Education and domestic work: what is your domestic worker’s backstory?

  • Posted on: 6 December 2016
  • By: tony

As we commemorate the 16 days of activism, let us remember our domestic workers, particularly our maids and child minders; the women in our homes who clean, cook and look after our children. Many of these women became domestic workers not by choice, but because they failed to continue their education. This happened for a variety of reasons; their families could not afford to keep them in school; they were married early and the marriage did not work out; or their husbands died.  A lot of the times these women are so desperate for a job that they accept awful working conditions for very little pay because the option is either begging on the streets or becoming sex workers. Their vulnerability leaves these women to suffer of all kinds of abuse, (physical, psychological, sexual, financial) at the hands of their employers without recourse, especially now when jobs are hard to come by. 

Our domestic workers have a story behind them: no one as a child dreamt of being a domestic worker. I would like us to reflect on our treatment of the women we leave our children with everyday and remember that they have daily challenges that they have to face, besides looking after our homes.  We have had a long term domestic worker, Thenji, a kind and hardworking woman. In conversations with her I know that she is the eldest in a family of 8, she had to leave school before she finished grade 7.She has the basics, and she can read and write simple English, do basic arithmetic and follow instructions. She had to leave school to assist her parents to ensure that her siblings have a chance to finish school and write O levels and perhaps go further and get a tertiary education. Her sacrifice was almost worth it as her youngest sister passed her A-levels, and, with the help of a non-governmental organisation, received a scholarship to go and study at a university in Ghana. She was due to leave a couple of months ago.

After her A-levels she got a job as a temporary teacher and subsequently met a man, started a relationship and became pregnant.  The scholarship does not include a baby. Thenji was beside herself with anger and disappointment: she cried, and her cry was what was the point of her leaving school and leaving her family to come to Harare and work when her efforts are not appreciated?

Even though Thenji is not educated, she knows the value of an education, the difference it can make to life, particularly a young woman’s life.  She knows that had she had an opportunity to stay in school her life would have been very different today. She fails to understand how her sister who had received an opportunity of a life time but, after all she had seen growing up, she let it slip through her fingers so she can be a mother and a wife at the age of 21. Thenji’s cry was not only for the missed opportunity for her sister but for herself, her own lack of education and the limitations that resulted, the things she had denied herself to ensure that she sends money home for school fees for her siblings. The only one that had completed A-levels and offered a scholarship had to turn it down because she was going to have a baby.  Thenji recounts her own struggle as an uneducated woman with a young child and she did not want this for her sister.

Education is the key to independence and freedom and to a better quality of life. If only her sister had not become pregnant, taken up the scholarship and completed her degree, the benefits would not only be for herself but for their whole family.  The circle of poverty will continue in Thenji’s family and I can understand her pain. 


Such is a culture that made sex education taboo. Thenji's sister was probably a victim of date rape. Not equipped with enough knowledge of a girlfriend / boyfriend sexual emotional transaction she would have been ill equipped to deal with the urgency of sexual desire both on her part and the boyfriend's. We need to be more open about it. Particularly in the poorer sections of our society which then perpetuates home helpers and their families lives in a revolving poverty cycles.


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