A Househelp or a Trafficked Child


Traditionally, as in much of Africa, domestic work used to be the duty of a family’s own children. But if a couple was wealthy, poorer relations would sometimes lend a hand. An older cousin from the country would live in and care for the toddlers. This, however, obliged the parents to pay for the schooling of the nanny-relative. Domestic help is more necessary than ever for educated couples, as often both parents work outside the home in professional jobs — just as they do in other parts of the world. But relatives are expensive; so many families prefer to "buy" children in order to work in their homes. They are cheaper to maintain and there are fewer family complications. According to the Child Welfare League of Nigeria, Nigeria may have the largest number of child domestic workers in the world, since nearly every household has a child domestic servant – at least the households of many government/private sector employee. Most of these children end up being physically, emotionally, and if they are girls, sexually abused.


Modern day slavery Investigative journalism is weak in Nigeria and it took the New York Times to document what everyone here knows as a brutal fact of life. A State Department official commented that the word “trafficking” failed to convey the brutality of what was happening. “A child does not consent,” he said. “The loss of choice, the deception, the use of frauds, the keeping of someone at work with little or no pay, the threats if they leave — it is slavery.” Years ago, according to a report in the Times, Nigerian police stumbled upon 64 girls aged 14 and younger packed inside a refrigerated truck built to haul frozen fish. They had travelled hundreds of miles from central Nigeria and were destined for work as housemaids in Lagos. This was scandalous, but not unusual. Dealers buy 5 or 6-year-olds from their parents in poor countries such as Togo and Benin and take them to work at quarry sites where they break stones or they are used as farmhands until they are about 13.
This purges the children’s minds of memories of family and homeland. Without these, they work better as house-help. “The best house-helps are those without father or mother; without a past to which they can return” says one of the slave dealers, since they are entirely dependent on their masters. According to the Times, in 2003 Nigerian police rescued 194 malnourished children from stone quarries north of Lagos. Police claimed that at least 13 other children had been buried in graves near the pits. The dealers sell the slaves to busy working mothers in Lagos who remit about 3,500 Niara monthly to the dealer’s bank account. Although some families may know that the children have been trafficked, they excuse themselves by saying that if they do not hire these children someone else will. As Naija Pundit wrote some years ago in mynigeria.com: “Even some of our most affluent and educated ‘leaders’ see nothing wrong with getting some small boy or small girl from the village and using them for nothing but menial labour, sure it can be argued that living in Lagos, Abuja or Port-Harcourt beats living in some hamlet in the middle of Ogun state, but do economics trump a person’s inherent right to dignity?” Child-slaves from other countries are preferred in Lagos because they are completely docile.
A local house-help might have relations and could be unruly and demand rights such as schooling. Generally dealers insist that the children should not be enrolled at school. Busy professional women usually demand tests for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and pregnancy before purchasing a child to ensure that they have made a good bargain and to protect their own kids from infections. Back at home, the busy mothers often act as if their homes were too good for their help.
Someone narrated the story of a slave child who used to take her bath hurriedly in the public taps hoping that no one was looking. The neighbourhood boys enjoyed peeping at her. “My master would not allow me to take my bath in the bathrooms. I am too dirty to wash myself in the same place where his children bathe,” she sad between sobs. Family convenience trumps everything. Another person remembers a "madam" who fell pregnant and yanked her child-slave out of school just before final-year exams. The slave had to wait nine months before resuming her education. A doctor recounted his encounter with a child-slave in the teaching hospital in the city of Ibadan: “The child-slave was 13 years old and was owned by a busy mom with two daughters. The "slave" was withdrawn, spoke in a low voice, and so afraid. The "madam" brought the child-slave to hospital because she suspected her of transmitting flu to her daughters. The "slave" had been coughing for three weeks but she took no notice until her daughters began to cough.
In my presence, the woman accused this child-slave of deliberately infecting her daughters. The child-slave smiled, in a lovely way. I tried to imagine how much torture she must have undergone to react this way. I also watched as the daughters of the woman used the child-slave for sport. They would hit her hard and in response she would smile.” “Many of them are treated like animals,” a United Nations official told the Times. “They are second-class citizens, little slaves. You feed them a little and they clean your house for nothing.”
Why would a mother treat a child like this? Perhaps the adults vent their frustrations from a day at the office on these children who have no formal training in home management and are often very clumsy. Besides, a child-slave is still a child. Every child can tell when he or she is not accepted and treated like the other children, and thus becomes emotional and gives in into sulking and other anti-social behaviour, which further irritates their employers. The rising numbers of nannies in Nigeria are the result of parent’s misplaced priorities caused by ambition to earn more, to climb up corporate ladder and to give their own children everything, including freedom from household chores. What the Nigerian experience shows is that it is naive to think that modernisation and a rising standard of living will eliminate exploitation and abuse. It can even spread it further and make it worse. That’s why we Christians have to be alert to keep our spiritual values from being eroded by Western secularisation. They are our only firm protection against the defects in our own societies.
The questions that are begging for answers are; what is the legality or otherwise of their means of recruitment? Are the recruiters not engaging in human trafficking? Why has it become difficult for security agents to nip the practise in the bud? Why are people accepting the kids to live and work with them without running a check on their background? How has the development caused problems in the families and households? How has the practise trampled on the child’s rights? Are parents doing enough to tackle the menace?
References: Chinwuba Iyizoba through https://afterjujuman.com; https://guardian.ng; Wikipedia

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