Fifteen-year-old Jean Luc Niyonsenga arrived in Kigali from Rubavu eleven months ago. Besides a pair of trousers and two t-shirts, Niyonsenga had only Rfw4,500 in his pocket and a dream to make it big in the city.
Upon getting to Kigali, he found himself sleeping in front of shops at night and on an empty stomach many times.
“I didn’t know where to begin searching for a job. On most nights I often found myself hungry, cold and a victim of harassment from street children,” he said.
Two months into getting to Kigali, Niyonsenga was offered a job as a houseboy from a man at whose shop he slept.
His employer’s terms were simple. Cleaning, cooking and washing; all at a monthly fee of Rfw10,000.
What the teenager did not know at the time was that he would be working for a family of four.
“I had never washed clothes or cooked for anyone other than my grandmother and now I was being told to do all those chores for a family. I however remembered what it was like sleeping on the floor and hungry and decided to stay,” he says.
In two months, weighed down by the weight of domestic chores, Niyonsenga begun getting sickly and before long, he was fired.
When his next employer slapped and kicked him when he delayed to open the gate in the middle of the night, Niyonsenga quit his job and from his little savings started a small kiosk, selling snacks at Nyabugogo bus park.
Niyonsenga is one of the few lucky ones. Children of his age and sometimes younger continue to be employed in homes, and are mostly overworked and underpaid.
In an interview with The New Times, Epimaque Karwanda, who runs ‘Inzira Y’akazi’, an agency that connects domestic house workers to prospective employers, said that even though his agency does not recruit anyone below 18, requests for employees as young as 15 are not unusual.
“We have a strict rule that we do not recruit anyone below 18 or one without a national ID. However, we are still approached by prospective clients looking for employees as young as 15. We obviously always turn them away,” he says.
Karwanda says that most of their employees are school dropouts and just walk into their offices or are referred by their colleagues.
Besides thorough background checks, Karwanda pointed out that their workers are also equipped with information and a phone number to call in case there is an issue especially concerning sexual abuse.
A 2015 study commissioned by CLADHO, the umbrella of all human rights organisations in the country, shows that child domestic labour is more pronounced with regard to female domestic workers with a third of those interviewed found to be aged less than 18.
The study pointed out that reason behind this difference is that there is a greater demand for young female workers to take care of babies and other children.
The report indicates that that in some places like Kicukiro, Rubavu, Muhanga and Ruhango districts, employers were aware that the practice of engaging children in domestic work is illegal and most wanted to disguise it, explaining that the children found in their households were their relatives’ children or that they were simply visitors.
The study also revealed that the main occupation in the domestic work environment was household servants (59.2 per cent) followed by the occupation of baby sitters at 16.1 percent.
Most who earn very little as compared to their workload were forced into these jobs by poverty or being orphaned at a young age.
“Extreme poverty or being orphaned are some of the major factors that led them to look for domestic work to earn around 10,000 per month,” the report reads.
The Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Madeleine Nirere, says that though there had been some improvements, there was need to continue the campaign to put a stop to the practice of adults economically exploiting children.
“We have seen some improvements but in this year alone, 1.498 children were rescued from indecent work and taken back to school or handed over to their families,” she said.
Measures in place
Any form of economical exploitation of a child by requiring him/her to accomplish work that is likely to put him/her at risk is punishable by law.
In 2015, the Government put in place the National Policy for the Elimination of Child Labour to prevent at-risk children from entering exploitative child labour; withdraw children engaged in exploitative labour through the provision of education, life skills training, provision of medical care and to raise community awareness about child labour among other measures.
The Government committed more than $4.2 million to these activities.