Traf­ficked, beaten, abused: Life of a Nige­rian house girl

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Handed over by her mother to an agent at the age of 10, Titi was crammed into a truck in the tiny West African na­tion of Benin and driven across the bor­der into south­west Nige­ria. Titi feared the worst. She re­called how a pre­vi­ous em­ployer in Nige­ria had wel­comed her with a thin mat and a leather whip. “Some­times, she beat us,” said Titi, recounting the busi­ness­woman who had flogged the girls for the small­est mishaps, such as break­ing a plate. Bed had been the floor.

“Some­times, she didn’t give us break­fast till af­ter 1 pm,” Titi, now 14, told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion from La­gos, where she works for a “nicer” fam­ily - clean­ing, cook­ing and car­ing for chil­dren for 18 hours a day. Titi is one of count­less young girls work­ing as do­mes­tic ser­vants in ci­ties across the na­tion, far from their own homes in ru­ral Nige­ria or neigh­bor­ing coun­tries such as Benin. Many girls are sent away by their par­ents who can­not af­ford to feed or school them, while oth­ers pro­vide for their fam­i­lies - some­times act­ing as the main bread­win­ner.

Some girls, like Titi, are abused, cut off from their rel­a­tives, de­nied an ed­u­ca­tion and left with nowhere to turn. With Nige­ria fac­ing its first re­ces­sion in 25 years, ram­pant un­em­ploy­ment and boom­ing pop­u­la­tion growth, ac­tivists fear more and more girls may be forced into house­work as fam­i­lies plunge deeper into poverty and so-called agents seek out prof­its. Halt­ing this phe­nom­e­non presents a huge chal­lenge. Lit­tle data ex­ists on the num­ber of girls work­ing as maids, con­fu­sion sur­rounds the laws about their min­i­mum age and the prac­tice is deeply in­grained in Nige­rian cul­ture.

“These are un­der-the-radar crimes so there is no data on how many house help are traf­ficked through Nige­ria’s bor­ders,” said Arinze Orak­wue of Nige­ria’s anti-traf­fick­ing agency NAPTIP. “These are usu­ally done un­der the aus­pices of the fam­ily so it’s dif­fi­cult to pros­e­cute,” Orak­wue added.

Tak­ing a Cut

House girls in Nige­ria are usu­ally em­ployed by up­perand mid­dle-class fam­i­lies with dis­pos­able in­come to spare, es­pe­cially by work­ing women who rely on these chil­dren to ease their do­mes­tic load while they fo­cus on paid jobs. “I de­cided to hire house help be­cause of too many do­mes­tic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” said Eucharia Anuligo, a banker and mother of two in Abuja, who em­ploys three girls, the youngest aged 14. “I be­lieve the girls are bet­ter off with me than with their fam­i­lies,” added Anuligo, who sends her em­ploy­ees to school.

Many women who are in the mar­ket for house help turn to the agents, who source young girls from within Nige­ria, as well as nearby coun­tries, be­fore trans­port­ing them to their new em­ploy­ers, tak­ing a cut of the salary as com­mis­sion. Many agents de­mand that the young do­mes­tic work­ers pro­vide a guar­an­tor who knows their fam­ily, so that they can be held ac­count­able if the chil­dren steal or com­mit other crimes.

One agent, a 50-year-old known as ‘Un­cle’, said those in his ranks, as well as the fam­i­lies of the girls, like to move maids reg­u­larly from one house­hold to another be­cause of the fresh com­mis­sion it gen­er­ates, and the higher wages they can de­mand. De­spite the long days of do­mes­tic slog, Titi wants to stay with her cur­rent fam­ily. While they do not send her to school or teach her English like her pre­vi­ous em­ploy­ers, they are kind and pro­vide her with a salary of 10,000 naira ($33) per month. Yet, de­spite her protests, Titi’s mother says she must move to a new fam­ily when her two-year con­tract ex­pires in De­cem­ber. “Some agents just col­lect the com­mis­sion from the girl’s salary,” added the La­gos-based ‘Un­cle’. “When she has worked just three months in a place, they want to move her again. “They don’t care whether the girl is happy there or not.”

Crack­down

While po­lice, NAPTIP of­fi­cials and hu­man rights ac­tivists are work­ing to curb the traf­fick­ing and abuse of house girls, Nige­ria’s laws re­gard­ing the min­i­mum age of em­ploy­ment are in­con­sis­tent, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 US La­bor Depart­ment re­port. The Child Rights Act pro­hibits those un­der 18 from work­ing yet the La­bor Act sets the min­i­mum age of em­ploy­ment at 12, said the re­port, which de­tailed the world’s worst child la­bor. How­ever, Nige­ria in 2015 amended its traf­fick­ing law to in­crease penal­ties for of­fend­ers and crim­i­nal­ize the em­ploy­ment of chil­dren un­der 12 in do­mes­tic la­bor, a move ac­tivists hope will give au­thor­i­ties greater power to crack down. The Na­tional Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion, a govern­ment rights watch­dog, said it fre­quently re­ceived re­ports of house girls be­ing abused, and worked with the po­lice and NAPTIP to se­cure pros­e­cu­tions as well as pro­vide shel­ter and aid for the vic­tims.

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