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Monday, November 10, 2014

STOP Violence Against Domestic Workers



STOP Violence Against Domestic Workers

Leila Sheikh


In Tanzania's urban areas, an estimated 87-89 per cent of domestic workers are female, ranging in age from 12 to 45.  Most female domestic workers are from poor, impoverished backgrounds, mainly from rural communities. They have been put in the position of seeking employment as domestic workers because of poverty within their immediate families and the cultural environment of putting the girl child in a subordinate position compared to male children who are given more opportunities for education.

Some of them run away from abusive households where they are battered or sexually molested by male relatives who are in a more powerful position than theirs, while others are 'sold' by their families to human traffickers who pay a certain amount of money known as kichwa/head to the girl's family and the girl is taken away from her natal home to be 'rented out' to an employer in urban areas where she has to work like an indentured laborer with the agent who 'bought' her from her family taking away at least a quarter of her wages.



It is said the agents' racket is widely spread in all parts of Tanzania and quite organized and when a girl attempts to run away or does manage to run away, the employer makes a phone call to the agent who spreads a net to catch her. Those who manage to evade 'the net' end up working as sex workers which also places them at the mercy of pimps and madams who put them in a stable like work horses to either walk the streets or to work in brothels where they are caged and watched so that they do not run away.

The agent who brought the girl to the employer would then have to go to rural areas to get another girl to work as a domestic worker. The vicious circle keeps churning without mercy for girls from poor, rural based families.

The female domestic worker is the least respected female worker in Tanzania. They have no status to speak of. They have no bargaining power to be able to demand better conditions and better wages. They are the first to wake up and the last to go to sleep.

They rarely have formal contracts, which should protect them against slavery, give them Terms of Reference (TOR), and specify their wages and annual leave. 

Often, the employers discourage them from forming friendships with neighbors. Loneliness is one of the abuses they undergo. In a survey made by this writer in Dar es Salaam in a sample of 65 female domestic workers, the majority - 92 per cent gave testimony to loneliness.

Another is on being overworked, while all respondents in the survey said they are not given respect, nor is their dignity as humans acknowledged. They are seen as beasts of labor. They are not allowed to have self-esteem by employers who believe that if domestic workers were given the awareness to have dignity and self-esteem, they would inevitably refuse to do domestic work.


The respondents spoke of emotional abuse from members of the family they work for. Some said they get sexually harassed while at least 57 per cent testified that they have been beaten, pushed, shoved, locked in dark store rooms, denied food, denied medical treatment when they fall ill, denied rest and are treated like sub humans.


There are those in the Insider/Outsider status who are poor relatives of the employing family. These are amongst the most downtrodden of domestic workers. They are introduced to outsiders as family members but within the household, they take on the role of unpaid domestic workers. They cannot even save money and go away because they are not paid any wage. What they get is payment in kind in the form of shelter, food and hand-me-down clothes.

Sadly, some of the employers who are the perpetrators of such abuse are women! Women who ought to know the pain the domestic workers undergo. When the male head of the household tries to seduce the domestic worker, some women employers have been known to use verbal or physical abuse against the domestic worker who is often a minor, below the age of 15 and who needs protection against sexual assault.

Domestic workers are the most disempowered group of girls/women in the labor force. We do not have specific legislation for domestic workers. The trade unions for domestic workers are under capacitated, under budgeted and unstructured.

This is in contrast to countries like India, South Africa, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Venezuela where domestic workers have organized into cohesive movements and formed trade unions. This has given them the Voice and the Muscle to demand better working conditions, better wages, protection against sexual harassment or rape, and protection against emotional and physical violence.

In the UP state of India, domestic workers have gone on strike against employers to demand protection against verbal and physical violence. In the Gulf countries, domestic workers who are often from the far east have demanded protection against sexual assault from male members of the employing family.



But in Tanzania, we talk, nay, we shout about women's rights and yet when we get home, we treat our domestic workers as a subhuman species. What needs to be done is to start national conversations on the rights of domestic workers so that domestic work is given legal and societal recognition as a Bona fide profession.
We should stop employing child domestic workers.

We should introduce structures to protect domestic workers against sexual, verbal and physical violence.


We should lobby for specific legislation for domestic workers which would make it mandatory to have contracts, TORs, pension scheme, health insurance and maternity leave.


We should respect the Human Rights of people who are marginalized because of poverty.


We should track the agents, the human traffickers who bring girls who are still children from rural communities to work as child domestic workers.


Human Trafficking is a criminal offence and both the trafficker and the buyer are criminally liable.

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