Halting workplace sexual abuses – The life story of a domestic worker

stop domestic violence

Twenty-two-year old Adwoa Ankoma, (pseudo name) who migrated to Accra from Dunkwa in the Central Region of Ghana, in search of a job, is a good cook and can prepare a variety of Indian dishes even though she is not a native of that country. 

As a well-cultured young lady who had to drop out of school to work to support the treatment of her ailing mother and fund the education of her two younger siblings, she was poised and focused on working hard to make ends meet and, especially, to carve a niche for herself in the hospitality industry.

Thankfully, Adwoa found a job with an Indian family to which she gave her all. Her virtue of paying attention to detail and the ability to grasp new skills with minimum supervision from her Madam, Rajanthi Khatri (not the real name), made her an asset to the Khatri Family. Her job description was to prepare two kids ready for school every morning and fix breakfast, lunch, and supper. 

“My day is always very hectic, I am the first to wake up at 3 a.m. and the last to sleep at 11 p.m. Sometimes I feel like giving up the work but in the interest of my family and my future aspirations, I endured,” she told the Ghana News Agency in an interview. 

Although her daily wage was GHȼ8.00, which is below the National Minimum Wage of GHȼ10.56, she could not press for an increase because she was in dire need of an income to support her family.

Mr Thomas Khatri, the husband of Madam Rajanthi, became fond of Adwoa due to her hard work and perfectionism. At a point this admiration got to a different level when Mr Khatri started making advances that were suggestive of intimacy towards the young lady. “He could not take his eyes off me and often made advances that I was so uncomfortable with, sometimes to the extent of touching my body at sensitive parts,” Adwoa said. 

As a result of Adowa not yielding to Mr Khatri’s romantic advances, he suddenly began to find faults with her work and sometimes abused her verbally and physically.

“I could not tell my Madam about what her husband was doing for the fear of losing my job, which was my daily bread. My Madam suspected her husbands’ actions and caught him in the act one day, which ended up in a hot exchange,” she said.

Madam Rajanthi, however, told Adwoa that she had to sack her because she was a threat to her marriage. “I cannot share my husband with any other person, and definitely not in my own house, “she said.

The unfortunate part of Adwoa’s woes was that her engagement with the Khatri Family was not formalised, as she was unaware of the fact that her work engagement required a contract to be signed under the Law, which entitled her to certain conditions of service as well as protecting her from other maltreatments including wrongful dismissal.

Adwoa’s encounter is similar to the accounts of many domestic workers in the country, majority of whom are women and are bread winners, breaking their backs to make some income.

Additional interviews this writer conducted in other parts of Accra and Tema revealed that many young ladies working in the informal sector such as restaurants and drinking bars go through repeated, unconsented sexual molestations such as touching and rubbing. Majority of these issues are swept under the carpet and not reported for the fear of victimisation. 

Deducing from a number of interactions with some employers is the notion that they feel they were doing their employees a favour due to their (employees) vulnerability. 

Meanwhile, there are a number of national laws and international labour standards including the ILO Convention No. 189 on Decent work for domestic workers, (Article 5), which deals with effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence.  Labour laws in Ghana state sexual harassment as an offence. Generally, domestic workers in Ghana like all workers are protected by the 2003 Ghana Labour Act and can, therefore, benefit from employment contracts with details on conditions of service and how to seek redress as an employee.

The Constitution of Ghana (1992) guarantees every citizen economic right. Article 24 (1) gives every person the right to work under satisfactory, safe and healthy conditions and to receive equal pay for equal work without discrimination of any kind. Sub-section (2) guarantees every worker rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours, holidays with pay and remuneration for public holidays, while sub-section (3) guarantees the right to form or join a trade union for the promotion and protection of economic and social interests.

On the right to organise, article 21(e) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, guarantees: “freedom of association, which shall include freedom to form or join trade unions or other associations, national and international, for the protection of their interest”.  In spite of the constitutional provisions, most people in the informal economy do not work with the legal provisions. Also, there are some gaps in the laws that make young urban women in the informal economy susceptible to economic and sexual exploitations.

Interviews with selected professionals working to protect women’s rights in Ghana also emphasise the fact that sexual violence against women exist both in the private and public sectors. These professionals say the systemic silencing of victims/survivors and the impunity with which the perpetrators carry out their activities contribute to the entrenched and endemic violence against women and girls all over the world and many of them suffer in silence.  

Statistics from the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service show that 30,408 assault cases were reported nationally between 2011 and 2016, almost but not all women.  For example, out of 1,298 rape cases reported in 2014, eight of the victims were males. These offenses are everyday occurrences and even a higher number of such cases go unreported. Violence against women and girls is a major infringement on human rights.  It has become a major barrier to women who strive to earn a living and also enjoy their rights and freedoms on the basis of equality.

Gender-based violence against women and girls also have a huge economic price tag. There is the need to address the structural barriers that hinder vulnerable women both in formal and informal economy as well as urban and rural areas from fully enjoying their economic security and bodily integrity. ActionAid has, over the years, implemented the Young Urban Women’s Project to enable marginalised young women to assert their economic and bodily rights across three cities in Ghana. 

Ms Margret Brew-Ward, the Advocacy and Campaigns Manager of ActionAid Ghana, says the programme, which is in its third phase, had supported young urban women to enhance their skills to challenge the inequality they face and demand accountability at various levels to ensure they enjoy their rights and adhere to their responsibilities.

She categorised the case of Adwoa as falling under Economic Rights violations as well sexual abuse or harassment emanating from employer-employee relationship. 

It is, therefore, not farfetched that in rounding up activities for 16 Days of Activism for 2018, ActionAid Ghana, in collaboration with partners, organised a national forum on the theme: “Sexual and Economic Exploitation of Young Urban Women in Informal Work Spaces” and called on the Government to ratify the ILO Convention 189, pass the Domestic Workers Bill into law and put in place more measures to ensure the implementation of provisions of the Labour Law in the informal work spaces.

Everyone needs to contribute towards halting gender-based violence to ensure a peaceful society for all.

A GNA Feature by Yaw Ansah

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Joe Bright Nyarko Journalist/Communication Researcher. Environment & Sustainability Advocate. Managing Editor of aptnewsghana.com, a non-profit news portal with bias towards environment and sustainability issues, rural development policies and gender & inequality.