Mahima came down from the highlands in Nepal at the age of 12 to work in Kathmandu as a domestic worker. She worked for six years in a house where she suffered sexual abuse.
“At first he said I was like his granddaughter. Later that old man started to behave badly towards me. His wife had already died... initially I was confused about what he was doing, later on I realised he was doing all bad things and when I asked him to stop he said ‘who are you to stop me in my home?’.”
− Mahima, child domestic worker
“I was scared of telling this to anyone,” she said, “as it might be my own fault and also my schooling may stop because I may have to leave the house.”
As well as domestic work, children are employed in many different industries all around the world. Indeed, there are an estimated 250 million child workers globally1 – they work in sweatshops, mines, rubbish dumps, in private households and on the streets. Child labour is especially common in developing countries, where it is seen as a cheap option for burgeoning economies and households. Often, children from poor rural families want to work – they see moving to the city as an opportunity to attend school and contribute to household earnings. Indeed, the option of going to school is used as a bartering tool to lure children from their country villages, where there are fewer opportunities. However in reality, the promise is often broken. “I was promised I would be sent to school when I was brought here,” said an 11-year-old girl working as a domestic worker in Kathmandu. “Later when I asked them [employers] about when I would be admitted to school they kept on saying tomorrow, tomorrow. But later I was told I would never be sent to school and I was beaten for asking.”
Frequently, once children arrive at their destinations, their dreams and expectations of a better life turn to dust. Studies reveal many stories of long hours of backbreaking, dull or repetitive work for low or no pay. There are no laws in place to protect them in the countries where they work and child workers are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment – they can even be treated as bonded labourers or slaves. The work that they are offered is badly paid and in many situations the possibility to progress in terms of their education is denied to them, unavailable, or the schooling is of poor quality.
In addition, child workers are highly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. As street vendors or peddlers, they work late into the evenings trying to sell their wares, including in late-night bars and restaurants. They commonly experience sexual harassment and girls in particular are at a high risk of sexual violence and abuse. “I used to sell boiled maize on the street when I was about 12 years old,” explained 23-year-old Selamawit from Ethiopia. “Of course, street business involved risks. I met bigger boys who harassed me sexually.”
When it comes to domestic workers, there are few ways of seeing what goes on behind the closed doors of private households, and perpetrators take advantage of this fact. Sadly, stories such as Mahima’s above are all too common, showing clearly how vulnerable these children are to sexual exploitation. A 2005 survey from Children and Women in Social Services and Human Rights (CWISH) revealed that, in Nepal, a shocking 56 per cent of domestic workers have suffered sexual abuse, with 28 per cent experiencing sexual assault.2 According to Annabel Erulkar of the Population Council in Ethiopia, 72 per cent of child domestic workers in a Tanzanian study reported physical abuse and 13 per cent reported sexual exploitation. Furthermore, in a study of girls in three Ethiopian cities, domestic workers were twice as likely to have experienced unwanted sex compared to non-domestic workers.3
This is in part due to passivity and social tolerance towards the matter. Kate McAlpine of the Caucus for Children’s Rights in Arusha, Tanzania explained, “In general, it’s not considered bizarre that the head of the household would have sexual relations with the maid. Children who are involved in domestic work are particularly vulnerable to suffering in silence.”
In addition, domestic work is a recognised pathway to sexual exploitation. “A Tanzanian study has found that 25 per cent of adult sex-workers were formerly domestic workers,” said Annabel Erulkar. In addition, she explained how, of 2,000 adult commercial sex-workers in Ethiopia, some 44 per cent had previously been domestic workers.4
“25 per cent of adult sex-workers were formerly domestic workers. Domestic work is so exploitative that, sometimes, sex-work is considered a better option.” − Annabel Erulkar, Population Council
The link between sexual abuse and sexual exploitation has long been clear. These children need to be protected.
While Oak aims for the complete eradication of child sex abuse and exploitation, until this becomes a reality, it is supporting initiatives that strengthen children to develop resilience in the face of adversity.
The Oak-initiated Bamboo research project was carried out in Nepal, Bulgaria and Ethiopia to learn from children what nurtures resilience. It found that children are not passive and submissive in the face of adversity. Often they are resilient; they know where and how to find support, usually from the people around them, and they actively seek it out. For example, Werkalem, a young woman in Ethiopia, explained how she decided to move out and live with a friend when her step-brother tried repeatedly to abuse her.
“He used to come to the place where I slept and take off the blanket. After this happened three or four times, I left the house, as I thought that he might destroy my life. [Now] I am not exposed to sexual attack.”
- Werkalem, Ethiopia
Children talked of avoiding the abuser or seeking out safe places such as a terrace (where people can see them), and they also spoke about trying to get help by either telling another child or an adult. For example, Samjhana, aged 16, based in Kathmandu, said, “That old man [employer], he came to my room at night and pulled off my blankets and asked me to go to his room... so I screamed and he locked me in the room for two days... after I went down to the neighbour and told him everything and he said if he does it again, tell it to us and we’ll call the police.”
It is clear from these examples that children try to get themselves out of abusive situations as best as they can. Nonetheless, it is imperative that children’s capacities are supported. Strong laws that protect the rights and dignity of child domestic workers need to be enacted in all countries, along with increased access to education, another basic right. Both informal and formal child protection mechanisms need support.
Community-level endeavours will help raise awareness among domestic workers, linking them up and strengthening them as a group. For example, after-school programmes will provide a safe place for children to make friends, reducing their isolation and strengthening their resilience in the face of abuse and exploitation.
Oak Foundation supports organisations that prevent the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. This includes child domestic workers, migrating children and children leaving institutions.
Here are two examples of the work carried out by Oak’s partners:
The Population Council works to empower girls to protect themselves and to have a say in their own lives. Currently it is carrying out research in low-income areas in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to identify the drivers of sexual exploitation and the factors that open the door into this type of exploitation. This information will be used to engage with governments to increase the protection of child domestic workers, block the path to the sexual exploitation of child domestic workers and to provide real economic alternatives.
Based in Kathmandu, Nepal, Children and Women in Social Services and Human Rights (CWISH) works for the benefit of sexually abused and exploited children as well as those being exploited for labour as child domestic workers. Oak grantee Children Unite has partnered with CWISH on the Bamboo Project (previously mentioned) to explore resilience among child domestic workers.
The Bamboo Project research has led to a review of the participant programmes. For example, CWISH now organises “child clubs” around the city, which are after-school programmes geared towards allowing children to play, make friends and build bonds with each other. This cuts the isolation factor, strengthens children in the face of adversity and makes them less vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
1 “A Future Without Child Labour” – International Labour Organization, 2002_everchcounts_newglobalest_en-1.pdf (accessed 15 January 2015)
2 Gautam, B., & Dharel, M. R. (2005). Closed Door Suffering. Kathmandu: CWISH, http://www.oakfnd.org/sites/default/files/The%20Bamboo%20Project%20-%20N... (accessed 15 January 2015)
3 Erulkar A, Ferede A, 2009. “Social exclusion and early, unwanted sexual initiation in poor urban settings in Ethiopia,” International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 35 (4): 186-193
4 Girma W, Erulkar A, 2009. “Commercial sex workers in five Ethiopian cities: A baseline survey for targeted HIV prevention for most-at-risk populations,” Addis Ababa: Population Council report, September
There are an estimated
child-workers around the world. This equals the population of France, Germany, the UK and Spain.