Morocco: Child maids in Morocco work for a pittance and face abuse

Five years ago Khadija's mother sent her 8-year old daughter to work as a housemaid in the city, where her first employer beat her.
Five years ago Khadija's mother sent her 8-year old daughter to work as a housemaid in the city, where her first employer beat her.
"In the capital my daughter will dress well and eat well," said Manana of her decision. She is paid 500 Moroccan Dirhams ($60.56) monthly for Khadija's work. "No person likes to see their children suffering. I sent her to work for her own well-being," Manana said on condition their family name was not used. "Me and my husband cannot look after her and the other 4 children." Now 13, Khadija is one of tens of thousands of girls working as domestics in Morocco, who according to a 2006 Human Rights Watch report face physical and psychological abuse as well as economic exploitation.

The U.N. agency for children UNICEF said in a recent report that 600,000 Moroccan children aged between seven and 14 are obliged to work, of whom 84 percent work in farms and 96 percent are forced to work for their own families. The same report showed that 800,000 Moroccan children do not attend school.

Khadija still remembers the day when a woman go-between brought her to Rabat from her hamlet in northern Morocco. "The first family I worked for was very bad. The woman beat me for no apparent reason," she told Reuters. "One day she hit my head against the window sill because I left the washing in a bucket."

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more girls under 16 work in domestic service around the world than in any other category of child labour.

A working day of 14 to 18 hours, with no holidays, is common for girls like Khadija, Human Rights Watch said. Many are paid as little as six dirhams ($0.70) a day, some even less.

Denied basic labour rights, they are beaten, exploited and sexually abused, and the authorities rarely punish employers who abuse them. "There is a myth that these girls are improving themselves by working...the reality is that far too many girls end up suffering lasting physical and psychological harm," said Clarisa Bencomo, children's rights researcher for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. It reports similar situations in El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Togo, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

Khadija, smiling awkwardly, says she is happy to work for her new employer -- a Moroccan family in Rabat. But her prospects are not bright, according to Souad Tawessi, a human rights activist and social worker.

"The danger for the young house maids is that they could become prostitutes when they grow into adults," said Tawessi, who worked for 10 years in Moroccan organizations looking after unmarried mothers: "About 90 percent of the unmarried mothers I met were house maids in their childhood." The plight of child workers, Tawessi said, is the result of Moroccan social problems like poverty, illiteracy and an educational system which discriminates between girls and boys.

The government has vowed to fight abuse of child maids: Yasmina Baddou, family affairs junior minister, agreed that discrimination in education is a factor behind child labour alongside poverty and violence. "People accept that girls work at home and this makes the exploitation acceptable by the society," she told Reuters. "We want to make national opinion more sensitive about the danger of child labour." Baddou said the government sought to regulate the work of housemaids, insisting that no girl under the age of 15 should be employed as a domestic servant.

Human Rights Watch has praised Morocco's efforts to expand legal protection against abuse and address the underlying causes, but the group said the kingdom's efforts "do not constitute the integrated strategy for combating the worst forms of child labour that Morocco needs".

For social worker Tawessi, that would need a profound change: "The poverty which is more dangerous is cultural poverty -- by which I mean Moroccan society increasingly turning its back on solidarity, as selfishness and greed prevail."

By: Zakia Abdennebi

19 June 2007