After dropping out of school in primary six, 18-year-old Assoumpta Tuyikunde struggled to find means of survival. With her limited skills, the options were close to zero and she ended up as a housemaid.
However, the chilling stories told by abused housemaids made her hesitant at first, but with no choice left, she still took up the job.
“A number of my friends have faced sexual abuse not once or twice. Whereas a few speak out, most don’t report such cases to authorities because they are terrified and at the same time ashamed of who they are and what they went through,” Tuyikunde says.
She says that the chances of improving the household working conditions are hindered by the fact that housemaids are afraid to stand up for themselves since they are not aware of their rights. She says more effort is needed if the situation is to change.
“We don’t have the confidence to stand up to our bosses who at times abuse us; so they take advantage of that vulnerability. Besides, at times we get scared of losing our jobs because we need the money to support our families, hence enduring whatever conditions we are in,” she adds.
Tuyikunde believes that with the right support, especially through sensitisation and empowerment, working conditions for domestic workers will certainly improve.
Last year, domestic workers in Nyamabuye sector, Muhanga District received training from Association for the Defence of Human Rights, Sustainable Development and Family Welfare, a non-government organisation. The training focused on advocacy and capacity building on reproductive health and prevention of gender-based violence for domestic workers, among other aspects, like savings schemes.
Over 100 domestic workers benefited from the training.
Lyhotely Ndagijimana, the chairperson of the NGO, says that domestic workers often face the challenge of very low pay, and excessive hours of work as they often work 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
“They clean, cook, take care of children, look after elderly family members, and perform other essential tasks for their employers yet they have no guaranteed weekly day of rest and at times are vulnerable to physical, mental and sexual abuse or restrictions on freedom of movement,” he points out.
At its inception in 2014, the organisation’s initial work focused on beneficiaries in Kigali. However, it decided to extend its activities across the country with the aim of improving the living conditions of domestic workers and empowering them as well.
Deplorable working conditions, labour exploitation, and abuse of human rights are some of the major problems faced by domestic workers. Therefore, there is urgent need to respect the rights of domestic workers, promote equality, and improve their working and living conditions, Ndagijimana says.
He strongly believes that this will greatly contribute to the eradication of all aforementioned issues that have a negative impact not only on housemaids, but also their employers and the country in general.
Based on the impact made by the initial projects, Ndagijimana believes that this too is yet to make an outstanding impact.
“The results of the earlier projects were greater in society; the beneficiaries gained new skills and knowledge that contributed to the improvement of their living conditions. They formed tontines and opened up individual bank accounts as proof of increased spirit of saving.
“In addition, domestic workers who participated became aware of resources available in their communities in particular and the nation in general, including development programmes and human rights support. Previously, this group of people did not have access to this life-transforming information,” Ndagijimana adds.
For the future, Ndagijimana hopes to put emphasis on capacity building, savings and loan schemes for the creation of small income generating activities and also advocating for domestic workers to have access to vocational training.
What the beneficiaries say
Tuyikunde says that the training served as an eye opener for her and she can now have the future she always desired.
“I don’t think I will go back and pick up where I left off in school, but I will certainly join a vocational institute such that I get the skills that will help me survive and earn a reasonable income. I will manage to do this through saving, even though the salary is still little but I am going to do my best,” she says.
23-year-old Dorine Uwababyeyi has been working as a maid for a year now; she says that house helps are mostly faced with the problem of violence, among other challenges such as excessive working hours.
“The payment also is not good and it delays to come. However, the best part is that through the training, I now know that if I am faced with a challenge I can go to the authorities. I know my rights and just like any other person, I deserve to live a decent life.It is through such trainings that we get the information we need,” Uwababyeyi says.
EmerenceTuyisenge completed high school and is now working as a maid to save money in order to join university.
Hard as it may be, she is determined more than ever to see that her dreams turn into reality.
“I was almost giving up on my plans because what I was earning was meagre and I didn’t see how I was going to make ends meet. But through the training, we have been taught about cooperatives, this way, someone can even get a loan and pay back in instalments,” Tuyisenge says.
She is thankful for the opportunity presented to them and calls out to other stakeholders to fight for the rights and wellbeing of domestic workers.
What can be done to improve the wellbeing of domestic workers?
Employers need to be responsible; first of all they should not employ underage people. They should also know the rights of their house helps, for instance, ensure to have a contract with them, pay them on time, give them a day off and not overwork them.
Eraste Ntihemuka, Project Officer
Situations are different, at times it is the employer and other times it is the maid with the problem. However, both the employee and the employer need to respect each other. Employers should know that even though one is working as a maid they still hold value and should treat them as human beings.
Francoise Mukarubayiza, Janitor
There has to be mutual understanding, the employer has to be lenient in a way that also favours the house help. At times bosses tend to overwork them just because it is the job they came to do. However, treating each other with fairness creates peace and understanding.
Jackline Mutwarekazi, Housewife
There should be strict laws punishing those who mistreat domestic workers but most importantly, the workers themselves should know their rights and who to run to in case of any violence.
Henry Malumba, Engineer