No school, no salary: the children tricked into domestic servitude in Zanzibar
For months, Rose was forced to work from sunrise to sunset, never paid and beaten for the smallest infraction. Now, in a shelter for trafficking victims, hidden away down a backstreet on the outskirts of Zanzibar City, the 13-year old is shaking as she recounts what it was like being a child domestic worker for a wealthy family.
What she remembers most vividly is the fetid smell of the tiny outdoor latrine in which she was locked for more than 11 hours.
“I was washing the dishes, but it got too dark to finish so I went to sleep,” she says. “Then in the morning, I was woken up very early and beaten. They locked me in the toilet from 5am until 4pm and then my employer threw me out of the house.”
Life for child domestic workers in Tanzania is a game of chance. The most recent Tanzania national child labour survey estimates that 110,911 girls are in domestic service. Those lucky enough to be placed with decent families could get an education, a job in the city and the chance to help support their kin. But for many it is the start of a life of exploitation, fear and isolation. According to the US state department, the trafficking of girls into domestic servitude is Tanzania’s biggest human trafficking problem.
Rose, raised in mainland Tanzania, was targeted by recruiters whose trademark strategy involves using the glamour and wealth of Zanzibar to convince parents to send their children into domestic work.
With its electric blue ocean and white sandy beaches, Zanzibar attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. With them comes the promise of economic opportunity. To people living in the rural mainland, it seems like a land of riches, says Aisha Iddi, programme manager of ActionAid Zanzibar.
“Zanzibar is a place for tourists,” she explains. “There are hotels, attractions and money, so parents think if their daughters go here, they can expect something good.”
Rose’s family was visited by an agent in their village who promised she would live with a good family, receive a decent wage and have access to schooling.
“[The agents] say, ‘She will be treated as a daughter’ – but when they come here, the stories change,'” says Aisha al Ibrahim, coordinator at a shelter for child domestic workers in Zanzibar. “There is no school. No salary. No playmates. They are treated like slaves.”
In May, once her family made an agreement with the recruiter, Rose was taken from her village in the south of the country and delivered to her employer’s house. She quickly realised she had nowhere to go and nobody to whom she could turn.
“I wanted to come because I thought I’d see a new place, I wanted to see the sea,” says Rose. “I was promised good things and told there would not be much to do, but [the first morning] I was woken up very early in the morning and beaten.”
In the 19th century, Zanzibar was the main slave-trading port for Africa’s Great Lakes region, with as many as 50,000 slaves passing through its markets each year to the Arab Peninsula, India, and beyond. These days, domestic trafficking in Tanzania is a thriving industry.
“Many families prefer to hire domestic help from the mainland because they don’t want the girls here to work,” says Iddi. “Not all employers treat them like slaves, but most do because they are more vulnerable. They totally depend on their employers for everything.”
What is happening to children in Tanzania is happening to many others across the world. The UN’s International Labour Organisation estimates that more than 17 million children between five and 17 are engaged in domestic work globally, either in their own homes or employed by other families. One-third of these are trapped in what the ILO considers hazardous work, exposed to violence and abuse, overwork and with no access to healthcare or education.
Rachel, 14, was beaten and forced to work for 16 hours a day with no pay for a family in Zanzibar City. She cooked, cleaned, washed clothes, and helped take care of children. She was also repeatedly raped and assaulted by her employer.
“[My boss] said, ‘Don’t you love me? Come sit on my lap’ and forced me to kiss him on the mouth,” Rachel says. “Then he took me to a room where there was a mattress on the floor. He saw no one was around and locked the door. He lay me down and said, ‘Don’t be scared. I’m not your father.'”
After almost a year of regular physical and sexual abuse, Rachel escaped when a local bus driver agreed to drive her into town and she managed to get to a police station in Matemwe village. She is now being cared for at a shelter.
“We see a lot of cases of children from the mainland, small children who are raped by their bosses,” says one officer, who works in Zanzibar’s child protection unit. “We don’t know who the agents are who bring the children here, but it’s a significant problem.”
In the 2017 Trafficking in Persons report, the US state department said that while Tanzania does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, “it is making significant efforts to do so”. The government investigated about 100 suspected trafficking cases in 2016 – up from 12 cases the year before. Yet for those children trying to escape abuse, the ActionAid shelter, with 10 available beds, is the only place in Zanzibar offering protection.
After Rose’s employer locked her out the house, a local woman helped her find the police station and the Department of Social Welfare referred her to the shelter. She is now preparing to go home to her family.
But staff at the shelter aren’t optimistic that Rose’s story will act as a warning to others.
“Her family has no idea what has happened to her,” al Ibrahim says. “But even if she tells her friends, ‘Don’t go to Zanzibar, there was no job,’ they won’t believe her.”
- The reporting of this story was made possible by a fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation Great Lakes fellowship.