“Even a pet animal is better treated,” sobs 17-year-old Fatima, one of thousands of young girls exploited and too often abused while working as housemaids for unscrupulous employers in Morocco.
She has managed to get to the Annajda help centre for battered women in the capital, Rabat. “I only wanted to help my parents, my family was living in destitution,” murmurs the teenager, who has worked as a household servant for two years.
For the volunteers who offer support, such stories are commonplace despite recent legislation to protect minors from servitude.
Fatima’s parents agreed to let her leave their southern village at the age of 15 to work as a maid, with the aid of a local intermediary, or “semsar.” A place was found and she was sent to work with a family in Rabat.
“At first I was well-treated,” she told AFP. “But gradually, violence became my daily life. “The mistress used to beat me, insult me, she always had a reason.”
Fatima El Maghnaoui, who runs the Annajda shelter, talks of slavery and says teenage Fatima should be at school.
“It’s a form of slavery, a violation of the right to education and of Morocco’s international commitments,” she said.
There are no official figures on the employment of maids. But a study carried out in 2010 by non-governmental bodies reported that Morocco had between 66,000 and 80,000 domestic workers aged under 15.
INSAF, an NGO which has campaigned for women’s rights for nearly 20 years, lists “degrading working and living conditions” suffered by the girls, who are usually from the country and illiterate.
Latifa‘s story caught public attention recently after the 22-year-old was taken to hospital in Casablanca with third-degree burns and broken bones. She had been a maid since adolescence and long abused by her employer. INSAF has helped her find shelter.
For Fatima, work began at 7:00 am and ended late into the night, “sometimes 3:00 am,” she says.
“I used to sleep on the terrace in the cold, like a domestic animal. I used to eat the scraps and my feet always ached from standing up.” She was not even paid.
“A salary of 800 dirhams a month (nearly 70 euros, around $85, or a third of the minimum wage) was agreed, but I didn’t get a penny,” she adds.
After the first year she asked for what she was owed, only for the mistress of the house to confiscate her identity papers and forbid any contact with her family. Caught in a trap, Fatima decided to run away.
“I didn’t know anyone, I had no money and did not even know the address where I was working,” she says.
In the end, a young man who lived nearby helped her get in touch with an aunt and “bring the ordeal to a close.”
Omar Saadoun, who heads INSAF’s programme against child labour, says that the fate of maids, such as Fatima, starts with “failure at school in rural settings, poverty and parental ignorance.”
In some areas, “girls are considered inferior to boys and are the first in line to be married off or sent to work as a servant when extra money is needed,” he said.
Long awaited amid years of debate, legislation to protect maids was passed in the summer of 2016. It sets a minimum age of 18 for household work.
The law covers labour contracts, a minimum wage, one day off a week, annual holidays and financial penalties for failure to abide by the rules. Government has hailed the law as major social progress.
However, it allows another five years for the employment of 16-18 year-olds, much to the annoyance of human rights activists, and there has been little or no assessment of implementation.
“We need a global strategy… the legislation does not bring any guarantees, there is no system for support, rehabilitation, to identify families,” says Saadoun. “Many maids who are minors do not even know the address of their employer.”
And, noted El Maghnaoui, “work inspectors are not authorised to investigate inside households where abuse can take place far from prying eyes.”
Despite the new legislation, non-government agencies such as INSAF report that girls as young as eight or nine are still being taken on as servants. After years of servitude, many still bear the scars.
Hayat, now 38, became a maid at the age of nine. “When I think back today, 30 years after, it’s still just as painful,” she laments. “I lost my childhood. My first employer mistreated me, gave me leftovers to eat. He constantly humiliated me. It was exhausting. I did not have the strength needed for housework.”
Today she’s a mother and does “everything to take care of my children so they do not live through the same thing.”