Enjoying childhood or finishing school are still unrealizable issues for millions of girls in Latin America. Many of them, both from cities and rural areas, must prematurely assume the adult role in their own home or go to another home as domestic workers, a reality “as evident as it is invisible” in the region.
“Being a domestic worker as a girl is very hard. I was with the broom in my hand and I cried, washed the dishes and cried. I cried all the time because I missed my town, my family, my sisters,” says Reinalda Chaverra, originally from Tutunendo , in the department of Chocó, the most impoverished in Colombia, remembering that at the age of 12 her mother sent her to another city to take care of the children of a relative.
Reinalda’s case is one of many in Latin America, where, according to UN WomenDomestic work is one of the least recognized dimensions of women’s contribution to the development and survival of households, the economy and society.
A Salvadoran girl carries a container of water on the outskirts of San Salvador. Photo: EFE
Child labor around the world
2020 estimates from the International Labor Organization (ILO) suggest that some 160 million minors worldwide – among them 63 million girls – perform child labour, of which 7.1 million are in charge of domestic work.
In Latin America, 8.2 million minors between the ages of 5 and 17 work and, although it is known that girls and adolescent women are the ones who carry out a greater proportion of household and care tasks, paid or not, figures are conspicuous by their absence.
“It is an issue that is as obvious as it is invisible in the region: we know it exists, but we don’t know the reality, we don’t know what hpens, how it works in the countries,” says María Kathia Romero Cano, an expert from the Technical Secretariat of the Regional Initiative Latin America and the Caribbean Free of Child Labor, explaining that the nations of the region they lack statistics or they are out of date.
“Life stole my opportunities”
From the age of 9, before being taken to work in a house far from her home, Reinalda took care of his 4 brothers and housework in her native Tutunendo, a hamlet in western Colombia framed by an abundant jungle and crystal clear rivers.
160 million minors worldwide – including 63 million girls – perform child labour. Photo: EFE
“What I remember most about that stage is that life denied me, took me away, he stole my opportunity to study. That was my goal, what I longed for was to be there, learning like other children, with their very nice uniforms, but my mother told me that if I studied who would take care of my little brothers, “she recalls.
She shares this experience with Marciana Santander, a Paraguayan who from the age of 7 he stayed in the care of his brothers while his mother went to work and who little by little was taking on more and more tasks on the family plot, located in La Colmena, southeast of Asunción.
“When I was 11 years old, I was already working on our chacra (farm) and on someone else’s to earn a little money to help because We were already 12 siblings. I could hardly study, nor could I finish primary school,” says Santander, current secretary general of the Domestic Service Workers’ Union of Paraguay.
Researchers and organizations such as UN Women have concluded that this overload of housework and assignment of care tasks for relatives or other people begins in early childhood and increases when girls reach adolescence.
Caring for relatives or other people begins in early childhood. Photo: Reuters
UN figures confirm, for example, that girls between 5 and 9 years old they spend 30% more of their time helping around the house than children of the same age, a percentage that rises to 50% when they are between 10 and 14 years old.
Depending on the country, among the most common tasks assigned to girls are cooking or cleaning the house, fetching water or firewood, washing clothes and taking care of other children.
“We live in a culture that reproduces those gender patterns that are assigned to women and girls from birth: a particular role in the family and in society and that is the role of care”, explains Denise Stuckenbruck, UNICEF Regional Gender Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Girls are expected to stay at home to take care of their siblings, to take care of the house, to do the housework, especially if the mother has to go out to work.”
This, Stuckenbruck warns, has a profound impact as girls see Reduced access to recreation, play and education.
For Marcelina Bautista, founder of the National Center for Professional Training and Leadership of Domestic Workers in Mexico (Caceh), one of the most complex effects is that the cycle of poverty is perpetuated.
“These girls they do not have the opportunity to continue studyingif they finish primary school, which means that it will be very difficult to access another type of job with that level of schooling,” says Bautista, who comes from a peasant family.
At the age of 14, she was forced to leave her family and stop her studies to go as a domestic worker in Mexico City.
The phenomenon is very common in Latin America, where girls from impoverished areas are taken with strange families to work in the domestic sphere, with the promise of a roof, food and, above all, to keep their studies.
“Here in Paraguay there is a lot ‘maid’ who comes from the interior to study and work, but that is not the reality. When you enter someone else’s house, you can’t study and if it’s with a relative you have to take care of other children or clean the house and then we just go there,” says Marciana Santander.
She thus refers to criadazgo, a criticized practice in which thousands of Paraguayan girls are sent by their families to distant and strange homes to perform tasks ranging from cleaning the house to taking care of babies, in exchange for food and education.
But in reality, the minors do not attend school regularly and are exposed to risks indoors, such as overexploitation, mistreatment and abuse.
“That’s why, when we’re young and then when we grow up, we can’t have access to a good job due to lack of study,” laments Marciana, remembering that she started working as a teenager in a house far from her family and, since she only spoke the Guarani language, basic training cost much more.
According to statistics cited by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in Brazil, Mexico and Peru child labor is more frequent in absolute numbers; while in percentage of the population between children between 5 and 17 years old, Bolivia (26.4
Experts warn of the complexity of the problem of child labor in Latin America, especially girls, given the multiple factors involved, but consider that there are some priority actions to combat it.
UN Women has urged, as a matter of urgency, to design policies that offer services, social protection and basic infrastructure, that promote the distribution of care and domestic work between men and women and that allow the creation of more and better jobs in the assistance field, as well as focusing on the gender proach to reduce child labor of girls.
Leaders of domestic workers in the region, such as Reinalda, Marciana and Marcelina, ask to design mechanisms to promote decent employment.
“The truth is that work is for adults and the right of a girl is to continue studying so that her opportunities are not frustrated. For this reason, the State must generate attention for women, who have a well-paid job, so that their daughters have the option to continue studying,” says Mexican activist Marcelina Bautista.
What everyone agrees on is the urgency of filling in the information gs in order to more accurately assess the decisions to be made and prevent the situation of girl domestic workers from continuing to be invisible.