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Housegirls subjected to worse lives than pets in some Kenyan homes

By | January 23rd 2010

By Njoki Ndung’u

From readers’ reactions to my article last week on the mistreatment of Kenyans working in foreign countries and especially in the Gulf, it seems the problem is bigger and deeper than initially thought.

I have read the emails with a welter of emotions. Some are moving accounts of first person narration of experienced degradation and humiliation in foreign lands. Others are apparently credible reference to our nationals still caught in a web of deceit and atrocious denial of basic human rights in the name of expatriate employment.

There are claims of knowledge of Kenyans condemned to hang in Middle East on the weight of flimsy fabrications provoked by the victims’ resistance to slave-like working conditions.

Embassy impotence

There are also confirmations of the apparent impotence of our embassy in Saudi Arabia in forcing a decisive intervention for victims lucky enough to reach it with complaints of abuse by employers. Others believe our nationals deserve an embassy in Qatar considering the sheer number of Kenyans working there and the vortex of expatriate labour-related issues. The emails challenge me to do something about the victims. But whereas my heart bleeds for the suffering of the subjects involved, and as a lawyer, I appreciate I can only do so much as an individual.

The ills besetting the foreign workforce are of a gargantuan nature; solutions must come from high official levels. I insist the best route to a workable solution is for the Government to show commitment to force the application of relevant laws that are essentially tailored to pre-empt such situations.

I appreciate the natural cynicism around official Government intervention.

Indeed, a reader notes the coincidence in the article and the circumstances surrounding the controversial Jamaican Muslim cleric. The thread is that both instances are indicators of manifest negligence of the application of clear laws already in existence. His email states in part: "You offer some great solutions, but do you think a country like Kenya with its lax immigration laws that end up admitting a terrorist who other countries have rejected will do anything for those Kenyans affected in Saudi and elsewhere?

"If our computers cannot detect that a man about to come through our border is a terrorist and unwanted, how can we trust the system to protect and fight for the rights of the abused Kenyans…?"

But besides the tell-and-shock readings, the emails also point out our own roles in abetting the undesirable situation through naivety, connivance, and hypocrisy.

Sometimes, fooled by the grandeur promised by the foreign jobs, victims fail to undertake preliminary investigations on the offer. Although some know of the explicit provisions of the Employment Act on foreign contracts, few insist on them.

Domestic slavery

It is however the pointer to our apparent hypocrisy that pricked my thoughts most. The provocation came from the email quoted above which continues in part thus: "Maybe next time you can write a similar article but with a focus on domestic slavery and bad working conditions for housegirls — some Kenyans who employ them are just as bad as the Saudis."

I got that email before the sad case of a housegirl allegedly thrown by her employer from a third floor in Umoja estate in Nairobi was reported.

It certainly is not an isolated case. The media have periodically reported bestiality meted on domestic helps by their employees.

Incidentally, only a negligible portion of these atrocities ends up in the press.

As probably every honest Kenyan would acknowledge, everyone seems to know of a housegirl somewhere who is treated in ways that are not remarkably dissimilar to what the Saudis are doing to our own. Indeed, your ordinary Kenyan househelp is an endangered species. Many work long hours for a pittance, which, by the way, may not always be delivered. Despite cooking meals in the house, some are in constant starvation because denial of food is a standard treatment. Where it is provided, it is usually of far lower quality than that of the rest of the family.

Low intelligence

Physical abuses are rampant. Many matrons of the house regard occasional beating of househelps as integral disciplinary measure. Others subject them to humiliating punishment like ordering them to kneel down in the sun or to proclaim their stupidity.

That most of them have little formal education is considered hard evidence of their low intelligence. In truth, they often drop out of school for other reasons and mainly due to lack of fees or because their parents are reluctant to "waste" money educating a girl.

The same ills perpetrated by household males on domestic helps in Saudi are a fair staple in Kenya. If the man of the house is not molesting the housegirl, she’s probably fending off unwelcome attention from the boys.

Sometimes dad and sons are in the mix. Often, reporting sexual abuse to the matriarch is a bigger crime. She is generally regarded as a cheap competition. It is common to blame the househelp for "provoking" or consciously luring the men.

Unless we have the conscience to first remove this log in our eye, our collective indignation at the Saudis shameful treatment of our nationals is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

—The writer ([email protected]) is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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