By Maimuna Abubakar
The house girl business is ancient in Nigeria and the most common one in my area. I am from the north-central part of Nigeria, also known as ‘The Middle-Belt’.
It is common among women here in my local government area to keep girls at home as house helps, girls who, in most cases, are between the age of 13-18 while some may even be younger.
The idea of keeping young children as house helps has always eaten me up, and I have probed a lot of people regarding the rationale behind it. And because I am familiar with a number of these girls and even one of the parents, I decided to ask directly from the horse’s mouth.
For the sake of privacy, I will name the girls after colours. The first house girls I know are Violet, Lavender and Purple. They were about the same age, 12 or 13, I guess. They were brought to the city by a man from their village, who works in the city and became the supplier of these girls. These three girls stayed with people I know, and their job description involved doing all house chores and hawking.
In addition, the girls took care of the domestic needs of their madam’s children, such as the washing of clothes, sweeping and tidying of their rooms, making their meals etc., including children that are older than the girls. Their case, except for Lavender, is a bit favourable compared to others because these madams treated them almost the same as their children. They bought whatever they got for their children and enrolled them in Islamic schools (Islamiyya).
When I asked Violet who I was closest to why they don’t attend a school like the children of their employers did, she told me their parents are against it and asked that they should be enrolled in skill acquisition instead. Unfortunately, the reason these parents are against their children going to school was not disclosed to the wards concerned, as Violet told me.
However, she was very curious to learn. She would always ask me to teach her how to spell things or say when speaking to someone who doesn’t understand Hausa. As Violet got older while staying with her madam, she began to lose interest in her job. Every time she came back from their two-week annual break – they got to see their parents for only two weeks in a year – Violent kept telling me that she wished she never returned, that her father is an older man who she believes needed her assistance. Still, her stepmother insisted that she be married off with nothing from her family if she didn’t return to her job. So she was sent out to the city to fetch money to get her married to a man chosen by her family. Violet later told me that she kept coming back even though she hated it because it was the only choice she got if she didn’t want to get married at such an early age.
The story is the same for Purple. Although, unlike Violet, who was very enthusiastic and ready to learn, Purple always stayed home and watched movies while her madam was at work and the children had gone to Islamiyya.
On the other hand, Lavender was not as lucky as Violet and Purple. Her mistress owns a local restaurant. She woke up as early as 5 am and slept as late as 12 am, and the cycle continued. She often faced sexual harassment from her madam’s customers, but she could not report them because the first and the last time she did, she was beaten black and blue after being accused of lying. So she had to learn to protect herself by cursing them and drawing others’ attention when anyone tries something inappropriate.
Lavender didn’t attend any school, nor did she acquire any vocational skills. She later ran back to her village and never returned. But I heard from Violet that she was taken to another state different from ours. These three girls were later called back home by their parents and were married off.
Blue is another girl I know who was brought to the city by a woman from her village. She worked with this lady who didn’t allow her to eat with the rest of the family, wash her clothes along with the lady’s children’s or even sleep on the same bed even though they were almost Blue’s age or younger. She couldn’t eat if the children didn’t eat because she was supposed to eat only the remnants of the family’s meal. She got beaten for slight mistakes like accidentally destroying anything from the lady’s home, even if it was as small as a plate. The lady always threatened to deduct it from her annual payment.
I asked Blue why she stayed despite this visible maltreatment, and she said it was because she had to earn to support her family. She never returned after she left this lady’s house, but I am almost certain that she was taken to another home.
On the other hand, Ash is a bit older than the rest of them, and she is the one whose mum I know. Financial hardship made Ash’s mother send her to her neighbour’s house as a house help in exchange for Ash’s school fees. When this neighbour decided to relocate to a new environment, Ash’s mother pleaded with her to take her daughter along to get an education. But this neighbour is a difficult one.
If Ash doesn’t finish her chores on time, she won’t be allowed to go to school. If the neighbour’s children don’t go to school, Ash won’t go too. If they are sick, Ash cannot go to school. Ash will also have to miss school if their school is on break. And because Ash does everything in the house, including cooking for about eight to ten kinds of dishes a day since the neighbour loves varieties and always have guest around, Ash is consistently unable to do her homework and often fails her tests and examinations. Not considering all the extreme labour Ash is carrying out, this neighbour told Ash’s parents that she is a dumb girl and only wastes her money on Ash’s education. She refused to allow her to attend extra lessons organized for students like Ash, who are left behind academically, especially since they are about to write their SSCE. Ash was only enrolled in Islamiyya when the neighbour’s kids were old enough to attend.
Ash felt she couldn’t take it anymore, so she sought respite in marriage. She decided she wanted to get married as soon as she completed her WAEC and NECO, so she brought home a man she chose for herself. He is a young man who owns a kiosk close to Ash school. He asked Ash out when she was in SS2. But Mrs Neighbor said that Ash could not marry an illiterate. That Ash should either bring an M.Sc. or at least a degree holder or no one. She told Ash’s parents that it is in the girl’s best interest that she is trying to make sure Ash has both social and financial security.
Although Ash is not very far from her parents’ house, she seldom visits them because, according to this neighbour, no one will do the house chores while she is gone. Therefore, if Ash’s parents wanted to see her, they would go to the neighbour’s house. Ash’s mother, on several occasions, goes to this neighbour’s house while the neighbour is at work to relieve her daughter of the overbearing labour.
These are a few out of a hundred horrible stories of such girls. I’m not saying there are no house helps who have attained success or are in the process of achieving their life goals with their initial job as a stepping stone. There are!
I know someone who owns a fashion designing shop. I also know someone who has graduated from a higher institution and is already starting a career. Some are still pursuing their education at different levels. But, there are only a handful of such girls, they are rare, and their rarity proves the point that house help business as conducted in my locality especially is just typical child labour and abuse.
How do we curb this dangerous abuse that has been going on in almost all parts of the country?
Since the growing number of working-class women in our society means that mothers can no longer take care of their children 24/7, entrepreneurs can use this opportunity to create niche markets. They can then form a house help agency in or around areas where mothers with such needs are residing.
Again, we have thousands of graduates from the department of ECCE (Early Child Care Education) both from our various colleges of education and our universities. These entrepreneurs can implore their services. These agencies can then employ older women willing to take care of children. Young individuals, both men and women, can also be engaged as either part-time or full-time employees depending on such a person’s financial needs.
The agency can also run a temporary employment program for college students who are on holiday to earn money before resumption. These agencies can have two or more departments; those involved in housekeeping, those responsible for babysitting etc. That way, hopefully, these teenage girls whose parents have been taking advantage of them can also have a life of their own.
Maimuna Abubakar is a Sociology Student at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. She sent this article via firstname.lastname@example.org.