Confronting Domestic Worker Abuse in my Culture
I was born in Lagos and for the first eleven years of my life, I was raised in a predominantly Igbo apartment block. Full disclosure: I am Igbo as well.
Looking back now that I'm in my twenties, there were scenarios there that were beyond normal.
For one, our next-door neighbour was notorious for beating up any domestic help my mum brought to take care of us. I remember the police getting involved just so we could stop her.
She weaponised abusing our help to get back at my mum for not being as close to her once we were weaned and once my mum had to get back to work. I remember that one of these girls was about 14 years old when this neighbour beat her.
I was reminded of this former neighbour of mine when I re-read Better Never Than Late, a short story collection by Igbo-Flemish writer Chika Unigwe. In the collection, the maltreatment of domestic workers had been explored in stories such as Becoming Prosperous and the title story Better Never Than Late.
In one, Prosperous who had become a housekeeper herself upon fleeing to Belgium realised that even if she thought her treatment of her help was better than her friends, it was still dismal seeing as she never paid them.
In the other story, a woman was convinced by her cousin to perform an exorcism on her underaged househelp who the cousin believed was the witch stopping her from marrying.
Domestic workers are often young and in most cases are poor underaged girls. Also, the use of maids as they are popularly called, cuts across all ethnicities in Nigeria. Inevitably, this should mean that their abuse too would cut across all ethnicities of women.
However, there has been a marked increase in social media discussions on how Igbo women are particularly cruel to the help they employ. What can be the reason for this? I have two theories.
The first one stems from how Igbo culture itself sees married women, especially as property and enforces this idea through domestic violence.
It is also key to mention that Igbo men are notorious for being entitled to their wives' bodies, hardly view marital rape as a thing and often try to control their wives' ability to obtain financial independence by telling them not to work.
The second one comes from the manner of bride price in Igbo culture.
Though bride price is practised across all ethnic groups in Nigeria, Igbos have a frankly dehumanising bride price system that sees women as objects to be exchanged in order to improve the lives of their brothers and male relatives.
How do these factors relate to the abuse of house helps?
Firstly, when a woman has been raised to see marriage as the pinnacle of her existence, it can lead her to act in ways that are derogatory to anyone she believes and suspects can come in the way of her marriage with her husband. This is especially when stories abound of husbands taking advantage of helps.
In a sane climate, the woman would leave the erring husband but because we live in a marriage obsessed culture where a woman's economic survival is tied to her husband, she can become a paranoid being and can take out violence on the girls. This is because she is afraid to take out violence on the source of her problems–the husband.
A scene in the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie perfectly described the above. Obinze's wife Kosi told an incoming househelp to leave because the girl brought condoms with her. The girl's reasons were that in her last house, she was being forced and she wanted to protect herself this time around.
Even though Obinze tried telling her that it would never occur to him to do so, Kosi was hellbent on ensuring that he never got the possibility to cheat on her. Eventually though, he cheated on her and left her. This time though, it wasn't with a househelp and no amount of controlling could stop him.
Regarding the issue of bride price, it affects househelps in a manner that can best be described as "the victim becoming the victimizer". Igbo people in explicit terms make it known to Igbo women that through bride price, they are properties to be passed around. Igbo culture also affirms that anything that is bought, can never be respected and must exist to fulfill the wishes of who bought them.
The day to day management of the home and the domestic sphere generally are areas where women generally have some modicum of power. Even though the final decisions are made by the man as "the head of the house".
Most househelps are recruited by the woman of the home and most times, their parents are paid in a manner that is eerily similar to bride price proceedings. The helps hardly get physical cash themselves and are sent off with a promise that they shall be trained in a vocational skill after a few years. That promise hardly gets fulfilled.
The same way Igbo men feel entitled to Igbo women's labour because they have "paid" brice price, is the same way Igbo women feel entitled to the helps they recruit because they have "paid" their parents and in some occasions may still send them things.
The same way Igbo men use violence to enforce their ownership over Igbo women's bodies because they have "paid" bride price, is the same way Igbo women use violence to enforce their ownership over the helps they recruit because they have "paid" their parents.
The solution to the maltreatment of househelps by Igbo women not only lies in stronger child protection laws.
It lies in Igbo people doing away with bride price and the entitlement to women's free labour.
It lies in the total condemnation of the use of underage helps.
Most importantly, it lies in Nigerians as a whole moving away from the belief that domestic labour is undignified and must be paid poorly if paid at all.