One day, when my daughter was eight, I asked her to help me unload the dishwasher. She moaned, dragged her feet and pleaded for Haribo in exchange for this simple task. I asked her if she knew how lucky she was and told her that, in many homes in Nigeria, girls as young as her were forced to do chores all day, every day. They were not allowed to go to school, or eat at the table, or watch TV. She was amazed. Looking into her face, the horror of what was considered so normal during my childhood really hit me.
It was child slavery – and it continues today. It was for these forgotten girls, trapped in domestic slavery, that I wrote my debut novel, The Girl With the Louding Voice.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the number of working children under the age of 14 in Nigeria is estimated to be as high as 15 million, but due to the nature of the problem it is almost impossible to land on an accurate number. A large proportion of these children are young girls, who work as “house girls”: domestic servants who are often underage and forced against their will into this kind of work. Many of them never see their “wages”, as they are paid directly to agents or family members.
I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. I lived in a smart, middle-class neighbourhood, in a house that sat in the middle of a row of terraced houses. Our neighbourhood wanted for nothing. Nearby, there was a well-equipped primary and secondary school, a church with stained-glass windows and stunning green surrounds, a supermarket that sold the best vanilla ice-cream I have ever tasted, paved driveways filled with good cars, a local beach where you could buy the best grilled meat. Pretty much all of the families who lived around us employed domestic servants, who in some cases were girls as young as eight.
I remember two girls in particular. Mariam, a maid to our neighbour, and Edna, who worked for another neighbour. It was easy to spot a house girl. Many of them had unkempt hair and were dressed in tattered, dirty clothes. They would stand behind a family of well-dressed, well-fed, well-spoken children, their heads bent, silent.
Mariam arrived in our neighbourhood one summer when I was 13. She was 11 and small, with a shaved head. When she laughed, which was often, the house would seem to vibrate with her laughter. I had no sister, so I found a sister in Mariam. But Mariam was not like me. While I played and spent the summer visiting amusement parks and hanging out with friends in their palatial homes, she worked every day. I watched as a girl younger than me tirelessly cooked, cleaned and, even though she was not employed by my family, washed my clothes and tended to me. I attended an all-girls boarding school in Lagos, but Mariam did not go to school. She spoke in Yoruba and broken English. She was intelligent and brilliant, and we would play together until the woman who employed her (her “madam”) would return.
Edna was older than Mariam, maybe 19 or 20. Whenever they could, Edna and Mariam would hang out together, stealing moments during a shared chore or on a trip to the local supermarket. When I returned to school at the end of that summer, I remember watching as Mariam stood behind her madam, with tears running down her face.
It was the last time I ever saw her. When I came back about six weeks later, Mariam had disappeared. Edna was dead.
There were so many rumours about what had happened to them. We heard that Edna had lost her life trying to get rid of a pregnancy. We also heard, many years later, that maybe Edna did not die; maybe she ran away. We also heard that maybe she killed herself. No one knew where Mariam went. It was said that her uncle turned up one day and took her away to work for another family. But there were also whispers that she ran away after Edna died. We heard so many things, but nobody really knows – and like so many of the underage house girls living and working in Nigeria, Mariam and Edna simply disappeared without a trace. I lost a friend that year, and ever since I have found myself wondering what happened to her, and to Edna.
In Nigeria, many of these house girls have no power, no voice of their own. In their silence, many of them suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse. There have been numerous reports of house girls being routinely raped, starved, beaten and disfigured by the families that employ them. I was haunted by an article about a 13-year-old girl who had been scalded with boiling water by her madam. Not only were her injuries horrific, but in the news story this young girl’s face was blurred out. This was presumably for privacy reasons, but it felt to me almost like a deliberate act to disconnect her from the world, as if to say: here is a nobody, just another statistic to report. This is what fuelled my desire to start writing my novel, the protagonist of which is a 14-year-old house girl called Adunni. I needed to see this girl’s face. I wanted the world to understand the lives of girls like her, and like Mariam and Edna.
Domestic slavery is big business. A 2017 report by the ILO estimates that slavery generates annual profits of $150bn (£117bn) worldwide, with $18bn of this coming out of Africa. The employers of these girls argue that they are fuelling the economy, providing a job, feeding a child. Some defend themselves by saying these girls are better off working in homes, rather than on the street.
In 2004, the Nigerian government created Naptip, an anti-trafficking agency set up to tackle trafficking of people across the border. Despite this, and despite the increasing outcry by those Nigerians who are documenting this abuse and sharing on social media, the issue persists. There is a lack of clarity around the minimum age requirement for hiring domestic workers and, as a practice that is deeply ingrained in Nigerian culture, it is often difficult to challenge. In an environment that is steeped in patriarchy, where most of the burden of housework and, in more recent times, financial responsibility falls on the woman, this precipitates the need for the services of a domestic worker.
Modern-day slavery is not just a Nigerian problem; it is a global one. In London, a city I have lived and worked in for close to two decades, there was a tenfold increase in the number of victims of modern-day slavery between 2013 and 2018. As many as 136,000 people may be living in slavery in the UK, with the Modern Slavery Helpline receiving more than 7,000 calls in a year. In 2018, an estimated 40 million people were trapped in slavery globally. Approximately 70% of these are female; children account for about 25% of this number. There is a clear and desperate need to tackle these global issues.
In 2019, a Nigerian television production company, Salt & Truth, released a heart-breaking trailer for an upcoming documentary called House Girls, which highlights the experiences and abuse of house girls in some Nigerian homes. The clip was watched and shared by millions, pushing the conversation to an even wider audience and provoking discussion. This is one thing that gives me hope: the rage of the people who watched the clip, and their recognition that, in Nigeria, this is an issue that needs urgent review and resolution. It is too late for Mariam and Edna, but there are some encouraging signs that the mood in Nigeria is changing, and that girls like them may one day have a voice.