me with a whip. When I do something wrong, they beat me too.… When I take a rest, I get beaten or am given less food. I am beaten on my buttocks and on my back. –Rosalie Y., age 9

[The] husband wakes me up and rapes me. He has threatened me with a knife and said I must not tell anyone. He does it each time his wife travels. I am scared. If I told his wife, I would not know where to live. –Brigitte M., age 15

Domestic work is the largest employment category for children worldwide. In Guinea tens of thousands of girls work as child domestic workers. While other children in the family often attend school, these girls spend their childhood and adolescence doing “women’s” house work, such as cleaning, washing and taking care of small children. Many of them work up to 18 hours a day. The large majority are not paid; a few others receive payments, often irregular, of usually less than US$5 a month. Many child domestic workers receive no help when they are sick and go hungry as they are excluded from family meals. They are often shunned, insulted and mocked. They may also suffer beatings, sexual harassment and rape. Despite these conditions, leaving their employer family is difficult for many child domestic workers who cannot reach their parents and have nowhere else to go. Such girls live in conditions akin to slavery.

In West Africa the recruitment of girls for domestic labor happens in a wider context of migration, gender discrimination, and poverty. Women’s and girls’ roles are still often limited to the role of wife and mother. Almost one-third of Guinean girls are never enrolled in primary school, and many more are pulled out during the first few years. Girls from poor rural areas in particular are often considered not worthy of education by their parents. Many parents send their daughters to live and work with families in the cities. Sending children to grow up with relatives–child fostering or confiage–is a common social practice across Africa. Guinean child domestic workers often work in the house of a relative, where they have been sent by their parents at an age as young as five. Other girls from within Guinea or from neighboring countries work in the homes of strangers. Adolescent Malian girls in particular travel to Guinea for domestic work to earn money for their dowries.

If a host family treats a girl well, sends her to school and allows her to be in contact with her parents, she might have a better future than at home. As long as work does not interfere with their education, international law allows for children to carry out some light work, i.e. non-hazardous domestic tasks as part of daily chores. When adults host a girl as domestic worker, that child is dependent on them for care, and in that role they can be considered de facto, but not legal, guardians as well as employers. As primary care givers for the child at that time, they are expected to meet certain duties towards the child. Yet, many adults employing girl domestic workers do not behave like responsible guardians or employers, but instead like brutal masters. This is sometimes the case even with close relatives as well as with non-relatives. Girls’ parents also often fail to check whether their daughters are treated respectfully. The exploitation of children as domestic workers is very widespread and largely socially accepted. Middle and upper class families, including government and NGO employees, often have child domestic workers in their homes and rarely consider their treatment an abuse. At the same time, it is difficult for the victims to seek redress as abuse occurs in the home and is hidden from public scrutiny. Some child domestic workers even become victims of trafficking, in so far as they are recruited, transported, and received for the purpose of exploitation, such as forced labor or practices similar to slavery.

Exploitation and abuse of child domestic workers is a violation of national and international law. The Guinean government is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and all major international and regional treaties on child labor, gender discrimination, and trafficking. Under Guinean law, children have a right to education and primary school attendance is compulsory. The minimum age for employment is 16, but there is provision for children under 16 to be employed with the consent of their parents or legal guardians. Children over the age of 16 are permitted to work within certain limits, but must be afforded their full labor rights. In addition, Guinean law protects children against corporal punishment and other physical violence, sexual abuse, and trafficking. International law also provides clear prohibitions against certain harmful behavior to protect children from discrimination, physical violence, trafficking and the harmful consequences of child labor. It affords children the right to education and sets out how duties towards children should be fulfilled, whether by the state, parents, legal guardians or others in whose care a child finds himself or herself.

In recent years, the Guinean government and international actors have undertaken some promising measures to improve girls’ access to education and fight child trafficking in particular, though the impact on girl domestic workers seems to be limited so far. In the context of the Education for All Fast Track Initiative, an international initiative by donors, UN agencies and developing countries, Guinea has taken steps to improve access to primary education, in particular for girls. Enrollment rates of girls have risen, but almost one-third of girls do not attend school at all. There have been few efforts specifically targeted at enrolling girl domestic workers, who have particular difficulties in accessing education.

The government has also created a special police unit, the police mondaine (vice police) to combat child prostitution, trafficking and other abuses against children. With limited resources, the police mondaine have started to seriously investigate cases and hand them over to the judiciary. However, there have been very few prosecutions so far. The judiciary suffers from serious institutional weaknesses, including lack of training and corruption. Many victims lack faith in the justice system. In practice guardians and other adults can and do commit physical and sexual abuses against girl domestic workers with complete impunity.

In June 2005, the Guinean and Malian governments signed an anti-trafficking accord and are now working on its implementation. Most activities focus on monitoring and controls at and near borders, as well as repatriation. While these activities can potentially stop trafficking, they are problematic in that they risk stopping legitimate migration and infringing on the freedom of movement of girls in particular.

Even if anti-trafficking measures were exemplary, they would not suffice to end abuses against child domestic workers. Many child domestic workers are isolated in their employers’ homes and are unable to access any information or assistance from outside. They are stuck for years in abusive and traumatic situations. There is no child protection agency in Guinea to systematically monitor the well-being of children and, if necessary, facilitate their removal from abusive homes; while the Ministry of Social Affairs has responsibility for this issue, it is not operational. There is also no developed foster care system that can provide children with a monitored, protective alternative family environment. While there is a labor inspection service, it is understaffed and does not deal with the situation of child domestic workers.

Local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community associations do their best to fill this protection gap. With some support from international donors, they attempt to gather information about the treatment of child domestic workers, speak to their guardians about their treatment, and in the worst cases to remove them. They run shelters and small networks of foster families. These associations are a great comfort to child domestic workers and have changed the lives of many. Malian child domestic workers in particular have benefited from support within their community. Still, NGOs and community associations lack personnel, training, geographical reach and financial resources to address the magnitude of the problem, and lack the legal authority to represent the girls in their care before the courts.

In March 2007, a new national government was formed following popular protests against worsening living conditions, corruption and poor governance. According to the new prime minister, Lansana Kouyaté, two priorities of the new government are strengthening the judiciary and improving the living conditions of the ordinary population, in particular the youth. The plight of girl domestic workers, in need of education, better working conditions, and protection against abuse and exploitation, fits squarely within this agenda. The Guinean government should, as a priority, establish a child protection system that allows for systematic monitoring of the wellbeing of children without parental care, in particular girl domestic workers and children living in the homes of persons other than their parents. It should also take measures to professionalize judicial staff, improve access to the justice system for ordinary people, and ensure that crimes against children–such as trafficking, exploitation, sexual and physical violence–be prosecuted. Furthermore, the new Guinean government should specifically target girl domestic workers when devising programs for access to education and apprenticeships.

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