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RIGHTS-MOROCCO: Childhood Being Stolen

Amina Barakat

RABAT, Jul 15 2007 (IPS) - Habiba Hamrouch describes her daughter, Sanaa, as her “revenge” – her blow against the mixture of abuse, tradition and indifference that enables thousands of girls to be exploited as domestic servants in Morocco.

The law in this North African country forbids children below the age of 15 from being employed.

But this has not stopped households from taking on girls as young as five, and subjecting many to grueling hours and mistreatment of various forms when their work is not considered good enough, as well as sexual abuse. In addition, the girls are often denied education, a proper diet and medical care.

“I saw all sorts of things after I was placed with a family as a domestic in 1990,” Hamrouch said. “This is a very bad memory…I was just eight when I started working.”

The fate of her two sisters was no better, she added, as they were also found positions as servants: “My mother, a woman who was submissive (towards her husband), could do nothing except cry in silence, as we were really in need…”

“I hated my father for what he did with me – a poor little servant who didn’t have anything.”

Now aged 22, married and the mother of two – a daughter of 10 and a two-year-old son – Hamrouch is doing everything to ensure that her own children experience a different life.

“My little Sanaa is my revenge, I will do everything for her to study (and) I attend literacy classes to be able to ensure a future for my children,” she said. Her daughter is about to graduate to the next grade with a good average.

Hafida Hosman*, 18, was also able to escape a life of exploitation, thanks to a neighbour.

“I was 14 when my mother gave me to a rich family in Rabat (the capital); their son, a teenager of 16 or 17, did everything to take advantage of me when his parents were away (and) I could say nothing about it,” she told IPS.

“Even his cousin, a dreadful little snot, pinched my bottom each time that he came to the house. They were so spoiled that no-one would believe me…they were the masters and allowed to do anything.”

With mention of sexual harassment considered taboo in Morocco, young girls are loathe to come forward in the instances when they are abused in this way. And, simply running away can prove difficult: all too many girls face obstacles to doing so such as a lack funds, or the fear of being reported to the police by their employers.

“It’s scandalous to see young girls of school age placed as servants; their place is on the school benches with a book between their hands, and not a floor cloth or a broom that is much bigger than them,” said Fouzia Tawil, an activist from the Association for the Defence of Women and Children’s Rights, based in Casablanca, the economic capital.

“Between the dishes, the housework and the care of children, their childhood is stolen,” she told IPS.

The meagre payment for this stolen youth is typically given to the girls’ parents. “I never saw money for all the time that I worked, until the age of 17,” said Habiba.

A government survey carried out in 2001 with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund found there were some 22,000 girls younger than 18 working as domestics in big Moroccan cities such as Rabat and Casablanca (these are the most recent figures on this issue).

About 59 percent were younger than 15, all from poor and illiterate backgrounds.

The exploitation of young girls employed as servants has also been investigated by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which issued a report two years ago condemning this mistreatment, ‘Inside the Home, Outside the Law: Abuse of Child Domestic Workers in Morocco’.

Of the child servants interviewed for the study, Human Rights Watch noted that most worked 14 to 18 continuous hours a day, every day of the week, for between four and eleven cents an hour: “In comparison, Morocco’s minimum wage for other forms of non-agricultural work is…$1.07 per hour, and working hours are limited to forty-four hours per week and ten hours per day.”

The report indicated that Morocco has “one of the highest rates of child labor in the Middle East and North Africa, and one of the lowest rates of school attendance for working children outside of sub-Saharan Africa.”

It further noted that “Police, prosecutors, and judges rarely enforce Penal Code provisions on child abuse or on forced labor in cases involving child domestics, and parents are rarely willing to press for time-consuming prosecutions that will subject their daughters to stigma without providing any direct benefit to them.”

Mistreatment of child domestics persists even though Morocco has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which outlaws exploitation of children for economic reasons.

But, the views of Fatima Zénoul* – one of the women who recruit young girls for domestic work and place them with families – shed some light on the attitudes that underpin the ongoing abuse.

“My task ends the moment that I place the servant with her employers; what happens afterwards does not concern me, but she is free to leave if this does not meet her expectations, and I could then search for another family for her, and this will earn me an additional fee,” she says. Intermediaries earn 30 dollars for every child placed.

“If their parents do not worry about their fate, why should I?” asks Zénoul, who works in Takaddoum, a suburb of Rabat. “I am not responsible for what happens to them; it’s a paid service that I provide, and it’s my bread and butter.”

On a more positive note, the fight against exploitation of child domestics is receiving high-profile support from Princess Lalla Meriem – the eldest sister of King Mohamed the Sixth and president of the National Children’s Observatory.

She joined the drive against the mistreatment of children, including young servants, two years ago. This has seen Morocco develop a strategy to promote children’s rights; a children’s parliament has also been created to help address child abuse.

In a statement at the Third Regional Conference on Violence against Children, held in the Egyptian capital of Cairo at the end of last month, the princess announced the creation of a referral centre to shelter children who are victims of violence, and to provide them with legal assistance and the necessary psychological help.

In addition, an awareness campaign for the education of young servants was launched at the end of June.

* The names of certain persons have been changed to protect their identities.

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