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Girl domestic workers in Kenya

By Mary Mzungu, Links Oxfam's newsletter on Gender, March 1999

In Kenya, large numbers of girls are denied an education because they are either kept at home or sent to other households to be domestic workers. The widely held view is that this work is useful training for girls, whether paid or unpaid. It is an acceptable practice for parents to give their daughter to a relative to help with housework and babysitting.

However, as the experience of the Sinaga Women and Child Labour Resource Centre in Nairobi shows, the employment of girls is in fact part of a wider social structure, which has institutionalised violence against women, and in which the poorest survive through exploiting the labour of their own children.

The Sinaga Centre was established in 1995 as part of an International Labour Organisation programme to combat child domestic work. They carried out research which showed that girl domestic workers tend to come from large, poor, families in rural areas and urban slums. Most are paid very little, or are paid only in kind with old clothes and shoes, and food. It is common for domestic workers to be sexually molested by male members of the household, or used by boys for sexual experimentation. Many work long hours, and are beaten, verbally abused, and treated with suspicion. Help from outside is rare, as neighbours do not interfere in what they see as a family affair. If male members of their family are accused, the women in the household usually side with them, and the girl workers are often subjected to more abuse, and thrown out on the street. Their youth, lack of education, and isolation, make their exploitation hard to address.

Public acceptance of child labour, and the prevailing image of activists as frustrated women who have personal vendettas against men, make action difficult. In spite of this, the Sinaga Centre has made a significant impact in addressing the plight of domestic workers. Its success lies in the way in which it combines practical help, with awareness raising which challenges exploitative views. The Centre’s core activity is rehabilitation, through teaching basic literacy and training in practical, saleable skills, including tailoring, cookery and typing. Counselling of the children, their employers, and their parents, also plays a vital role in rehabilitation. Sinaga works closely with partner organisations to ensure that all the needs of the girls are met, including the provision of legal aid to girls who have been abused.

Employers and families get to know about the Centre and what it offers through public awareness campaigns, which Sinaga run using radio documentaries, newsletters and leaflets, and workshop sessions at community gatherings. Employers now send young employees to be trained at the Centre. The Kenya Union of Domestic Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) has taken up the crusade to eradicate domestic child labour since being made aware of the issues by Sinaga. The Kenyan press have also picked up the call to improve the circumstances of child domestic workers. In addition, Sinaga advocates for the rights of children, and has successfully brought their plight to the attention of the government. Their policy position is that, given the scale of the problem, prevention is better than cure.

Mary Mzungu, Sinaga Women and Child Labour Resource Centre, Kenya, PO Box 71991, Nairobi, Kenya