Each day, 12-year-old Tesfa waits for the clock to strike 3:30 p.m. and provide her respite from the cooking, cleaning and beatings she endures working as a maid in Ethiopia’s capital.
Once she finishes her daily tasks – which include caring for a toddler – Tesfa runs to a primary school to avoid being late for a catch-up class tailored towards underage domestic workers.
“I’m only happy when I come here,” Tesfa, whose name was changed to protect her identity, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after a class in Addis Ababa last month.
Fiddling with her necklace, she spoke of sleeping on the floor, eating only leftovers and being denied any days off.
“I do anything (the employers) order me to do … they beat me, always,” added Tesfa. She was left with the family last year by an aunt who took her from northern Ethiopia to Addis Ababa.
Tesfa is one of countless girls working as maids in cities across Ethiopia although official data is lacking. Most come from rural areas and are sent away in search of a living by their families – often via labour brokers or with relatives.
Kept indoors, far from home, and unprotected by labour law, many child servants are denied an education, exploited and enslaved, according to activists that work with such victims.
Run by a local charity, the two-hour lessons are attended by about 130 pupils, most of them young maids, who have permission from their employers to go to school once their chores are done.
“These children are hungry for education,” Fikirte Assefa, a volunteer for the Organization for Prevention, Rehabilitation and Integration of Female Street Children (OPRIFS), which has been running the early evening classes since 2006.
“(The classes give them) hope and a vision,” Fikirte added, recounting success stories of former child maids she had worked with who later went on to become nurses, doctors and engineers.
Yet such triumphs are thought to be rare in a country where the rights of domestic workers are not enshrined in labour law.
Their working conditions are regulated by Ethiopia’s civil code of 1960, leaving them highly vulnerable to abuses according to lawyers who say this limits their legal avenues to pursue justice and fuels a sense of impunity among exploitative bosses.
Under the code, employers must pay domestic workers living in their homes every three months and cover healthcare costs, while being entitled to offset the outlay against owed wages.
Former federal prosecutor Mussie Mezgebo Gebremedhin said this meant that the lives of Ethiopia’s domestic workers “largely depended on employers’ sense of fairness”.
“The government has drafted a regulation on domestic work but still it has not been enacted,” he said. “(It) thinks that domestic work based on a contract can disrupt the family-like conditions or the relationship between the employer and worker.”
In one case supported by OPRIFS, 11-year-old Demitu – whose name was also changed to protect her – said she was enslaved as a maid for two-and-a-half years at different houses without pay.
Her situation was uncovered by police and she is now staying at a safe house run by the charity while awaiting the trial of two women, who allegedly abused Demitu when she worked for them.
But activists say the legal system is not child-friendly and the government has stressed that the situation needs to improve.
“We are not working seriously on child labour (particularly) on domestic workers,” said Kibri Hailu Abay, a director at the ministry of women, children and youth. A new labour law passed last year raised the country’s working age to 15 from 14.
The main challenge is dealing with labour brokers, he said.
Families who are in the market for house help often turn to labour agents, who source young rural girls before taking them to their employers, taking a cut of the salary as commission.
Yet many unscrupulous brokers are known to have deceived parents with false promises of a better life for their children in major cities, before placing them with exploitative bosses.
“We have to … discuss with them (labour brokers), to show the impact (their actions) will have on the young girls,” Kibri added, stressing the need for awareness raising campaigns.
Back at the school, the organisers of the lessons bemoaned the fact that many young maids would miss out on an education.
Volunteers with the charity go door-to-door in the capital in a bid to convince employers to allow their servants to attend the classes, which cover the initial years of primary education.
“The government says it’s mandatory to go to school, a basic right,” said Tsion Degu, a program manager at OPRIFS.
“Every employer must respect it. (But) some resist. Our culture is very hard.”
The charity gives school supplies and hygiene kits to the girls but struggles for funding – relying on donations from a German charity and the state providing the classrooms for free.
During the class, the otherwise glum Tesfa burst into life and moved her body energetically as the maids enjoyed a recital of “heads, shoulders, knees and toes” with one of the teachers.
But when the lesson came to an end, reality dawned on Tesfa as she prepared to rush back to her employer to avoid reprisals.
“I’m afraid of them.”