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BURKINA FASO: Training Gives Domestics Hope of Escaping Their Lot

Brahima Ouédraogo

OUAGADOUGOU, Apr 25 2011 (IPS) - Emeline Djigma, a twenty-year-old domestic worker, is preparing for the entrance exam to the National Teachers’ College this year. She hopes she’ll make it, having finally obtained her secondary school certificate thanks to five years of evening classes.

“I only want to succeed to show the way to others and to tell them that by working hard at it, they can move mountains,” said Djigma. She spent five years at Ouagadougou’s Ouassongdo Centre (the name means “come and help me” in the local language, Moré), managing to attend classes while working as a domestic.

Life for domestic workers in Burkina Faso is hard, IPS heard from Pulchérie Nanan, another young woman studying at the Centre.

“I get up at five in the morning, I sweep the courtyard and clean the house before I go to the market to do the cooking; in the evening, it’s more or less the same thing all over again,” she said. Nanan earns just 5,000 CFA francs (11 dollars) a month, but hopes to open a hair salon at the end of her apprenticeship.

Rosalie Boutoulegou, another girl at the centre, can finally read and write her name – at the age of 18. “When the sister came to see my cousin in order to free up a part of my day, I didn’t believe that I would learn to read and write one day,” she told IPS. “I wasn’t even getting paid because I lived with my cousin.”

Come to me for help

The sister she refers to is the formidable Sister Edithe, the nun who serves as president of the Ouassangdo Centre. Sister Edithe criss-crosses the main roads and back streets of Ouagadougou to convince employers to allow the young women – sometimes just girls – who do their domestic work to come to the centre, where they spend part of the day learning to sew, cook or how to read.

According to Sister Edithe, many domestic workers are badly exploited, often under the pretext that they are being given a place to live and food to eat.

“But we can’t simply take girls out of the homes of their employers, or where will they go?” says Sister Edithe.

The work of Sister Edithe’s centre is complemented by a campaign to end exploitation of domestic workers carried out by the Burkina Faso Red Cross in partnership with mobile phone companies. The campaign periodically sends SMS messages to selected subscribers, targeting local authorities, traditional chiefs, teachers, and restauratant owners.

“Employers, domestic workers are your family helpers; they have the same rights as your children. Avoid submitting them to bad poor wages, abuse, heavy workloads or sexual violence,” says one such message. The SMS’s are sent out three times a year, according to Naba Wangré, head of the project.

Wangré says domestic workers with no formal skills or training earn between 3,000 and 6,000 francs CFA (between $6.50 and 13 dollars) a month. She has received numerous complaints from domestic workers who have been assaulted, abused or survived sexual abuse.

Sister Edithe, who has welcomed some 500 girls in her centre since 2002, believes that some domestic workers are paid 25,000 CFA (about 55 dollars) or more. “When there’s someone backing them, people pay better and respect the rights of the girls,” she says.

“It’s a type of work which remains hidden and indistinct because there is exploitation. There is also silence because it is a sensitive sector and difficult to control, especially when the girls work in the families,” explains Wangré.

Raising awareness of domestics’ rights

Domestic workers in Burkina Faso are typically teenaged or younger girls from rural areas in the country; sometimes sent to work for their own relatives in a semi-formal employment relationship. Nearly 80 percent of Burkinabé girls between the ages of five and 17 are compelled to do household work, according to the National Inquiry Into Child Labour, carried out in 2006 by the Ministry for Labour and Social Security.

The time spent on household activities averages 15.6 hours, spent on tasks such as gathering firewood, doing dishes, cleaning, laundry and looking after children, the inquiry found.

“Domestic work is one of the worst forms of work because the domestic rises at five in the morning, sweeps, does the cooking and only gets back to sleep after midnight,” says Sister Edithe.

In the absence of laws dealing specifically with such domestic work in Burkina, it’s legislation dealing with child labour that is awkwardly applied. According to convention 182 of the International Labour Organisation, it is considered dangerous work for children if the nature and conditions of the work endangers their health, security or morals of a child.

“We are trying raise public awareness of domestic work, particularly for employers and the girls themselves,” says Wangré.

Stella Somé, who directs efforts against child labour at the Labour Ministry believes that only awareness and training can reduce cases of exploitation of domestic workers. “The main difficulty is that this work passes for household duties; it’s not easy to send an agent to see who is working in people’s homes.”

Confronted with the size of the problem, Somé’s ministry initiated a forum in 2010 to raise awareness on this question in the regions where Burkina Faso’s domestic workforce comes from: in the centre-west, southwest, and centre-east of the country, and other regions.

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