Tightening the noose on maltreatment of maid
There are many ‘Peace Goewam’ in at least one out of every 10 homes in the country. Remember Peace? She is the young girl rescued by the police on Christmas Day, December 25, 2019 in Enugu State after a video of her being dragged out of a vehicle, thrown up and slammed on the bare floor went viral on social media.
In fear and sensing the possibility of losing her life with more maltreatment, she immediately stood up and ran towards the gate in a bid to escape her guardian’s wrath, not caring to check if she sustained any injury. Her guardian chased after her and told her to return to the car. With the prodding of another woman who tried to intercede on Peace’s behalf, she returned to the car. Seconds after, the fiercely looking woman, grabbed her again and pounced on her repeatedly.
The culprit, Mrs. Amaka Ortolehi, her husband, Nkemakolam Ortoleh, and Peace’s uncle who gave her out as maid, Jonathan Goewan, were arrested by the police and on December 31, 2019 arraigned before Chief Magistrate J.I. Agu of the Enugu East Magistratrial District, who ordered they be remanded in Enugu Correctional Centre.
A visibly angry Commissioner of Police, Ahmad AbdurRahman, said while parading the suspects in his office: “Irrationally, she held her own daughter who she had affection for but was thrusting this very girl on the ground as if she was killing a fowl. We protected and rescued the girl and she is going to be handed over to a government agency that will take care of her. This is a typical example of child abuse, child labour, torture and man’s inhumanity to man. The maid’s parents said Jonathan told them that he was going to put their child in a school.”
Peace’s living condition is an antonym of her name. She had been taken away from her parents’ home in Plateau State, at age six. From her frail and malnourished looks, coupled with the marks of violence on parts of her body, it was obvious that eight-year-old Peace had been severely traumatised.
Despite the public show of support and commentary that trailed Peace’s travail, the indescribable assault of maids and house-helps turned to slaves has continued unabated. New cases of brutality are brought to light each week and the victims range from toddlers to adolescents, teenagers and even adults.
On November 26, 2019, an 11-year-old maid, who was allegedly assaulted and fed with cockroaches and faeces by her madam, was rescued by an activist, Gwamnishu Harrison, in Awka, Anambra State. She was rescued from a dungeon where she laid helpless with wounds and scars all over her face and body and immediately taken to Amaku General Hospital in Awka for medical attention.
Disclosing how it happened, Gwamnishu wrote: “A concerned citizen reached out to us on the case of an 11-year old house girl locked up, beaten up and fed with cockroaches and faeces. We quickly swung into action, got to Awka and rescued the little girl from the dungeon where she laid helpless with septic wounds and scars all over her body.”
On January 23, 2020, officers of the Rivers State police command interrogated a middle-aged woman, Madam Blessing Tamunokoru, for allegedly inserting pepper into the private part of a 14-year old housemaid. It was gathered that based on complaints from neighbours to the police over the inhuman treatment meted out to her maid, detectives attached to the Central Police Station, Port Harcourt Township arrested Tamunokoru.
The neighbours, who constantly witnessed the regular abuse of the housemaid by Tamunokoru alerted a human rights organisation. The suspect, however, denied inserting pepper into the girl’s private part, but admitted to flogging and inflicting wounds on her, which she claimed was to make her disciplined.
The 14-year-old victim said her madam used wire to flog her and sometimes poured hot water on her legs to inflict injuries on her wounds for not being able to sell all the kerosene given to her to hawk around the market. The state chairman of the Civil Rights Council, Prince Wiro, who was alerted to the girl’s situation, recalled that he saw the girl weeping and hawking kerosene.
A nursing mother, Folake Ogunrinu, was two weeks ago arrested by operatives of the Oyo State police command for allegedly lacerating her 10-year-old maid with a razor blade in the Sanyo area of Ibadan. The suspect, who had accused the victim of stealing her baby’s milk, in a bid to discipline her, subjected the girl to torture by allegedly using a razor blade to lacerate her on the back and hand, leaving the girl with severe injuries.
An eyewitness, who pleaded anonymity, while condemning the action of the nursing mother, said the maid ran out of the house to get help from neighbours when she could no longer withstand the pain from the torture.
On Thursday, February 20, 2020, in another incident, an Ogba Magistrates’ Court in Lagos ordered a housewife, Mrs. Esther Ijeoma Amechi, to provide medical attention to her house-help, Mrs. Joy Kanu, who suffered various degrees of injuries after she assaulted her. Magistrate O.D. Njoku issued the order after taking arguments from counsel and the complainant, the International Charitable Initiative for Girl Child and Women Development Foundation (ICI-GWODEF).
Joy Kanu, 43, is a mother of nine consisting of three sets of twins and a triplet. Magistrate Njoku also ordered the defendant, Mrs. Amechi, to attend to the broken limbs and the wound on the head of Joy Kanu and other forms of treatment in the hospital for the next three months after which the court will determine whether or not to proceed with the case or go for settlement.
It would be recalled that on January 14, 2020, an 18-year-old lady identified as Abigail Felix, took her life in the Alausa, Ikeja area of Lagos. Abigail, who is from the Republic of Benin, was said to have taken the deadly DD insecticide and left no suicide note. According to a police source, Abigail, who moved in with her employers, the family of one Akinrinmade two years ago, was responsible for cleaning the house and attending to customers at her madam’s shop.
A day before her death, Abigail had reportedly left the house without informing anyone of her whereabouts. After searching for her with no result, a case of a missing person was lodged at the nearest police station. The next day, Abigail snuck into one of the rooms in the house and when interrogated, she failed to disclose where she was the previous night.
She ran into another room where she locked herself in and refused to open the door. Efforts to get her out failed until the door was pulled down and she was found with foamy substances around her mouth with a bottle of the DD insecticide by her side. She was immediately rushed to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) where she died as doctors battled to save her life. The police are yet to establish any link though between her death and maid maltreatment.
Beside physical assault and torture, there is the also commonplace sexual exploitation of maids by ‘ogas’ and ‘madams’. A woman was arrested in a Lagos suburb on December 19, 2019, for allegedly feeding her 13-year-old maid with human faeces. This was after the woman’s son had also sexually molested the minor. Both mother and son were arrested in Okota, Isolo area of Lagos by officials of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Lagos Zonal Command.
But the goriest of maid abuse in recent times is the misfortune of Elizabeth Ochanya Ogbanje who went to live with her mother’s younger sister. If Peace Goewam is lucky to be alive after her police rescue, Ochanya from Benue State is not so lucky. She died on October 17, 2018 following health complications arising from alleged sexual molestation she suffered at the hands of a senior lecturer at the Department of Catering and Hotel Management of the Benue State Polytechnic, Ugbokolo, Andrew Ogbuja, and his son, Victor Ogbuja, a final year student who is still at large.
The death of the teenager, who was serially molested sexually by her guardians and later died of health complications, triggered public outcry and provoked national outrage and demonstrations across the country where human rights activists, as well as several non-governmental organisations, called for the arrest and prosecution of the culprits, consequent upon which the accused lecturer was arrested, arraigned and remanded in prison custody.
Mother of the deceased, Rose Abah, had told the International Centre for Investigative Reporting last year that she still remained traumatised by the loss of her daughter to sex predators one year after. “Ochanya was eight years old when I decided to take her to live with my sister so she could get a better education because our village primary school was not in good condition but that decision is now one of my biggest regrets in life,” Rose recalled.
She had sent her daughter to stay with her younger sister, Felicia Ogbuja, aged 43, who was married to a polytechnic lecturer, Andrew Ogbuja, aged, 52, who taught at Benue State Polytechnic, Ugbokolo. Andrew is also a third level knight of the Catholic Church. Ochanya lived with them for four years going to school and helping the family with domestic chores.
The outcome of that decision turned out to be a nightmare for Rose because her daughter never returned home the same way she left. She arrived home, sick as doctors struggled to save her life. Ochanya suffered urinal incontinence brought by prolonged sexual abuse, this meant she urinated uncontrollably when asleep or awake and she had to use baby diapers to control the urinary flow.
Rose had stayed with Ochanya in the months leading to her death; the period was marked with frequent visits to the hospital. “During one of those days when I was with her in the hospital, I had to ask her if anyone had slept with her because her feet were swollen badly that she couldn’t walk. I got the worst news of my life that day when she told me Junior (Victor Ogbuja), her cousin and Daddy (Andrew Ogbuja), his father had been taking turns to sleep with her,” she said.
The news was devastating for Rose because she trusted Felicia with her daughter’s future. She had wanted Ochanya to become a doctor; now the dream is shattered. “When I confronted Felicia, she was scolding Ochanya for not informing her. A relative of mine who had accompanied me to their house had to shut her up by telling her Ochanya would be afraid to speak of such acts because it happened in her home and she would be afraid,” she said.
The shock of hearing that news was overwhelming for Rose and the incident tore apart the relationship between the two sisters.
“My heart can’t be at rest until Ogbuja’s family has paid for what they took away from me. Ochanya was the child of my old age and whenever I remember what they had taken from me, it feels like scratching the surface of a closed wound,” she said.
There has also been the other side of the salacious maid tales. A young house-help identified as Uche Soroibe, was last month allegedly caught trying to poison his employer and family with an insecticide. The young man confessed to his crime on camera after he was caught. He revealed that this attempt was the third time he tried to kill his boss and family members with the insecticide. According to Soroibe, he lost his boss’ N750,000 to fraudsters and decided that his only solution was to kill his employer and his family.
Also in January this year, a maid, Hope Istifanus, allegedly killed a two-year-old girl, Somkenechukwu in Owerri, Imo State. The suspect, aged 16, reportedly lived with the deceased’s parents as a caregiver. It was gathered that the suspect allegedly strangled the baby and watched her die. Then she prepared the baby to look like she was sleeping.
When Somkenechukwu’s mother returned from the market, she saw the child lying on the bed. The maid told her that the little girl had eaten, bathed and slept off after running around the house. She didn’t suspect anything and decided to rest a little. However, when the baby did not wake up after four hours, she decided to wake her up.
But is having a house-help illegal in Nigeria? There is currently no law in Nigeria specifically regulating domestic staff. However there are a few things you need to be aware of. According to www.lawpadi.com, if s/he is less than 18 years old, then you are breaking the law (specifically Section 28(1)(d) of the Child Rights Act).
“By law, children are not supposed to be ‘employed as domestic help outside (their) home. The penalty for this is a fine not exceeding N50,000 or imprisonment for a term of five years or both. But because the issue of underage domestic help is so rampant, it is unlikely that you will be arrested for breaching this law except if there is an established case of assault, but be aware that you are still breaking the law and there are potential liabilities that may arise.
“The law was created to protect children, and your main concern should be how to ensure that the boy/girl working for you isn’t being exploited. Our advice at LawPadi is this: If you know you are breaking the law, then take steps to rectify it. There are organizations, which can give you advice on how to deal with domestic staff properly, and can talk you through how you can regularize your position legally.”
A lawyer, Onyekachi Umah, said Nigerian laws frown on child labour and abuse. “Often, families engage children and young persons as house helps, maids and workers under the guise that such children will be sent to school and or paid. Such practise/arrangement is now a criminal offence in Nigeria.
“It is a criminal offence in all parts of Nigeria, to employ, recruit, transport, harbour, receive or hire any human being in Nigeria that is less than 12 years old as a house-help, maid, domestic worker or staff member of any appellation. This offence is punishable with imprisonment for not less than six months but not more than seven years. Apart from the Nigeria police, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) can entertain such cases with sections 23(1) (a) and 82 of the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Enforcement and Administration Act, 2015.”
He, however, called on individuals, non-governmental and civil society organisations to bring to the attention of security agencies reported cases of torture or maltreatment of maids and children in their neighbourhood.
Despite the laws on engagement of domestic servants, human traffickers are still a step ahead of law enforcers, especially in Lagos where there is a high demand for house-helps ‘imported’ from Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana and Cameroun. Findings show there is a large market for house-help jobs in Lagos and the system is complete with agents, referees and registration fees.
The Guardian checks at the weekend revealed that to hire a maid, usually an underage girl, for a year, at the very least, the sum of N15,000 per month is paid to the agent or recruiter with an additional sum of N10,000 for registration and N5,000 for transport to import the girl and another N5,000 when the maid is returning at the end of a year, the total package amounting to N200,000 to be paid twice at six months interval.
Of this total sum, a paltry N50,000 or less is given to the parent or guardian of the maid while the girl is left on her own to the whims and caprices of her boss. Some parents though negotiate more from the bargain but the maid is subjected to all forms of maltreatment like a slave and made to work as nanny, house-keeper, sales/service girl all at once.
In most cases, nothing is given to the maid as pocket money. She is made to depend solely on her madam for her existence for feeding, wardrobe, toiletries, and other essentials. December is the time most trafficked children from Benin are returned home. Parents use the opportunity to renegotiate better wages on each child.
On how the children are moved, a Lagos resident based in Badagry, who claimed to be familiar with the modus operandi of human traffickers coming into the country through various border points in the town, Mr. David Wusu, explained that child traffickers often work alongside drug cartels and vehicle smugglers to carry out the nefarious activity.
“When the children are moved from Benin Republic, they come in mostly through the Seme border in Badagry and the adjoining bush paths. At the Seme border, even though customs officers are everywhere, what they are usually interested in, and which they focus on, are products, not humans. Customs will overlook anybody that wants to cross. It is when you are carrying any goods that you will be thoroughly searched. These traffickers move these children across the border, having promised them a better life on the other side,” he said.
After crossing, some of the traffickers have contacts in border towns and villages. They use hotels to camp the children before moving them in vehicles to their preferred destinations. According to Wusu, as soon as a maid is about to be brought into a new home, the middlemen will ensure that they take oaths at shrines, pledging that they would not steal, commit any offence or implicate their “madams”.
The oath taking of trafficked kids was also confirmed by a source who claimed to be a middleman for traffickers. The source disclosed that the girls were often made to take oaths so that evil would befall anyone that attempts to take advantage of them sexually.
“This is necessary because some of these girls’ masters are so promiscuous that they abuse the girls sexually and impregnate them and even infect them with diseases. So, the oaths would scare them off”, he said.
For businesswoman and fashion designer, Mrs. Anjioluwa Olaide Akinnisola, both relations and house helps are no-go area, as she has had a series of experiences from both sides. “I do not subscribe to both, because I have had experiences in both ways,” she explained. “When I got married, my husband and I decided to invite his niece, who stayed with us for about three years, but at the end, nothing good came out of it. She left when I needed her most, at the time I had my son, her mother came to take her away, claiming I didn’t take good care of her.
“This was a girl I enrolled in a private school. I also engaged the services of a home tutor, as she wasn’t particularly brilliant. Till date, her mother still holds a grudge against me, but I am happy that the girl is married today with two children and is living her life based on the training I gave her. She always calls to thank me, even though her mother is still angry with me.”
Narrating her experience with a housemaid she got from an agency, she said: “That was even worse. The last one I took was a mature girl. Whenever I wasn’t at home, she would start parading half-naked in only bra and pants around my husband. She would also sleep carelessly. We were staying in a two-bedroom apartment, and she shared a room with my kids. My husband is very conscious of his kids and would wake up at night to check on them, only to see this girl sleeping carelessly. One day, my husband said I was looking for trouble, as he couldn’t understand what the girl was doing in his home. He was the one who called my attention to the girl’s attitude. So, I sent her away.
“I took another one and she stayed for only three months. I didn’t know she was pregnant before coming to stay with me. She was not more than 17 years. She would work and sleep around the house. I had to take her to the hospital, where I was told she was pregnant. I was afraid because I thought a family or neighbour was responsible for the pregnancy. After much interrogation, she told me she got pregnant before coming to my house. So, I sent her packing.”
Dr. Olusegun Temilola, a senior lecturer in the Sociology department at the University of Lagos, said one of the problems of having recruited helps in the home is the cultural difference. He, however, noted that it is wrong for guardians to subject these helps to any form of slavery.
“This includes making them stay up late at night and getting up very early, which is dehumanising. If you have promised to send such help to school or learn a trade, it is proper to fulfill that promise,” he said.
He is, however, of the opinion that family is better, because you know them and their root, while agencies are just interested in the money they make. “They are in business and don’t really care about your welfare. By the time they recruit a house help for you, they will also plan the exit of the same help without your knowledge and even before your payment is due,” he explained.
“I had a similar experience. After getting a house help from an agency with a one year contract, the girl left my house after three months and the first thing I did was to report to the police station. Afterwards, I contacted the agent, who threatened that I produce the girl or else I would be held responsible for her disappearance.
“Fortunately, the girl forgot her phone, which she used to communicate with the agency, and that was how we discovered she was already serving in another home. Then we threatened the agents that they would be arraigned in court, unless they refunded our money. Eventually they paid some of the money.”
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