In the days when he used to rush to school with other children in his village, Jean de Dieu Ngabire dreamt of becoming a teacher.
However, today, the 17-year-old boy works as a houseboy, cooking food and looking after a five-year-old boy at a house in Butare town, Southern Province.
His lack of schooling has destroyed his dreams of becoming a teacher and even his current dream of pursuing carpentry training is a big doubt. “I need a better life other than this one,” he says.
Ngabire is one of the many school dropouts who work as a house helps. Many children drop out of school because their parents still do not understand the importance of education.
The claim that they cannot afford school costs does not hold water since we now have Free Primary Education. All a parent needs is to meet some additional small costs like buying books, pens and uniforms.
It is true that some parents would find it difficult to buy the additional needs, but it is wrong to say that a parent cannot afford to get costs completely.
In most cases, children are victims of irresponsible parents who can be categorized as either drunkards, single parents, ignorant and illiterate ones, divorced parents, etcetera.
Children with such parents tend to get neglected and consequently drop out of school and end up working for low pay.
People in the community too, are to blame for they take advantage of such kids and exploit them. They use them in domestic chores and pay them peanuts.
Explicit laws protecting such children must as a matter fact, be put in place to protect them from this kind of child abuse. Yes, there is such a law but child protectionists like Haguruka association, complain of its ambiguity.
“There is some confusion in the law. It needs to be harmonized”, said Christine Tuyisenge, Director of Haguruka, the local children rights group.
Current laws state that children can start working when they are sixteen, but does not clarify how their employers, according to Tuyisenge, should treat them.
“Stating only the age limit, when children start working is not enough. There are many ways in which children’s rights are violated when at work,” she said.
For example, the government sets the minimum wage at 30,000 Rwandan francs (about US$ 55.76) each month. Yet, most housekeepers do not have contracts and earn far less than the minimum wage.
In addition, even if they were to be given more money, they just should not be in the work at the age. However, because the parents they have do not care for them or are absent most of the time they end up being exploited.
Ngabire started working as a houseboy three months ago. He said his father has 3 wives and 15 children and could not afford to pay for his schooling. Therefore, he dropped out three years ago and started helping his mother with fieldwork.
“I decided to leave my home and get a job for myself because farming was becoming hard for me.”
His elder sister eventually brought him to Butare from his native village of Taba, about 30 kilometres away. He now works for a 29-year-old single woman, taking care of her, her son and her 22-year-old roommate.
The woman herself earns Frw 80,000 (about US$ 148) a month, working as both a bank cashier. She leaves the house at eight each in the morning and comes back at ten o’clock each every day.
Ngabire sleeps on a mattress that he lays on the floor every night beside the larger mattress shared by his employer and her roommate. When he wakes up in the morning, Ngabire rolls his mattress and puts it in the corner of the room.
He immediately starts work after washing his face. He makes his employer’s bed, does the dishes, mops the house and starts cooking.
The vividly inexperienced boy is involved in a complex cooking process. As he fries cabbages in a black ironed frying pan on clay stove outside the house, he looked excited about the meal he is preparing.
“I think the food will be delicious. When it is not tasty they don’t eat it happily and they insult me”, he said.
Part of Ngabire’s job today is to look after his employer’s five-year-old-boy. He feeds him in the morning, takes him to a nursery school and then cares for the child at the end of the day.
Like other people who use child labour, Ngabire’s boss says she prefers to hire children because they will perform chores that adults will not do, with respect and at a low price.
“You choose depending on who can do whatever job you want to be done. People with more than 20 years old always have their problems”, says Ngabire’s boss. In developed countries, nobody talks about underage labour because they have laws that protect children.
In the developing world however, the trend is different and everybody claims to be able employ a house help but this is not employing, but exploiting. The underage labourer has no capacity to bargain for a better pay.
It is wrong to use the pretext that the child who is in your home is taken as your children, yet they get very different attention, as yours go to school and he or she stays toiling at home.
Despite his many responsibilities, Ngabire is only paid Frw2500 (about US$ 4.50) a month. His employer justifies the low wages by arguing that he has become like one of her children.
“I don’t consider him like an employee as such. He doesn’t do anything that I value except helping me with the kid and I can’t afford two maids”, claims the boss.
Because hundreds of thousands of Rwandan children continue to live a hard life as labourers, a national survey on the issue is being conducted by the national statistics board (NISR) in collaboration with other key players on children’s rights such as UNICEF, World Vision’s KURET(Kenya Uganda Rwanda Ethiopia Together) project, and some trade unions in the country.
The Ministry of Labour (MIFOTRA) is also in the process of formulating a national child labour policy with support from other partners including the KURET Project.
Nevertheless, as the government struggles to come up with a practical policy to effectively protect children against exploitation, a solution will only be possible if people become aware of the challenges facing children like Ngabire and Harerimana.