Child Domestic Workers: Finding a Voice

Child Domestic Workers: Finding a Voice

Child Domestic Workers: Finding a Voice


Children working as domestics in the households of people other than their parents or close family members constitute a high proportion of child workers world-wide. Among girls, domestic work is by far the most common form of employment, whether paid or unpaid. But where it is common, because of the ambiguities which surround the children’s working situation – which is often confused with traditional types of fosterhood or ‘alternative upbringing’ – the practice of taking children into a household for the purpose of using their labour may typically be regarded as socially acceptable, even benign.

Anti-Slavery International (Anti-Slavery) has been active during the past decade in bringing to light information about the circumstances surrounding child domestic work in different parts of the world, including the deprivations of childhood rights and opportunities intrinsic in the practice. Anti-Slavery’s initial interest stemmed not only from its concern about exploitative child labour in general, but from the terms and conditions under which many children perform domestic labour in the households of others – terms and conditions which are often tantamount to servitude.

Not only the contractual basis of child domestic labour but many of its practical characteristics have features akin to slavery. A child employed in a private household may be unpaid; be expected to work around the clock without set hours or time off; be virtually imprisoned; and treated as the chattel of the employer.

Apart from a few isolated cases, up to the early 1990s child domestic work had received relatively little notice as a sub-set of child labour. In order to redeem this situation, Anti-Slavery first turned its attention to the gathering of information about child domestic work, child domestic employment and child domestic servitude with a view to raising consciousness on the issues involved. A small number of pioneering nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), conscious of the exploitation and abuse increasingly associated with the practice, had already begun to conduct small-scale studies in their own localities. Anti-Slavery sought to support these efforts, bring them into contact with one another, and to develop national and international platforms on which their findings could be projected.

Building on these efforts, and with full collaboration of those involved, Anti-Slavery developed a research methodology as the first pre-requisite of effective advocacy on child domestic workers’ behalf. It was recognised that, within societies where child domestic employment was culturally sanctioned, any voice raised on the children’s behalf must come in the first instance from within the society, not from outside. It was also recognised that information about the negative aspects of the practice must be derived from the local reality, not be deduced against international standards perceived as derived from distant cultural norms, or it would not be persuasive among individuals and policy-makers in the societies concerned.

The research methodology proposed by Anti-Slavery with input from its NGO partners was published in 1997 with technical and financial assistance from the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) under the title: Child Domestic Workers: A Handbook for Research and Action. Since then, a larger number of organisations have become concerned with the issue, and UNICEF, ILO/IPEC and Save the Children agencies have become increasingly involved. There is now a much wider range of published material on the situation of child domestic workers, and actions of all kinds – including advocacy actions – have been taken on their behalf in several countries and regions. In 2000, Anti-Slavery therefore concluded that the time had come to move on from the stage of proposing and supporting research, to the stage of promoting effective i advocacy against the exploitation of children working as domestics, based on information newly generated.

This conclusion has been reinforced by the realisation that in certain parts of the world, notably West Africa and South East Asia, there is an increasing degree of commercialisation associated with the practice. Cross-border trafficking of children into domestic work in West Africa came to prominent public attention in early 2001 when a ‘slave-ship’ carrying mostly girls destined for household employment in Gabon was impounded in the Gulf of Guinea. Poverty and marginalisation among populations displaced by conflict, decimated by HIV/AIDS, or suffering the backlash of economic globalisation, is forcing more poverty-stricken young women and children into menial employment far from home. Advocacy on behalf of children traded into domestic servitude, consigned to the exploitative control of adults with little concern for their well-being, has become increasingly urgent.

The approach adopted by Anti-Slavery continues to be based on collaboration with key NGO partners, and aims to help concerned NGOs build their own capacity for advocacy surrounding the issue. Advocacy in this context is understood to mean any activity intended to raise consciousness about child domestic workers among decision-makers or the general public, especially among employers and child domestics themselves, leading to the improvement of their situation. There are natural links between service programmes (education, rescue, counselling, etc.), research activities, and advocacy, but specific types of information, education and communications expertise are required for the latter.

In April 2001, Anti-Slavery convened an international meeting of experts on child domestic work whose purpose was to explore fully their experiences and needs surrounding advocacy activity, and thereby inform the content of this handbook. The 24 practitioners who attended came from countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and from regional networking groups, international organisations and UN agencies. They brought a wide range of experience into the discussions1 . The subsequent development of the handbook is based on the findings of the meeting, and its contents have been developed with their participation.

As in the case of the previous research handbook, the content is designed to be specifically geared to this particular child work phenomenon. It is intended to appeal to a target audience of small and medium-sized local NGOs which do not have existing resources of staff and expertise for expanding their activities into the advocacy domain without appropriate support. The emphasis is on simplicity and practicality. Cases of good practice and examples of successful approaches are included, but respect is also paid to the wide diversity of situations in different environments and the need to develop responses which are locally appropriate given the sensitivities and difficulties which may be encountered. Anti-Slavery’s hope is that the handbook will assist concerned organisations and individuals to work out what they want to do on behalf of child domestic workers, where advocacy will fit in, who it should be addressed to and what messages it should contain. No template or prescription is provided.

Anti-Slavery and its partners in the field also hope that the publication of the handbook will inspire other NGOs concerned about child labour to take up this neglected area, and that workers’ and employers’ organisations and relevant government departments will also become sensitised to these children’s plight. In the end, it is the attitudes and behaviours of human beings in a position to employ, and potentially to exploit, children which will be decisive in influencing their current and future situation.