Tens of millions of women and girls around the world are employed as domestic workers in private households. They clean, cook, care for children, look after elderly family members, and perform other essential tasks. Despite their important role, they are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world. They often work 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for wages far below the minimum wage. They are routinely victims of rape, physical violence, discrimination, humiliation and restricted rights and freedoms. The statistics are scary – in Zambia, 81 percent of domestic female workers have faced sexual harassment at work. In Guinea Bissau, nine out of ten. In Malawi…the number I suspect is equally high.
We all know stories within our own households or in other households of men or boys taking sexual advantage of the domestic worker. Domestic workers are vulnerable to HIV as a result of migration – leaving their homes behind, social isolation, poverty, low levels of education, lack of access to healthcare services and lack of power at work and possibly at home. Domestic workers are especially vulnerable to HIV not only because they are not well informed about HIV but have no say or control in their sexual relationships and often have unsafe sex because they are unable to negotiate condom use. Their jobs are often insecure and poorly paid pushing many women to supplement what they earn with sex work, or to engage in transactional sex in order to secure shelter and other basic survival needs. Men who do this absolutely disgust me! Shame on you! You are pure evil, pond scum and no better than a slave driver or rapist.
A 2010 study by International Organisation for Migration (IOM) of the domestic work sector in Malawi found that a significant proportion of domestic workers travel from rural to urban areas to work. Most migrant female domestic workers had been married before but are divorced or separated and sometimes have run away from abusive relationships at home. They usually travel to town leaving their children with relatives to take care of them. Female domestic workers are not only vulnerable to their male employers but out of loneliness, boredom or necessity, they may engage in sexual relationships which put them at risk of contracting HIV.
There is a role for government to enforce legislation that protects the rights of domestic workers and for organisations to raise awareness and campaign for domestic workers. Importantly for all of us who welcome these people into our lives and our homes, we should treat them with respect and dignity!