Growing up in Nigeria, I accepted some things as truth even when they made me uncomfortable. One of such was the idea of underage house helps, most of whom were often female children brought from the village. Even though I didn’t like the fact that some of my family members had underaged help and even mistreated them, I intentionally ignored that side of me.
When I started calling myself a feminist, I realised that there is a strong connection between gender roles such as housework and women’s ability to move higher career-wise. I would often think and write articles about how seemingly small issues like cooking were what prevented women from actualizing their dreams and aspirations. Even then, I never really gave thought to the female children who were unpaid help in families.
While mediums like Nollywood continued to normalize maltreatment of underaged maids in African homes, the first time I actively acknowledged that the exploitation of underage helps is akin to slavery was still thanks to the media.
A BBC Africa Eye documentary titled “Money Wives: The Children Sold To Repay Debts” exposed the practice of underaged helps for what it was. Selling little girls as young as 7 as Money Wives to men simply because their families owed and also simply because “dem sabi cook wetin remain”. I had to confront the reality that many homes in my country dealt with retail child slavery. The similarities were too eerie to ignore.
Karo Omu and Jola Ayeye are Nigerian advocates who, through their foundation called Eradicate Child Labour, helped young women like myself understand the telltale signs of child Labour we’ve so normalized. It began to hit too close to home.
As I grew as a feminist, the elephant in the room needed to be addressed. How complicit was the girl boss movement in exploiting child labour to outsource the patriarchal duties classed women escaped? Who pays the collateral damage for this emancipation?
Reading the works of poets like Ijeoma Umebinyuo who talked about the complicity of women in aiding sexually abusive situations towards house helps simply because they wanted to stay married and not divorce made me realize, this was as much a feminist fight and ignoring it made it a dishonest movement. I turned to more books like The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin which explored in detail how the institution of underage helps led to a lifetime of resentment in one of the wives due to her being denied education and the right to read and write. The truth was grim. We were all complacent with child labour in exchange for a shot at a career, marriage or simply comfort.
The one thing that is underscored in my literary journey is that for a disturbing number of homes in which underage house helps become sacrificial lambs either for men in marriage or for the upward mobility of other women. While we do not have a western race problem in Nigeria, it can be argued that in the women’s movement for equality, what often stands in the way of progress is class, education and poverty. Even for feminist women, the idea of having a help who should be in school actively charting her path is a normalised practice.
Today is World Day Against Child Labor and we must address the root cause of child Labor especially in the home. We can draw a straight line from men’s refusal to partake in household chores and child care to a system that outsources this labour under the stewardship of the women alone. It can also be traced back to how in most things, women and girls serve as mules to keep systems running such that it is often disadvantaged girls that are selected to slave away for a family, seeing as the odds are often stacked against them.
However, it is not enough to list these root causes. As much as we strive to seek equality, as feminist women, it should never be okay to exploit children to push ourselves further. It should never be okay to condone the abuse of underage helps in our homes by husbands, sons or any other members of the family. Silence is betrayal.
No one is free if some are still bound in shackles even if those bound seem to be classed very below us.
“The shackles that bind society’s oppressed do not belong in your home lest one day, the shall bind you”