MWANZA, Tanzania – At the age of 14, Jennipher Nelson was sent from her home in Karagwe, northwestern Tanzania, to work as a domestic worker in Ngara, an eight-hour drive away. “My employer promised my parents that she would send me to school to attend vocational training,” says Nelson, now 24. “Instead, she forced me to be a house girl.”
Nelson says her employer abused her, physically and verbally. “I was not given time to relax or take care of myself,” she says. “My hair was so unkempt and bushy to the extent that people thought I was mentally ill. Anywhere I went, people pointed their fingers at me.”
Nelson worked in the household for three years without payment and never learned a vocational skill.
Child slavery is rarely discussed in public in Tanzania, but human rights campaigners say it is a major problem for the country. There are laws prohibiting all forms of child labor for anyone under the age of 14 and allowing only light work for children aged between 14 and 18. But because child labor is largely informal and unregulated, critics say the legislation is being poorly implemented.
A government survey released last year in conjunction with the International Labour Organization (ILO) says there are more than 4 million child laborers in Tanzania aged between 5 and 17. Of those doing domestic work, girls make up the vast majority – more than 84 percent.
Nelson managed to escape servitude once she met an activist who helped her understand her rights. Soon after, Nelson was using her own experiences to help others.
As a counselor for the local NGO Wotesawa – which means “all are equal” in Swahili – Nelson works with child domestic workers aged between 14 and 18 to make sure their work is legal and for fair pay. The organization ensures that working children who are under 14 years of age are removed from their employers’ homes and sent back to their parents.
“We are looking after the welfare of child workers, to let them know that if someone is abusing their rights, they have a person or an organization to report to,” says Angel Benedicto, executive director of Wotesawa and also a former child domestic worker. So far, the organization has handled more than 550 cases of children who have been exploited by employers and has returned 315 children to their families.
Benedicto says poverty is one of the big factors that pushes parents to send their children off to become domestic workers. Once with their employers, children can fall victim to a range of abuses. The staff at Wotesawa often hear stories of child domestic workers being raped or subjected to other sexual assaults, being trafficked to another country, and being forced to work without pay.
“You can find a family with 12 children who give up all their children as child domestic workers,” says Benedicto. “Although education is free, the parents still find it difficult to meet other basic needs like buying school uniforms, shoes and books. So, if someone comes to request their child as a domestic worker, the parents will even push for the employer to take as many children as he or she can.”
Renalda Mambo, another social worker at Wotesawa, says one of the challenges the group faces is the psychological damage that abused child workers suffer, making many of them unwilling to share what has been done to them. And in most cases, the employment of these child domestic workers is done informally, with no written contract. So, often, parents who send their children away to work have no idea how their children are being treated.
Wotesawa uses “street leaders” to help counselors find child workers who might need help. Each street leader is responsible for engaging with the child domestic workers of up to 10 households in one community, to make sure the children know their rights and to help them report any abuse to the police.
When the street leaders find a child domestic worker who is being abused or is under the legal working age, Wotesawa works with the government’s social welfare department to remove the child from the employer’s home, and gives them temporary shelter, support and counselling. “We give them hope that they still have the chance to be better off in the future,” Mambo says.
The children are returned to their parents, with the aim of getting them enrolled in school. But not all cases are that simple, Benedicto says. “When we rescue them and give them back to their parents, most parents send their child off to work as a domestic worker in another home in another location.”
In an attempt to break that cycle, Nelson and other Wotesawa counselors encourage child workers to look for other opportunities that would allow them to leave domestic work behind. Nelson has a girl working for her and pays for the girl’s education so that, one day, she can have a career.
Nelson plans to continue her work helping young girls and boys escape the suffering she lived through. She wants to become a spokeswoman for domestic workers, to transform the job into one that is safe and respectable.
“I want to be an activist fighting for the rights of domestic workers,” she says. “I want to rescue them from hardship.”
This story was reported and written with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation.