Lifestyle & Belief

Teaching Senegal's girl house servants


Photo caption: Dieynaba Sene, 16 (left), Coumba Guigue, 17 (center), Marie Sene, 15 (right), are underage domestic workers. Here they are pictured in their home, where they work and live. (Drew Hinshaw/GlobalPost)

RUFISQUE, Senegal — Sixteen and tired of sweeping floors, Dieynaba Sene is thinking management.

“I want to know how to lead a business,” she said. “A small store, perhaps.”

It’s an aspiration she shares with two friends, Coumba Guigue, 17, and Marie Sene, 15, but for the moment, it’s only that — a dream.

The three girls are cooks and maids, called "femmes du maison" in French, meaning women of the house or house servants. They, like thousands of their peers in Senegal, entered this life when they were only girls.

None of them learned to read or write, and they giggle when asked what they’d like to do when they grow up. It’s a strange question for three teenagers managing on their own off $40 a month.

Five years ago, these girls were sent from their village, one after the other, to come to this Dakar suburb and work in the homes of families they didn’t know, “preparing every meal, cleaning all the floors, doing all their laundry,” said Dieynaba Sene (no relation to Marie Sene).

Dieynaba was 11 when she came to work in Dakar.

“It’s been a bit rough,” she said, although her 10-hour work days compare favorably to the 14 and 16 hours some of her friends clock daily.

The girls say they pocket nothing to send home, and the best housing they can afford is at “le site,” a waterless and furniture-free building with a leaky roof.

The girls want out.

“I want to do something more valued,” said Fatou Sene, 21. “Like run a drink stand.”

There may be several hundred thousand girls like Fatou and Dieynaba across West Africa, working in unregulated household labor markets like Senegal’s.

The informal terms of their employment, the secrecy that surrounds the practice and the ambiguities of being hired by a distant relative, as many are, make the girls in this line of work hard to count.

“It is a general problem to define a child domestic,” said Anne Keilland, child labor researcher for the Norwegian labor institute FAFO.

What is measurable, however, is that every week in Rufisque, 210 household servants like Dieynaba walk down a dusty alley into a well-maintained compound with a billboard up top.

“Program to Support Femmes Du Maison And Women In Difficult Situations,” it reads.

Inside, maids from ages 14 to 40 on up are learning to grind couscous, corn and cereal into sellable packets. Some bottle fruit beverages in the kitchen.

In the craft room, women practice printing batik fabrics, continuing a centuries-old textile art that is also one of the Senegalese economy’s biggest growth sectors. Down the hall there’s a daycare center, plus a microcredit window staffed by two former maids turned small business loan officers.

The centerpiece of the building, however, is a chalkboard.

“This is our national language, Wolof,” President Fatima Thiam of the Rufisque Woman’s Association said, gesturing at the hard consonants and umlauted vowels etched in chalk. “They need to know how to use it, to read it, to write it.”

Few of the girls and women who come here in their spare time do. Just 43 percent of Senegal’s population can read and the rate is lower still among household servants.

Illiteracy, school administrators say, not only prevents these workers from finding a better line of employment. It undermines their social standing and discourages them from speaking out for their workplace rights.

A democracy for 50 years, Senegal has long-established laws concerning domestic servants — women aren’t allowed to work more than 48 hours a week for less than 48,000 CFA ($90) a month — but both provisions are widely ignored, administrators say.

Abuse by employers, including sexual abuse, is neither unheard of, nor frequently reported. Law enforcement is often further hindered when employers and their victims are related.

For such unschooled and overworked village girls, Thiam says, the ability to decipher written language — even the manual for a fruit juice blender — can open a reservoir of newfound confidence.

“As they begin to learn, they begin to understand their rights, how to educate themselves and defend themselves,” she said. “If you can’t even read one sentence you’ll never be able to make sense of your situation.”

Teaching literacy is phase one. Phase two targets training the maids to become community entrepreneurs.

Women take classes on subjects ranging from how to use a calculator to how write a business plan and pay back loans. They hold seminars called “How to be a good president” and “How to be a good CEO.”

“This knowledge permits them to move into a modern, professional lifestyle,” said Khady Mboj Dieng, program administrator for Enda Senegal, an NGO that finances the school. “It gives them a sense of self-worth.”

Fatou Ngom, a house worker, 27, who raises her three children at the site, agrees.

“Just being able to read lets you understand so many things you never understood,” she said, speaking through a translator.

“I haven’t spent even one day in a school,” she added. “I want to know how to write my name.”