Independent Appeal: Helping girls escape from domestic slavery

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The Independent Online

The rope tore skin from her hands and arms as she slid down but 17-year-old Maria didn't mind for it was the only way out of the apartment building which had been her virtual prison for over nine months.

It was early evening. Her employers were having dinner when Maria and two other domestic workers decided to escape from their abusive day-to-day existence, by lowering themselves from the eighth floor using the laundry line.

Maria is one of hundreds of thousands of girls who, hoping to escape extreme poverty and lured by tales of higher wages and a better life, are enticed to try their luck in Manila, capital of the Philippines.

She was promised health benefits, days off, and a salary of 2,500 pesos (30) monthly. Instead Maria, not her real name, found herself trapped in slave-like conditions. During the months she worked for them, Maria's employers refused to give her even a fraction of the monthly salary she was supposed to receive. She had to work from 5am until midnight, cleaning all eight floors of her employers' apartment.

Maria's employer berated, humiliated and physically abused her and fellow household staff for each tiny mistake. They were not allowed to take any day off or even leave the house.

Watching television or any other form of entertainment was out of the question. It was difficult to get any rest because they had to sleep on the floor of the living room, which was always padlocked at night and during days when the household staff were the only ones left at home.

But for all her misfortunes, Maria is one of the luckier ones, according to Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, president of the Visayan Forum, a Philippine-based agency funded by the International Children's Trust (ICT). The trust is one of the three charities supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal.

The ICT focuses on the needs of children who are vulnerable and at risk through programmes which help youngsters build their self-esteem, gain access to their rights, and develop the skills needed to break out of poverty.

Poor families living in the provinces are often enticed to send their children off to work in the homes of richer families, in the hope that the children will at least get food, shelter and, perhaps a little education. More often than not, however, the children end up in virtual slavery. Ms Flores-Oebanda, herself a former child labourer, says that in many cases, in addition to the physical and verbal abuse, young domestic workers, are also sexually abused by their male employers.

Uprooted from their families at very young ages, the girls are typically very timid and unable to voice their complaints. It does not help that even before they leave home, their parents are often already heavily indebted to the head-hunters who recruit young girls for this purpose. One young girl, who was raped twice by her employer, Ms Flores-Oebanda recalls, found it difficult to leave because of the debt she owed.

Helping young domestic workers like Maria is one of the key programmes of The Visayan Forum.

Ms Flores-Oebanda won the 2005 Anti-Slavery Award for her organisation's work in this area.

The group runs a shelter for domestic workers seeking refuge from abusive employers. It is also at the forefront of campaigns to amend existing labour laws in order to protect and promote the rights of domestic workers, particularly those under the age of 18.

Its services include crisis intervention, counselling and legal assistance. With help from the ICT, the Visayan Forum also expanded the programmes it offers to include training in life skills and computer use.

Maria is fortunate because, on the night of her escape, a helpful cab driver took her and her companions to the offices of one of the Philippines' leading television companies.

There a reporter helped them collect their back wages and took them to the Visayan Forum's shelter, where they stayed for two weeks. At the shelter, Maria underwent counselling from trained social workers, as well as computer training. Her companions were assisted by the forum to go home to their families.

It also helped Maria find another employer, but one who will not maltreat her and who will allow her to continue her education.

She now attends a Sunday high school scheme run by nuns. For Ms Flores-Oebanda and the Visayan Forum, however, much work remains to be done.

For distressed girls, one of the urgent needs is a new shelter which will act as a safe house and is separate from the forum office, which is often visited by irate former employers and recruiters.

More advocacy work is likewise needed.

"We are also trying to build awareness among employers that they can be agents of change in the lives of these girls," Ms Flores-Oebanda says.

"We are trying to break the firewalls of invisibility surrounding this work."