At a tender age of nine, Zenabou Iiboudou started to work as a domestic servant in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. For seven years, she had to endure the hardship of working as a child.
Now at age 20, she acts as a “big sister” for the girls supported by “Terres des Hommes,” a Swiss foundation. The organization helps young girls who are employed as domestic servants attend vocational training and secondary school. Zeinabou understands their problems well, since she was once a domestic servant herself.
Slaps and insults a daily routine
“At 5 o’clock, you wake up to make preparations for the day and then your boss gives you money to buy the food that you’re going to prepare,” Zeinabou told Deutsche Welle. “After you are done with the cooking the boss will start hitting and insulting you because she thinks the soup isn’t well prepared,” she added.
Zenabou further highlights problems faced by domestic servants, notably not being able to have a share of the meals that they prepare. Many also have to sleep in the kitchen or on the corridor.
Sold by their own parents
In Burkina Faso and other African countries, hundreds of thousands of girls share the fate of Zenabou Ilboudou: They are usually aged between nine and 14 years when they start looking for work as domestic servants.
Most have to leave their families because there is no money at home, or are even sold by their parents who are to poor to cater for them.
Alima Fogo is now 21 years old. Her story is not different from Zeinabou’s. She was only six years old when she started to work as a maid. She lived in constant fear of sexual harassment from her employer.
“Whenever the boss returned home after work and noticed that his wife was not there, he would entice me to sleep with him, promising to increase my pay at the end of the month,” Alima told DW.
Assistance programs are not enough
The government of Burkina Faso has recognized the scale of the problem and has tried to address it together with a number of local and international partners. Terre des Hommes is one of them.
“We currently have a program for about 700 girls who we support to attend school in their home villages,” Herman Zoungrana, project manager of Terre des Hommes in Burkina Faso told DW.
Unfortunately, such initiatives are a just drop in the ocean. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), more than 500,000 child workers are exploited in Burkina Faso alone. Private households are just one field of employment. A huge number of children also work in the country’s gold mines.
In a particular gold mine, half of the 600 workforce are children. One of them is 15-year-old Zenabou Dipama. He has chapped hands from breaking rocks. “The work was very exhausting,” she said. “Working hours are not regulated since we start work in the morning, and then take a break in the afternoon thereafter it goes on until midnight.”
Little interest in school
With many children in the region working, most schools are empty. Despite efforts to keep them in school, they have the illusion of escaping and heading for the gold mines. They hope to find a few crumbs of gold that will drive them out of poverty.