A closer look at domestic child labour in Africa

Reading time 5 min.

When my master brought me from the village, he said that I will show that I deserved to go to school by proving my hard work at home. I was bent on going to school so I put my heart into everything I was commanded to do. I Swept, cleaned, washed, mopped, ironed, and fetched water from a public tap, two streets away, to fill the drums and basins in our house.

In-between these chores I had to go out and hawk sachets water in traffic and in the streets of the ghetto. I slept last and woke up first. I didn’t eat with my master, his wife and his children at table, I ate a small portion of foodon the floor at the back yard, after they had all eaten. Sometimes I could not work because I was always hungry, but I had to work otherwise knocks and the Koboko cane will descend on me.’ An 8 year old Togolese househelp narrated.

In most African families, wealth entails owning a houseboy or a house girl as they are called. This cultural practice that allows people to take deprived children from the remote villages, offer them shelter, food and sometimes primary education in return for their labor which is often child labor or even slave labor, is an issue that needs to be addressed with regards to human rights, child rights and international labor rights.

If a child is taken to the city to be used as a house servant, the poor village parents believe that with the education the child would receive he or she would have more opportunities in life and would be better off than their counterparts in the village, so they give up the child to whoever is offering to take them as a house boy or as a house girl and pray to the gods or to God for protection, blessings and prosperity. But sometimes, these prayers are never answered.

In many developed countries, it is considered inappropriate or exploitative if a child below a certain age works, excluding household chores or schoolwork. An employer is often not allowed to hire a child below a certain age. The minimum working age depends on a country’s labour laws; In the United States the minimum age to work in an establishment without prior consent and restrictions from parents is set at age 16.

The difference here is that in most African homes these children are not paid, their workload is rather cumbersome, they are often under 15, they face hazards and difficult situations, some are denied education and some are denied share care.

‘When my master agreed to take me to live with him in the city after my mother had pleaded with him, I thought it was the most generous thing a person could do for a villager. Like every other village child I would probably grow up a farmer or a hunter, get drunk off palm wine every night and father a dozen children with bread-money, but this kind man seemed to have come to my rescue. I was going to be his househelp, in return for an education at least up until secondary school and he promised to send my mother something, at least once in a while, for her upkeep. I knew that with an education and with the prospects that come with living in a city, my life would have a different curve. My poor mother prayed for him and blessed him beyond any curse.’

An estimated 158 million children aged 5-14 are engaged in child labor, and more than half of that number are in Africa. Millions of children are engaged in hazardous situations or conditions, such as working in mines, working with chemicals and pesticides in agriculture or working with dangerous machinery. They are everywhere but invisible, toiling as domestic servants in homes, laboring behind the walls of workshops, hidden from view in plantations.

‘After 3 years, my master registered me in a community school down the street. It was more like a place where street children passed time, the teachers hardly came to class. My chores and task were still a problem but I managed to deliver, so as to avoid any problem with my master or his wife. I liked school, I wanted to learn but I hardy had time to review my school work or do assignments and when I did poorly, my master or his wife would beat me like a thief. Sometimes I thought of running away, but to where? I wanted to go back to my mother, but how do I tell my uncle that, when the last time I asked about my mother, I was given the beating of my life, called an ingrate and denied food for two days. I wasn’t doing well at school, I wasn’t happy at home, I missed my mother, but I couldn’t do anything about it. All my mother knew was that her son was in the city and was in school, and will be a big shot.’

The United Nations and the International Labor Organization consider child labor exploitative, with the UN stipulating, in article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of Children: States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. It is expedient that the domestic child labor situation in most of Africa is addressed as serious as every other child related problem in the world for humanity sake. Many children like this 8 year old Togolese child need protection.

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