NAIROBI, Kenya, Oct. 15, 2008 -- Mary is 32 years old but her worn face and hands make her appear twice as old. Illiterate and living in Nairobi, Kenya's most expensive city, she faces career opportunities that are limited to domestic work. She speaks softly and tends to avoid eye contact. But despite a voice that barely exceeds a whisper, she's demanding to be heard.
For 16 months, Mary's employer, a prominent woman who works for an international humanitarian organization and recently ran for public office, paid her every three months, on average. Each paycheck was around $45, a fraction of the salary she was supposed to earn.
Mary, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of reprisals, lived with her employer, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry by hand and caring for the children 12 hours each day, six to seven days a week, including holidays.
She was supposed to receive $75 per month and counted on that money to care for her two children, living in rural Kenya.
When she asked her employer about being paid, Mary says she was always told, "Be patient. You'll get your money." But the money never came. "I used to feel so bad at times," she said. "My tears would just flow."
Mary finally quit when her 13-year-old son was accepted into secondary school, an important but expensive educational milestone in Kenya. She saw her employer spending thousands of dollars on campaigning and entertaining, though she had not paid her in more than three months.
Mary knew she couldn't stay. "I felt like a slave," she said. "The thought that my kid was going to have to drop out of school and I was working so hard just didn't make sense to me."
Domestic Help Sought
Though there are Kenyans who treat their domestic workers well, Mary's case is not an isolated one.
In Kenya, nearly everyone, except the very poor, hires domestic help. The Kenyan government and other groups studying the issue estimate that almost 2 million households in Nairobi employ nannies, cooks, maids and gardeners.
It's a work force consisting of the poorest, least educated and, sometimes, most vulnerable Kenyans -- almost all of whom are women or children. It's an industry that drives much of Kenya's underground economy, but also one that produces a modern-day "upstairs, downstairs" society. Domestic workers, regardless of age, are referred to as "house girls" and "house boys," and are expected to be seen and not heard.
Abuse of these workers, ranging from paying virtual slave wages to sexual abuse, is rampant, says Edith Murogo, director of the Center for Domestic Training and Development, an organization that trains impoverished young Kenyan women and men in not only the skills they need to be productive domestic workers, but also their rights.
"House help workers don't know they have any rights," she said. "So when abuse happens, they keep quiet."
There are problems with husbands, and sometimes sons, sexually harassing and even assaulting domestic workers. "It happens from a point of vulnerability that men take advantage," Murogo said.
But she says it's the women that often inflict the most abuse, yelling, beating and berating the "help" into submission. "Mostly it's women that routinely mistreat house help," Murogo said.
There are the stereotypes, some based in truth, that if the woman of the house doesn't manage her "girl" right, she will steal from the family, mistreat the children and sleep with the husband.
"It is common whenever Kenyan women are talking, the conversation will go to house girls, and it's usually negative," Murogo said.
The relationship between the "woman of the house" and the "house girl" is a complicated one. On the one hand, women want and need the help to run the household, but at the same time, having another woman in the house taking care of the family is also seen as a threat.
The result is that domestic workers are dehumanized, often considered possessions of the family rather than employees. "The house help is like something to use," Murogo said. "I know people who lock their help in during the day, who don't give them any days off, who pay as little as 1,500 Kenyan shillings [$23] per month, much lower than the minimum wage."
Kenya has a law that all domestic workers must be paid at least the equivalent of $75 per month, and have one day off per week, but it is rarely enforced. The minimum wage is higher than most Kenyans are willing to pay for help, and there's no mandate from the government or nongovernmental organizations to change the situation.
"It's really a hidden industry," Murogo said.
But there have been high-profile cases in which employers were found to have bribed police to cover up abuse, and the plight of domestic workers often doesn't fit into the traditional international programming of nongovernmental organizations.
Murogo says she has been frustrated by the lack of attention to the issue from international humanitarian organizations. "The NGO community is always talking about women's rights, and that's great," she said, pointing to commonplace projects like access to water and school construction. "But what about women's rights in our homes?"
Albert Njeru, who heads the Kenyan Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers, which represents domestic workers, says less than than 3,000 people are registered with the union, the result of little knowledge and education among workers. He also noted that many workers are underage, an illegal but common practice in Kenya.
The union, using numbers from Kenya's Bureau of Statistics as well as its own research, estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of children working as domestic help illegally and being paid very little, if at all.
"Employers will provide the food, some clothing, work the children for seven days a week and never pay them," Njeru said.
In 2001, the Kenyan government passed the Children's Act, making it illegal to hire any child younger than 16, but, as with the minimum wage, the law has been difficult to enforce.
"An employer comes in and says this is my sister or a member of my family," Njeru said. "It's very hard to prove it's not true. Workers fear reporting. There's intimidation from the families, and sometimes from the police. And they fear that they will have to leave without being paid, even if their pay is just a little."
While the union launched a campaign last year to educate Kenyans about the ills of employing children as domestic help and has found some nongovernmental organizations willing to partner on the issue of child labor in Kenya, he says that the overall human rights issues of domestic workers is too large a problem for the union to address alone.
"One or two organizations will not be able to penetrate the issue of domestic worker abuse," Njeru said. "We need cooperation with other agencies, local and international."
For Mary, silence is no longer an option. Her son sits at home, unable to go to school, and, after years of working with harsh detergents, her nail beds are now rotted. She can no longer do laundry and potential employers see her as "damaged goods."
She needs the money her former employer owes her to survive. Working with the union and Murogo's organization, Mary has been successful in getting her former employer to pay back some of the money, and was promised the rest by the end of August, which she says she still hasn't received.
Now she plans to go back to her former employer's home and demand the rest of the money, the equivalent of about $1,000, which is substantial by Kenyan standards. "Ukoloni Mamboleo," she said, which loosely translates to "new colonizer" in Swahili, Kenya's traditional language.
Although the existing form of domestic help was a concept brought in with British colonization, Mary said, "It's not a Britain who's colonizing me, but my own African sister."