The pray call at the crack of dawn echoing from the next door mosque didn’t wake Abeer from her deep sleep. Yet, the yelling of her mistress shortly after did. It was her daily wake up call. The eleven years old girl jolted on the thin blanket and quickly pulled her skinny body off the kitchen floor where she slept in fear that her mistress would kick her until it hurts. Hardly able to open her eyes, Abeer dragged her fatigued feet to the sink to splash her face with water. She wasn’t much taller than the counter and hardly reached the faucet. To wash the dishes she stood on a stool. Abeer worked for eighteen hours every day, seven days a week and her frail body was already giving up on her. She ironed, mopped and ran the household errands. and worked in silence. Any complaint would expose her to physical or verbal abuse, depending on the mood of her mistress.
Abeer’s story is not unique. Her unemployed father refused to pay her school fees. When she was expelled he forced her to follow her mother’s career as a house maid, to support him. It is quite common for millions of Egyptian families living under the poverty line to push their minor children into the job market to supplement their income. Exploiting children in unethical, yet families with limited resources don’t think about it from a moral point of view, but from a survival one.
There is a fine line between child labor and slavery. The international Labor Organization defines child labor as work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children. Child labor is also one of the main reasons children drop out of school.
As young as the age of ten, these girls are plucked from the warmth of their family life and thrown into a world of slavery. The slave masters in their cases are their fathers who collect their paycheck which often does not exceed ten dollars a month. With no institutions to protect their rights or to regulate their job conditions, these girls are often thrown into the hands of ruthless and heartless families where they endure continuous nightmares. In these homes they are subjected to physical and emotional abuse, sexual harassment and humiliation. They are overworked, starved and deprived from medical care when needed.
Abeer was sexually assaulted by her mistress’ seventeen years old son. To escape her horrific fate, Abeer ran away, but was severely beaten by her father who depended on her income which was more important than the conditions his daughter lived in.
She changed one job after the other, each time running away only to be forcefully returned back to a new job by her father. At the age of thirteen, Abeer jumped out of the window to escape the torture she endured at the hands of her employers. The girl survived the fall with only a broken leg to tell the story. Her mistress had accused her of theft, but instead of reporting her to the police, she took matters in her own hands. She burned her, beat her, shaved her head and finally ordered a male relative to rape her. After Abeer was transported to the hospital, police opened an investigation and her mistress was arrested and sent to fifteen years in jail.
Her horror stories are not the norm in all households. However, the inhuman treatment the young girls are exposed to with some families had attracted a lot of attention from several NGOs. Azza El-Ashmawy, the director of the anti-trafficking in children unit, in Cairo, announced that she is working on an initiative that aims to propose policies and programs to regulate and improve the working conditions for the domestic workers, especially children, and to punish the employers who exploit them. An idea of forming a union of house maids had even been proposed.
In countries where poverty dominates the society, child labor will never be eradicated. However, in Egypt there are efforts underway that are directed to at least reform their working conditions. It is such a misfortunate that Abeer and thousands of girls like her will never have a chance to go to school and experience childhood.