A long way from home: The child ‘house helpers’ of Nigeria
Hundreds of underage girls work as domestic help in cities across Nigeria.
Kaduna State, Nigeria – The clouds are receding after a light drizzle on a damp May afternoon in Sabon Tasha, northern Nigeria. The front door to the three-bedroom bungalow is wide open to let in air, as the neighbourhood wades through one of its frequent power outages.
Inside, 12-year-old Aisha* moves around, doing chores and serving guests. She is one of many underage girls working as domestic help – commonly called “house girls” – in cities across Nigeria.
A little light pours into the sitting room through two windows at the back as Aisha’s employer, Safiya (who asked that her full name not be used), sits talking to three visitors from Abuja – her eldest daughter who works as a teacher in the Federal Capital Territory, and two others. Aisha serves them saucers of peanuts and Safiya shouts at her to hurry up and leave whenever she feels the girl is lingering longer than necessary. She reminds her to sweep the kitchen.
Safiya is a widow and a civil servant in a government ministry. The lines around her eyes place her age at over 50, but the way she flits through the conversation, bantering with her guests, makes her seem much younger.
She talks in fluent English but switches to Hausa when addressing Aisha, her tone shifting with the language; sharp and curt for Aisha, but softer, friendlier and punctuated with frequent laughter as she relaxes back into conversation with her guests. On her fingers are a few gold rings and on her wrist two gold bracelets that jingle when she waves her hands as she speaks. Her hair is covered by a scarf but the edges reveal dark cornrows with a sprinkling of grey.
A bright orange hijab conceals much of Aisha’s tiny frame. She barely says a word to Safiya, but nods to acknowledge instructions. When called, she quickly reappears from a door hidden behind a brown curtain.
The village to the city
Aisha was born in Buda, a village in Kano state, some 250km (155 miles) away, that is known for its maize and groundnut crops. Her father works on a farm during the planting and harvesting season. When the farming season is over, he picks up odd jobs wherever he can find them. Her mother is a housewife who also cares for a small farm of their own behind the house – a single building made from mud and straw. Like most rural settlements, there is no electricity or plumbing, and water is sourced from wells within the community.
Aisha moved to Kaduna a few months after she turned 10, with the help of an agent who had promised to find her work as a “house girl” in the city. She was told that if she behaved well, after a while she would be enrolled in school, an opportunity she had never had before. At the instruction of her father, she had packed up her few belongings in a black polythene bag and followed the woman. That was two years ago. She has still never been inside a classroom.
Safiya, who is Aisha’s fourth employer, has two younger children, aged 12 and 14, and an elderly mother everyone fondly calls “Mama”. Aisha was specifically recruited to care for Mama although her responsibilities are not limited to this.
Safiya’s house is one of many middle-class homes in Sabon Tasha. There is electricity but power outages are frequent, and in the evenings the rumbling of generators fills the air. Plumbing runs through the house, but there is no running water and one of Aisha’s duties is to go back and forth to a nearby communal water pump to fill a 150-litre plastic container.
Safiya’s younger children both attend private schools in the city. They do not say much to Aisha, and she approaches them the same way she does their mother – to heed their instructions. Any prolonged interactions are viewed as suspicious by Safiya and may earn Aisha a beating and the children a scolding.
Safiya’s children do not do any chores besides the laundry of their school uniforms and running the occasional errand to a nearby store. Often, when they either cannot find the items in the store, or if it is considered too late for them to be out (after 7pm) they are instructed to give the money to Aisha who must run the errand in their place. Aisha is not allowed to send the children on any errands or request their help.
Life is better here … Back home things are not easy.
Safiya’s children have a 9pm bedtime which is enforced with almost religious discipline. Aisha, meanwhile, goes to bed only after Safiya no longer needs her services, often at 10pm or later.
Once the family has gone to bed, in a corner of the parlour, Aisha pulls out a mattress that is tied up and hidden behind a door, and unrolls it into place. That is where she makes her room every night.
“I wake up before Fajr (the Muslim pre-dawn prayer). I clear my things and sweep the sitting room, then boil water for bathing on the firewood. After prayers I clean the compound, rooms, and kitchen, go to market, wash clothes, fetch water, then I stay with Mama,” Aisha explains in Hausa, her eyes focused on the ground. She seems anxious about being spoken to for so long. Her voice is soft and barely audible, and her words trail off as she speaks.
She is given food twice a day from the meals Safiya prepares for the household; in the morning at about 10am after she has finished her routine chores, and at around 4pm after Safiya’s children have returned from school. When she is not doing chores or running errands, Aisha spends most of her time sitting with Mama in the parlour, watching the television which is always tuned to either Zeeworld or Africa Magic. Although she does not understand English, Aisha is fascinated by what she sees on the screen.
Mama often suffers episodes of memory loss, and at times attempts to wander out of the house. Aisha is the one tasked with trying to steer her back to the safety of the couch. Other than running errands and collecting water, this is the only time Aisha is permitted to leave the house – and, even then, she must hurry back. She is not allowed to have any friends as Safiya claims friendships could corrupt her.
In search of a better life
Aisha does not know how much she earns, but 5,000 naira (about $12) is paid monthly to her agent, who takes a percentage before sending what is left to her parents in the village. Aisha has not been back to the village since she left and only gleans information about her family whenever her agent visits the house to check that Safiya is satisfied with Aisha’s services.
Back in Buda, her parents do not know exactly where their daughter is, and rely on the agent for information about her wellbeing. The last time Aisha received news from home, the agent told her that her younger sister Zainab would soon join her in the city once a job had been found for her. Aisha misses her parents and sister but says: “Life is better here … Back home things are not easy.”
Agents are the bridge between clients like Safiya and the families of girls like Aisha. They use a variety of recruiting methods, including visiting villages, relying on word of mouth, and putting printed “Vacancy” posters with their phone numbers up on street walls in low-income neighbourhoods. The most valuable strategy is an informal referral system where satisfied clients recommend the agent to friends and family members who are also looking for domestic help.
Agents often woo the young girls with promises of education and good earnings. When their families sign up, the girls are transported from their villages to economic centres like Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and surrounding cities. Often, these families are in dire financial circumstances and see their children as a vehicle for financial support. Many parents can barely afford daily meals and basic healthcare for their children, which makes the prospect of someone else taking responsibility for the child, while offering a stipend, too tempting to resist.
The city offers them many opportunities. If they are in the village, it is only suffering and before long, some will get pregnant and that’s the end. Here they can go to school or save something to start a business.
As an agent gains a reputation in the villages, they no longer need to visit in order to recruit. Through referrals from families with children in their service, the agent finds other interested families willing to send their daughters to work. In some cases, the prospect of work opportunities makes older women sign up as well (however, most potential employers prefer hiring younger girls, counting on their age to keep them compliant).
The girls do not go through background checks and neither do their employers. Most clients insist the girls get tested for communicable infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and tuberculosis. This is often at an added cost to the potential employer, but it is such a popular request that some laboratories even have a “house help screening package” available on request. A positive result for any of the listed diseases renders the girl unfit and a replacement is provided by the agent.
Peace* is an agent in Abuja, the country’s capital. The 38-year-old wears a neat knee-length Ankara dress and no jewellery, her hair plaited into simple cornrows, while a wig hangs from a nail on the wall in a corner of her studio apartment.
Peace lives in Mararaba on the outskirts of the city. In her self-contained single room apartment sits a mattress, a few boxes, a box television set, and her shoes lined up in a corner. There are a few stickers from religious crusades on her door and a well-worn Bible on one of the pillows at the head of her bed.
Peace says she started this business because she was tired of working for other people. She currently has six girls recruited and placed in homes around the city, and is expecting a seventh from Nasarawa state whom she is scheduled to drop off at a home before the end of the day. The girls and women in her employ vary in age from 13 to their late 30s. “It depends on what the customer wants,” she explains. “Some customers prefer younger girls; others want matured women.” The girls are from different parts of the country such as Gombe and Taraba in the Northeast, Osun in the Southwest, Benue in the middle belt, and Nasarawa state.
Clients pay Peace a service charge of 10,000 naira ($25) before the girls or women are handed over to them. Afterwards, they pay the monthly salary of 30,000 naira ($37) – the current national minimum wage – directly to Peace. There are no formal contracts between Peace and the girls and women she recruits. They serve wherever they are placed until the clients decide they no longer require their services. In such a case, Peace will try to find new homes to place them in. If one wants to leave, they must contact Peace directly and cannot simply terminate their duties. In such a case, Peace usually reviews their complaints and tries to convince them to stay. When this does not work, they are let go but told they cannot reach out for any future jobs or placements. On rare occasions, domestic helpers have been known to run away from their employers. In such situations, agents are tasked with replacing them, at no cost to the employer.
“Out of the 30,000, I keep 5,000,” Peace explains. This is her cut. “I send what is left to their parents or if they are working for themselves, I give them the balance [25,000 naira (about $60) a month].” Most, like Aisha, never find out how much agents like Peace receive from their employers for the work they do. Peace’s clients are made to sign an indemnity form, ensuring that they will not directly transact with the girls.
“The people don’t have any business with the girls,” Peace says. “I am the one that brought them, so all complaints and matters regarding the girls must be communicated to me.”
‘House help’ to entrepreneur
Peace believes she has an insider advantage as she also started as a “house help”.
In 1996 at the age of 13, she was taken from a quiet village in Ikom in Cross River state, in the southern region of Nigeria, to the lively city of Lagos, a 14-hour drive away.
“One day two women and one of my aunts came to visit my stepmother. They went inside and talked for a while. As they were leaving, I was asked by my stepmother to follow them. That I will be going to work with a woman in Lagos. I was told there was no need to pack anything,” Peace recounts. “One of the women took me to her house and when we got there, she gave me a dress to change in to because the one I was wearing was torn. The next day at five in the morning we went to the motor park and left for Lagos.”
Peace is unemotional as she recalls the experience. When asked how she felt, she pauses briefly before responding that it was God’s will. “If I had remained in the village, I don’t know if I would even be alive today,” she adds.
Unlike Aisha, Peace had the privilege of getting some education. Her employer in Lagos enrolled her in a public school. But seven months later, after leaving the home of the employer, she had to leave school and has not been back since.
After that placement, Peace went from home to home, holding a series of cleaning jobs. In 2020, she decided to start work as an agent. She sees her service as altruistic; a means of “helping the girls”.
“Life here is better for them,” she explains. “The city offers them many opportunities. If they are in the village, it is only suffering and before long, some will get pregnant and that’s the end. Here they can go to school or save something to start a business,” she repeats, convinced.
If I had remained in the village, I don’t know if I would even be alive today.
The story for most girls begins like Aisha’s – with all the possible “advantages” listed by Peace as a motivating factor for the decision: they all move to the cities for a chance to support their families, to save enough to start a business, to attend a school. In the end, a singular theme is palpable: a need to escape crippling poverty.
The exodus to the cities is always a tempting journey towards the possibility of a better future. For a few, this dream comes true. They find homes where they are treated decently or get access to an education. But such cases are few and far between. Stories of the abuse of domestic helpers are so popular that it is even a recurring theme in Nollywood movies.
Physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse are common. In May 2017 a well-known case of abuse was publicised in local daily papers: eight-year-old Miracle Edogwu was allegedly beaten to death by her employer, a businesswoman in Lagos simply referred to as Oby. Many other instances of abuse ranging from scalding by hot water, to near-death beatings, are rife in local news.
Peace admits these risks exist. “Everything is a risk,” she says. “If anything happens, they have my number. They will call me.” However, most of the girls do not own phones, and communication is often only possible through their employers or the random goodwill of others, which makes it harder for them to reach out in desperate situations.
An unregulated system
The ignorance of agents like Peace means they fail to understand the potential consequences of their actions. In 2018, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) reported that there were some 15 million children engaged in domestic child labour in Nigeria.
The NAPTIP Act of 2015 warns that “any person who employs, requires, recruits, transports, harbours, receives or hires out, a child under the age of twelve years as a domestic worker commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment”. This provision highlights 12 years as the age limit.
Mr Isaiah*, who works with NAPTIP and spoke anonymously because of concerns about professional retribution, explains that the government has shelters to cater for children found in such situations. NAPTIP currently operates eight such shelters across the country with a stay time limited to six weeks. It also provides counselling and rehabilitation for rescued children. Victims requiring longer periods of care are transferred to other non-governmental organisations.
When a case of any underaged child employed in domestic labour is reported, it is channelled through units that monitor and investigate it. “But a great hindrance to conviction,” he adds, “is cases of familial relations, where involved individuals refuse to allow judicial action.” Isaiah points to the use of public enlightenment campaigns aimed at re-educating communities about the laws regarding domestic helpers. He believes this will help in preventing these situations.
The real effort needed is sociological. We must induce a cultural recognition of childhood, and provide an alternative to child domestic labour, such as formal or vocational learning. The first has not been done, the latter remains to be seen.
In 2003, Nigeria adopted the Child Rights Act (CRA), which defines a child as “anyone below the age of eighteen”. The law in summary states “In every action concerning a child, whether undertaken by an individual, public or private body, the best interest of the child shall be the primary consideration.” Section 11 highlights: “A child is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly, no child shall be subjected to physical, mental or emotional injury, abuse, neglect or maltreatment, including sexual abuse; no child shall be held in slavery or servitude, while in the care of a parent, legal guardian or school authority or any other person or authority having the care of the child.”
The CRA has been adopted by most states in Nigeria, including in Kaduna, where Aisha lives, and in Abuja, where Peace operates. But Richard Ali, an Abuja-based lawyer and writer who has had some experience with such cases, explains: “Thinking in terms of laws banning child labour, especially child domestic labour, under the CRA doesn’t address the issue because the real effort needed is sociological. We must induce a cultural recognition of childhood, and provide an alternative to child domestic labour, such as formal or vocational learning. The first has not been done, the latter remains to be seen.”
Lawyer and human rights activist, Ugochukwu Amasike, blames the lack of implementation of such laws on a shortage of trusted systems to protect children. “These policies cannot work without a system that can provide the child’s basic needs. Are there decent public schools providing free education to enrol them in? Can they get decent healthcare? When are the children taken from these homes are they taken back to the same environment that drove them into the industry in the first place?”
Dominic Ega*, a public servant who works closely with the Kaduna state government disagrees, instead blaming socio-cultural norms. “As with every government, we can’t successfully identify these cases if well-meaning people do not report to the state. If we still have many out there, then it is because the families of those children and the community are benefitting or in support of the practice.”
Girls like Aisha who move to the cities are soon disillusioned. The school enrolments rarely come to fruition. They barely earn enough for their families to survive on let alone support them out of deep poverty. They are trapped in a cycle of basic survival. Aisha’s focus now is simply on working well enough to not be sent packing.
“I like working for Safiya,” she explains. “The work is not hard.” She adds that she is thankful that Safiya rarely beats her.
Maryam Aliko, the founder of Mariacutty, a non-profit focused on female empowerment, describes such low expectations as an adaptation mechanism. “The domestic service system being without any professional regulation will always be subject to abuse. When most of these girls are let go, they have nothing to fall back on. When they leave, the girls may find new homes to be placed in, or return to their villages; a place where they no longer fit in. After the city, they are too good for the villages and yet, still not good enough for the city. Soon, they fall prey to other exploitive systems such as prostitution.”
A large population and high rates of poverty, Maryam insists, are two of the major enablers of the system. “There is no registry of domestic workers, no data on the agents. As popular as this service sector is, it is invisible. This has made the system a preying ground for other services such as human trafficking for sexual exploitation and baby factories.”
The rising insecurity and displacement of people by armed groups such as Boko Haram and bandits in the northeastern region has also contributed a huge number of vulnerable girls to the pool. Maryam and a few others have begun to advocate for regulations and policies to be created to check the system. “Policies need to be created for the domestic service industry as a credible part of the labour force. This way we can control the recruitment of underage workers. Those who are fit, can be trained and taught to engage with domestic work as a skill. The domestic help system must be recognised as an enabler for women’s empowerment. It is mostly family women who recruit house helps to manage the home front while they go on to pursue their goals.”
Safiya’s tone betrays a mild irritation as she complains that Aisha is not as efficient as she would like. She says that sometimes Aisha is sluggish in doing her duties, or that she occasionally oversleeps. When questioned about Aisha’s schooling, she seems surprised that this is even a consideration. “That is not what she is here for,” she responds.
Aisha is asked the cliched question most children are faced with: “What would you like to be when you grow up?” She chuckles and replies quietly in Hausa: “Ban sani ba.” (“I don’t know.”)
For girls like Aisha, whose dreams have slowly dissolved into the background of a harsh reality, the most they can think of is getting through the day. There is little hope and little disappointment. And the recognition that although they might get something better, they will most likely get worse.
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity