School closures and the economic fallout from the pandemic have left many minors with no choice but to work to survive
KINSHASA - Every Sunday, Rachel is allowed a few hours off work to go to church - her only moment of respite in a week she spends cooking, sweeping and washing clothes and dishes for a family of seven in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital.
But when the 16-year-old's employer failed to pay her salary, she sacrificed one morning's prayers to learn about her rights at a training organised by Together For the Rule of Law, a local charity that supports domestic workers.
"I have learned ... that it is not good for us minors to work," Rachel, who started work as a maid six months ago after her father died, without signing an employment contract, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I realised that I am working without a guarantee. So she can kick me out at any time," said the teenager, whose last name is being withheld to protect her identity, adding that she would seek further help from Together For the Rule of Law.
Rachel was the only child in a room of about 20 domestic workers, keen to find ways to protect themselves from exploitation in a country where three-quarters of its 90 million people live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day.
Kelly Kalonji, coordinator of Together For the Rule of Law, was disappointed - but not surprised - that so few child domestic workers attended the session, as they often lack the contacts and initiative to take such action.
"Poverty makes these children work to find food," Kalonji said, adding that his organisation had received a growing number of reports of children working illegally as maids since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Unfortunately, many abused child domestic workers do not know our offices," said Kalonji, whose charity provides free legal support for maids who are unfairly fired or mistreated, and recently jailed a man who raped his househelp.
School closures and the economic fallout from the pandemic have left many minors across Congo and the world with no choice but to work to survive - from street vending to driving moto-taxis or selling sex, according to campaigners and officials.
The sprawling central African country has confirmed about 31,000 cases of the virus and almost 800 deaths, with the African Development Bank warning that its economy - a key global exporter of cobalt and copper - could be hard hit by COVID-19.
"Parents, most of whom are unemployed, can no longer fulfill their responsibilities," said Kalonji, adding that financial difficulties had also prevented Together For the Rule of Law from organising high-impact events.
Florence Boloko of the Ministry of Gender, Family and Children said that measures to curb the coronavirus - such as a lockdown - have led some children, mostly girls, to take up paid housework to help their families.
Boloko urged underage maids being mistreated to file complaints so that the government can help them.
"Otherwise, it is difficult to know that such-and-such a girl is being abused in her workplace," said Boloko, director of the National Agency Against Violence to Women and Girls.
Boloko also said that the ministry lacked funds to effectively protect child domestic workers.
"We were supposed to carry out awareness campaigns but the budget does not allow it ... We do not have enough means to bring relief to these underage girls," she said.
From the age of 16, children in Congo are permitted to do light work for a maximum of four hours per day but they are not allowed to work after 6pm.
Child domestic workers usually work more than eight hours a day and often find themselves in exploitative situations, according to IDAY, a network of African civil society groups advocating for children's right to education.
In 2015, IDAY interviewed almost 6,000 domestic workers across Congo and found that about 44% were under 18, with some under the age of 14.
"These numbers will swing upward because of the pandemic," said Antoine Ilunga Mfwamba, secretary-general of IDAY in Congo.
"All the children who no longer go to school are looking for odd jobs in order to find something to eat and have some money."
At Together For the Rule of Law's training session, Kalonji at least tries to raise awareness among workers like Rachel about basic rights like receiving their full salary - which can be as little as 20,000 Congolese francs ($10) per month.
"Despite the little money they receive, some of these children are owed back payment," he said.
"Some (employers) use the argument that they feed them, which is a hidden form of abuse."
The worst forms of child labour - including trafficking, forced labour and work that is likely to be detrimental to the child's health, development or dignity - are punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 200,000 francs.
But legal action is not an option for child workers like 16-year-old Diane, whose aunt asked her to support the household after she lost her job - also as a domestic - last year when her employers left Congo because they were scared of COVID-19.
"Mom (the boss's wife) slapped me three times for serving the food late," said Diane, whose last name is being withheld to protect her identity and who works 12 hours a day for 60,000 francs per month.
"I come back home very tired ... but I have no choice. I have to work to make money."
($1 = 1,983.7700 Congolese francs)