In Togo, a 10-Year-Old's Muted Cry: 'I Couldn't Take Any More'

In Lome, a seaside city in a country with one of the highest rates of domestic slave trafficking in the world, hundreds of girls a year seek protection from abusive employers.
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 26, 2008

LOME, Togo -- Adiza ran scared and crying into the street. Ten years old and 4-foot-9, she fled the house where she had worked for more than a year, cleaning and sweeping from before dawn until late at night.

She ran to a woman selling food in the street and told her that since the day she had arrived in this capital city from her village in the country, her employer had beaten her almost daily and kept her in slavelike conditions.

"I couldn't take any more," recalled Adiza, a slight girl with close-cropped hair and almond-shaped eyes, who talked in a halting whisper as she described how her employer beat her with her hands and with cooking pots before the November day she ran away.

Rarely making eye contact, Adiza spoke in a shelter here surrounded by other tiny girls who had suffered physical or sexual abuse in the growing global trade in domestic servants.

The number of girls like Adiza, who leave their communities or even their countries to clean other people's houses, has surged in recent years, according to labor and human rights specialists. The girls in the maid trade, some as young as 5, often go unpaid, and their work in private homes means the abuses they suffer are out of public view.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency based in Geneva, said more girls under 16 work in domestic service than in any other category of child labor. The organization said that maids are among the most exploited workers and that few nations have adequate regulations to safeguard them.

Rights groups say rural families often send their girls off to work willingly, as a way to escape poverty, not understanding the risks of abuse. And the employers are often only marginally better off. Having climbed a step or two on the economic ladder, they can afford one of the first trappings of prosperity: a girl to do the chores.

Human Rights Watch has documented nearly 150 cases of female domestic workers from Indonesia who killed themselves in recent years in Singapore, many jumping to their deaths from high-rise apartments. In Saudi Arabia, thousands of girls and women from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia and other nations have fled abusive employers, according to the New York-based rights group.

In Lome, a seaside city of about 700,000 people in this former French colony, hundreds of girls a year seek protection from abusive employers. They have filled up the shelters here, many with faces, backs and arms covered with bruises and burns.

"This is an alarming human tragedy that the world has yet to wake up to," said Roger Plant, a top ILO official who specializes in human trafficking. "You have several million girls who are in these desperate situations, and they are off the radar screens."

A Fraying of Trust

Adiza was raised in Kpatchile, a few mud huts scattered among fields of corn and yams 250 miles north of Lome. The village is 12 miles from the nearest paved road, and Adiza's home is another quarter-mile down a tiny path through the tall brush.

"Everybody wants to leave," said Yacoumon Djatao, the aunt who raised Adiza, sitting in the shade on a 102-degree day, fighting fever and nausea from her latest bout of malaria -- a common ailment here. Rust-colored sorghum plants were drying on the roof of her thatched hut. She will grind the dried grain into porridge, her main food until the next harvest, six months from now.

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