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SocietyHumiliation, mistreatment: the life of domestic workers in Ethiopia

Humiliation, mistreatment: the life of domestic workers in Ethiopia

Muluemebet Mamo has been working for the same family for the past 25 years. She is like a family to the people whom she works for. She raised their children as her own, giving up the chance to start her own family. Even though she feels a strong affinity towards them, deep down she feels a sense of otherness.

“These children are like kids to me, even though they are fully grown now. I don’t even stay here for the money anymore. They do pay me well but I don’t really have any obligations that force me to use the money. I gave up my entire life to be here,” Muluemebet said.

When she started here, she was merely a child herself. She becomes a domestic work after escaping from her home in fear of being abducted for forced child marriage.  The 40-year old woman turned down so many opportunities. “It felt like home, but as the kid’s grew and then leave home, I was left to think if I had made the right decision,” added Muluemebet with a longing look in her eyes.

Unlike Muluemebet, a lot of domestic workers in Ethiopia are left to fear for their life, while working for families they believed would mediate their economic standing. In a country where urban settlers consider having a helping hand as an essential need for households, the treatment they face does not align with the need that exists for their services.

Housemaids are usually women with a low socioeconomic status and most of them are migrants from rural areas. Most are often forced to leave their own children back home, while they take care of other people’s children, as if they were their own. And most are treated in inhumane ways, and are forced to accept it as a norm.

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“My employers weren’t horrible per say, they were very loud and would make us make our own Injera and put it in a separate ‘Mesob.’ I don’t know why they did that and I never questioned it because they also treated us like we were part of the family. But I hear a lot of stories where people are beaten and insulted for doing things slightly wrong. So, I am thankful for the family I got,” said Assefu G/Mesqel, a domestic worker.

Human rights violations are committed against domestic workers, while households keep paying them a below average salary. Knowing the dangers they might face in different households does not make their decision to leave easy easier.

A research carried out by Kalkidan Gezahegn suggests that the prevalence of sexual violence against domestic workers stood at 60.2 percent. The odd of experiencing sexual violence through work in their life-time was higher for those who had migrated from rural to urban areas for work. The risk increased if they had less than five years of experience or if they were in the age groups 15–19. The risk of sexual violence was also higher if their employers have ever used alcohol and lack formal education.

These women take full responsibility for the households, despite being underpaid and vulnerable to physical and sexual attacks. Some are even underage, or work for free with the promise of an education. Adolescent domestic workers are highly vulnerable to abuses but largely remain invisible.

“I was 11 when I first came to work in Addis Ababa. Before coming here, I used to take care of my parents’ house in Cheffe. I also used to herd my aunt’s sheep as well. That was a lot of work and I did not have access to education, so my father brought me to Addis Ababa where I stayed with a woman he knew,” said Genet Mesfin, another domestic worker.

“I wasn’t expected to work that much and I learned the regular chores plus there was another woman who helped around the house, so I would just help her out from time to time. But when she left, the new housemaid would make me do all the work and she was rude to me. I asked the owner to start paying me to which she refused, so I left,” said Genet, recalling why she went back to her parents’ house.

Some domestic workers have recently formed a union to formalize the working conditions of domestic workers, as well as fight to set a minimum wage. The mistreatment of domestic workers in Ethiopia dates back a long time but many believe it should have run its course by now.


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