In Togo, a 10-Year-Old’s Muted Cry: ‘I Couldn’t Take Any More’
As the Global Trade in Domestic Workers Surges, Millions of Young Girls Face Exploitation and Abuse
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 26, 2008; A01
LOME, Togo — Adiza ran scared and crying into the street. Ten years old and 4-foot-9, she fled the house where she had worked for more than a year, cleaning and sweeping from before dawn until late at night.
She ran to a woman selling food in the street and told her that since the day she had arrived in this capital city from her village in the country, her employer had beaten her almost daily and kept her in slavelike conditions.
"I couldn’t take any more," recalled Adiza, a slight girl with close-cropped hair and almond-shaped eyes, who talked in a halting whisper as she described how her employer beat her with her hands and with cooking pots before the November day she ran away.
Rarely making eye contact, Adiza spoke in a shelter here surrounded by other tiny girls who had suffered physical or ***ual abuse in the growing global trade in domestic servants.
The number of girls like Adiza, who leave their communities or even their countries to clean other people’s houses, has surged in recent years, according to labor and human rights specialists. The girls in the maid trade, some as young as 5, often go unpaid, and their work in private homes means the abuses they suffer are out of public view.
The International Labor Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency based in Geneva, said more girls under 16 work in domestic service than in any other category of child labor. The organization said that maids are among the most exploited workers and that few nations have adequate regulations to safeguard them.
Rights groups say rural families often send their girls off to work willingly, as a way to escape poverty, not understanding the risks of abuse. And the employers are often only marginally better off. Having climbed a step or two on the economic ladder, they can afford one of the first trappings of prosperity: a girl to do the chores.
Human Rights Watch has documented nearly 150 cases of female domestic workers from Indonesia who killed themselves in recent years in Singapore, many jumping to their deaths from high-rise apartments. In Saudi Arabia, thousands of girls and women from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia and other nations have fled abusive employers, according to the New York-based rights group.
In Lome, a seaside city of about 700,000 people in this former French colony, hundreds of girls a year seek protection from abusive employers. They have filled up the shelters here, many with faces, backs and arms covered with bruises and burns.
"This is an alarming human tragedy that the world has yet to wake up to," said Roger Plant, a top ILO official who specializes in human trafficking. "You have several million girls who are in these desperate situations, and they are off the radar screens."
A Fraying of Trust
Adiza was raised in Kpatchile, a few mud huts scattered among fields of corn and yams 250 miles north of Lome. The village is 12 miles from the nearest paved road, and Adiza’s home is another quarter-mile down a tiny path through the tall brush.
"Everybody wants to leave," said Yacoumon Djatao, the aunt who raised Adiza, sitting in the shade on a 102-degree day, fighting fever and nausea from her latest bout of malaria — a common ailment here. Rust-colored sorghum plants were drying on the roof of her thatched hut. She will grind the dried grain into porridge, her main food until the next harvest, six months from now.
Djatao said she had raised Adiza since the child’s parents separated, years ago. She said Adiza was a cheerful little girl who was happy to work around the house and in the fields.
One day in the local outdoor market, Djatao said, she saw Adiza getting into a car that everyone knew was heading to neighboring Nigeria. Alarmed, Djatao stopped her and brought her home.
Togolese girls leave places like this every day. They have little or no schooling and no skills other than sweeping and cleaning. So they leave to keep house for richer people in Lome or neighboring countries or places as far-off as France, Germany, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Often the girls are placed in jobs according to an African tradition known as "confiage," or entrusting. Rural families send their daughters to live with a relative, friend or someone else with a connection to their village, in arrangements often managed by a go-between who is known to the family. The agreement is that the girls will do domestic work and that in exchange they will be paid, sent to school and maybe even be able send some money home.
That system has broken down in Togo as the country’s economy has faltered. Villagers have grown more desperate and the go-betweens less scrupulous, often placing girls with strangers and keeping their pay for themselves.
Visions of Opportunity
For nearly four decades, Togo suffered under the rule of Gnassingbé Eyadéma, a president who suffocated his country politically and economically until he died in 2005. His son, Faure Gnassingbé, is now president.
In the countryside, where 90 percent of the people are impoverished, many girls see hope in the capital, where only a quarter of the population lives in poverty, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Some leave the country altogether, seeing Nigeria — where the per capita annual income is $2,100, compared with Togo’s $900 — as a land of opportunity.
Madjinteba Seritichi, a local government official, said many of the intermediaries are people who come to shop in the local markets. He said they often use the signs of their success — cellphones and expensive jewelry and clothes — to entice girls to come with them.
"Given our poverty, the parents are all too willing to hand over their children," said Seritichi, who said he has handled seven recent abuse cases in his small collection of villages.
He said two of the girls went to Lome, one went to Gabon, and the four others went to Nigeria. All were beaten, several were ***ually abused, and none was paid.
Djatao said she had worried that Adiza might fall into the same trap. But the elderly aunt saw what she thought was a safe opportunity one day when a woman she knew from the local market said she was looking for a girl to work in Lome.
The woman, Nefisa Wuregawu, was a well-known trader who bought corn and beans in rural markets and resold them in Lome. She told Djatao she could get Adiza a job working for a good family in Lome.
"At least this way I knew the person who would take her," said Djatao, who said goodbye to Adiza 14 months ago, when the girl climbed onto a sagging, overcrowded bus with Wuregawu for the 12-hour drive to the capital.
Sitting in her extended family’s little compound of huts, where she lives with 23 people, Djatao said she was upset to learn that Adiza had been mistreated. But, she said, she still wasn’t sure if that was reason enough for Adiza to come home.
"I didn’t know she would be harmed," she said. "But we have nothing here."
‘More Like a Spanking’
When Adiza arrived in Lome after the day-long bus trip, she recalled, it was the first time she had seen tall buildings, or television, or the ocean.
She went immediately to work in the home of Alimatou Abdulai, 53, who runs a small business selling rice in her local market.
One recent day, Abdulai, a tall woman with strong, broad shoulders, sat beneath the two big mango trees that shade her family home.
Abdulai’s house is comfortable by Lome standards. It has electricity and a television and plenty of room for Abdulai, her husband and four of their six grown children. In the street, women have their hair braided and styled in a pleasant outdoor beauty salon on a shady corner nearby.
But Abdulai’s family finances are still modest. None of the men in her house has a job, so her earnings of about $1 to $5 a day constitute the main income.
Her two daughters had married and moved away, she said, so she was looking for a girl to help cook and clean. By local tradition, men don’t help with housework.
"I needed a domestic so I could run my business," Abdulai said, saying that the 20 cents a day she agreed to pay Adiza was a good investment.
Abdulai said that she didn’t know it is illegal in Togo to hire a girl younger than 15 and that she had no qualms about hiring Adiza when she was just 9. "The work she did for me is not work that requires strength," she said.
Abdulai said she paid Adiza’s wages directly to Wuregawu, the go-between. Over the past year, she said, she had given Wuregawu about $42, or seven months’ salary, on the understanding that Wuregawu would take the money to Adiza’s family.
She didn’t send Adiza to school, she said, because "that’s her parents’ responsibility."
"I was teaching her how to cook," she said.
Sitting in her yard, Abdulai denied that she beat Adiza — except for one time, on the day the girl left. She said Adiza had left the house the night before and not returned until after midnight. Furious, Abdulai hit her a few times around the head and shoulders.
"It was more like a spanking, not a beating," she said.
Just Trying to Help
Wuregawu sat on a wooden bench in a Lome neighborhood last week, wearing flowing red African robes, a matching head scarf, and gold jewelry dangling from her neck and ears.
"I’m not a trafficker," she said, laughing and waving her hands, dismissing the idea. "I’m a trader. The families of these children need help, the employers need help, so I provide for both of them."
She said bringing Adiza to Lome was a "service," for which she wasn’t paid.
"When you go to the villages, you see that the people are suffering because they are very poor," she said. "They think that if they can go to the city, they will not suffer. So I help them."
Wuregawu said she had brought only Adiza and one other girl to Lome.
She confirmed that Abdulai had given her $42 for Adiza’s wages and said she used the money to buy clothes for Adiza to put toward her wedding dowry, which she was storing for the girl in her home.
Asked if a 10-year-old girl might need the money, or the clothes, now rather than later, Wuregawu said she was simply following local tradition.
"In our country, when a girl gets married, she has to have money and clothes," she said. "That’s our culture."
She said she didn’t know if Adiza had been beaten. "I can’t tell who is telling the truth and who is lying," she said.
Togo passed a law banning child trafficking in 2005, and about 20 people — mostly women — have been prosecuted since then for trafficking children across Togo’s borders, said Abra Tekpo Agbezo, head of the national police department’s child protection unit.
But, she said, not a single case of internal trafficking has been prosecuted, even though her officers go out an average of twice a week to rescue girls in domestic service who are being abused.
"This is something that has been going on for a long time," Agbezo said. "It will take even longer for people to change their attitudes."
Wuregawu, sipping a milky drink from a big plastic cup, said she had no idea it was illegal for a 10-year-old child to work.
"I am not aware of those legal things," she said, laughing heartily.
‘Tip of the Iceberg’
When Adiza ran away from Abdulai’s house, the food vendor who saw her crying and listened to her story took her to a local political official. He called the Oasis Center, the largest of several shelters for abused children in Lome.
Run by a Swiss charity, Terre des Hommes, the center shelters more than 600 children a year — more than 400 of them girls, mostly abused domestic workers.
"These are just the ones we reach," said Jerome Combes, the organization’s head in Togo. "It’s just the tip of the iceberg."
Combes said that the shelter’s social workers and lawyer try to investigate each case but that it’s often impossible. They notify police about the worst cases of abuse. But mostly they try to make the girls safe, negotiate for back wages and tell employers about the child labor laws.
In Adiza’s case, center officials found Abdulai and urged her to come in for mediation. She came to the office and paid Adiza an additional $42, the balance of her wages. They were trying to track down what happened to the money she paid Wuregawu.
Interviewed several times over the course of a week, Adiza answered questions with one word or a nod, fiddling with her hands and picking absently at her toes.
She said she would like to learn to be a seamstress and make dresses back in her village. But at the shelter she has been making Christmas decorations and learning carols in French.
Sometimes she and the other girls put on little blue soccer uniforms and head to Lome’s wide, palm-lined beach to kick a ball around. Adiza rarely smiles, but on the beach, playing with her friends, she sometimes laughs so hard she doubles over.
Combes said Adiza’s options are limited. At 10, she is far too young to work legally, and in the local culture, she is seen as too old to start school.
It is almost certain, Combes said, that when Adiza leaves the shelter she will end up cleaning someone else’s house. So the center will tell her about her rights and how to avoid being exploited. "The best we can do is to teach her to protect herself," he said.