23 April 2014

Zimbabwe: A 16-Year-Old Domestic Worker in Harare

It's not uncommon for poverty-stricken youth in rural Zimbabwe to find work as housemaids and gardeners in the city. While urban households thrive on the affordable services, these young domestic workers have no control over their lives - or their futures. Sekai Sibhijo is one of them.

Sixteen-year-old Sekai Sibhijo (not her real name) says the treatment she receives from her employer brings her to tears daily. She comes from Mutoko rural district in Mashonaland East province, 143 kilometres east of Harare, where her aunt brought her to begin working two years ago.

"I work from 4 a.m. daily to way past 12 midnight, under an always fault-finding employer shouting at me," she says.

She earns 40 US dollars a month. Besides all the housekeeping, Sibhijo must maintain the garden and cook.

"I also have to prepare food for this family of 13 every day, beginning in the morning, do the dishes, clean the house - each now and then under the watchful eye of my employer and she makes sure she always has something for me to do," she says.

Making matters worse is the fact that the teenager feels she has no support network.

"I have nowhere to run and no one to confide in. My aunt tells me to endure, perhaps because she fears I will become [more] baggage for her on top of the children she already has," says Sibhijo.

"A slave of my employer"

Sibhijo's first experience as a domestic worker began at age 14. She says she was forced into the situation by relatives who were unwilling to support her.

"At 12 years, when I lost my parents, I also stopped going to school and that means I ended in Grade Five, which was my highest academic qualification; two years later I worked as a housemaid for a local teacher in my home area," she explains.

That job was, as Sibhijo puts it, "hellish".

"He would come home every day and rape me, threatening me with death if I would tell anybody about my ordeal, at times promising to marry me if I would reach the legal age to qualify for marriage," she says of the teacher who employed her.

According to Zimbabwe's labour laws, a work day cannot exceed eight hours. Zimbabwe is also a signatory of the 2011 Geneva Convention for Domestic Workers, aimed at improving conditions for the millions of domestic workers around the world.

But these policies have little influence on Sibhijo's labour conditions, even today.

"I would love to work normal hours just like any other ordinary worker; I need the right to be heard when I have concerns surrounding my work," she says. "All I can say is that I'm a slave of my employer, one who has to carry out her orders without questioning."

A test of endurance

It's clear that Sibhijo would prefer to make a living in another way.

"Faced with the present atrocities in my work as a housemaid, I would rather opt to work as a street vendor and at least afford time to sleep away all my sorrows, but I'm without means to begin," she says.

In the meantime, "being treated with dignity as a housemaid would make my job much easier", she says, while also acknowledging that things could be worse.

"Though with its own challenges, I know my job is at least better than being often exposed to rape by vagrants out there on the streets; I will have to endure a bit longer lest things improve; this has become my life," Sibhijo says.

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