They get up at dawn, have to do strenuous jobs and are exposed to physical or sexual violence. These little girls, sometimes as young as 6, are domestic workers. In Mauritania, the phenomenon is widespread in the most underprivileged sectors of society. Terre des hommes (Tdh), in its programme against exploitation, fights to protect these children from the worst forms of abuse and to ensure that their fundamental rights are respected.
Lying between the Sahara desert and sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritania is classed as one of the poorest countries in the world. In this large but little-populated country, many young girls from the least-advantaged backgrounds are sent out to other families to work as domestics and provide for the needs of their own family. Deprived of their parents' support, isolated and far from home, they are especially vulnerable to be mistreated, as they frequently are: exhausting work, lack of healthcare, physical or sexual abuse.
According to a study made jointly by Tdh and its local partner 'Association des Femmes Cheffes de Famille (AFCF)' (Association of Female-headed Households), it appears that nearly 60% of these girls are under 12. Their young age and low level of education make them the ideal victims of exploitation. They are reluctant to protest, usually not even knowing their rights and having no idea of who to turn to for help.
Terre des hommes, in partnership with the AFCF, fights to protect these young girls from the worst forms of abuse and to support their reintegration. The project, set up in the 9 departments of the town of Nouakchott, identifies the victims, looks after them, protects them and restores to them their fundamental rights such as education and healthcare. The victims identified have a chance to be heard, to access healthcare, to get psychological and legal support and, if necessary, to be lodged in a transit centre. Places for literacy and sewing classes are made available, if attending school is impossible.
Our Foundation also runs a campaign to make people aware of child rights, and informs families about the risks incurred by the girls doing domestic work, as well as fighting the ongoing phenomenon. In line with this, Tdh supports the development of income-generating activities for the families, so they can keep their children with them instead of sending them out to work. And finally, our Foundation does advocacy work with the authorities so that the existing legislative tools for child protection are properly applied.
With this programme, Tdh has been able to help nearly 2,500 young domestic workers. Over 15,000 parents have been made aware of the problems of the exploitation of these little girls.
Despite the measures taken by the authorities to fight this issue, much still remains to be done, and Terre des hommes is committed to support all the actors engaged in the struggle.
Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.