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Senegalese girls forced to drop out of school and work as domestic help

© UNICEF Senegal/2010/Shryock
Aisatou Ba quit school in Senegal when she was eight years old to work at home and help her family. At 11, she began working in restaurants and cleaning other homes as a domestic worker.

By Ricci Shryock

DAKAR, Senegal, 16 November 2010 - When she was eight years old, Aisatou Ba quit school and began working as a maid. Though she begged her parents to let her stay in school, the economic pressure on the family proved too strong. The Senegalese teenager has been cleaning houses and cooking in restaurants instead of studying textbooks and learning arithmetic for the past seven years.

Dressed in a white shirt and black-and-red skirt, seated on the edge of a bed in the apartment building she cleans, Ba talks about the day her parents told her she would have to quit school. “My parents said they could no longer afford it, and they needed help at home,” she says.

Forced out of school

Ba is from the village of Velingara, Senegal, and her story is all too common here in West Africa, which has some of the world’s lowest gender parity and girls’ primary-school enrolment rates in the world. In Senegal, while girls’ enrolment has increased in the past ten years, the challenge is to keep them in school.

The root of this issue is often economic: National surveys show that twice as many children from the richest households attend primary school, compared to children from the poorest households.

© UNICEF Senegal/2010/Shryock
Students listen to a speech in a classroom in Dakar, Senegal, where fewer than one in five attend secondary school.

“When girls are physically able to do domestic work, they take them out of school,” says Aissatou Dieng, who works for Senegal’s Minister of Education and specializes in girls education efforts. “Often families keep girls as young as 10 years old home from school to work or help their mothers. It’s a big problem in Senegal.”

But it is nearly impossible to count all the young girls who work as domestic help, because they largely stay indoors most of the day.

Girls singled out

After working in her home village, Ba arrived in Dakar last year. She has been working here ever since. Ba says nearly all of the jobs available to her entail domestic work. She says she knows if she could have stayed in school, she would have had better opportunities.

Ba currently works Monday through Saturday for seven hours a day. At the end of every month she takes home 35,000 CFA, or just less than $70.

As a young girl, Ba watched as her brothers continued to go to school. Her eldest brother now works as a nurse in a hospital and helps support the family. In Senegal, girls are often singled out to quit school and help the family at a young age. Fewer than one in five girls are able to go to secondary school – and later in life there are only 6 literate adult women for every 10 literate men.

At risk of abuse

“Young children are used as a coping mechanism in response to economic shocks,” says UNICEF Child Protection Officer Daniela Luciani. “This means that girls often marry young or go to work very young.”

Domestic workers such as Ba are also particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and economic exploitation. Most of these young girls have no access to protection services, and the abuse remains hidden.

Ba doubts she will ever go back to school, but she says that when she has daughters of her own, she will help them get a better education.



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