Arewa Voices

Child ‘House Helpers’ Leave Home in Hopes of a Better Life

By Aisha Kabiru Mohammed | Jul 7, 2023

For girls like Ummi, Child Labour is inevitable, and few laws protect her. 


*full name withheld to protect the identity of the minor.


It is common to see children carrying out menial labour and hawking, water, snacks or even specific food items. As a Nigerian, it is not unusual to buy things from these children. It is also not strange to find children who are not members of a household performing household chores for the family. The practice of using young girls distantly related to a family as maids have been explored by Document Women in a piece reflecting the abuse they face at the hands of the Igbo women in charge. 

To get a glimpse into the lives of young girls who work as maids in Northern Nigeria. Document women spoke to 15-year-old Ummi*, who lives in Niger State, with the family who took her in. Ummi has been working and living with the family for three years. When asked how she began working there, she mentioned that she moved there because her parents wanted her to have an education, and they couldn't afford it. 

"I started working here because my parents wanted me to have an education, and they couldn’t afford it. Here, I help with house chores; they are not hard because they are divided between me and their children. Instead of collecting money, my parents said I should be registered in school. And they did."

This is the usual back story and motivation behind sending young girls to work for more affluent families. Nigeria's poor provide cheap and almost unpaid labour to its middle and upper middle class. These girls are typically exposed to physical, sexual and financial abuse by their intended bosses and caregivers. 

Asking Ummi if she was treated nicely was important. 

 "They treat me nice; they treat me like their own children; they buy us the same things; they treat me like I am part of them. They registered me in primary school and secondary. I am writing Waec; I also wrote Jamb and got a score above the university cut-off point. They didn’t only pay my fees; they also bought textbooks for me. I am grateful."

Besides Ill-treatment, some girls do not get to see their family members when they move away from home to work. When Ummi was asked about the last time she saw her parents, she mentioned that she frequently visits them, and sometimes her father comes to visit her.

"Yes, I see them. I visit when there are events, and my father usually visits me." 

Ummi says that although she lives with a family that treats her well. It was not always like this. She lived with a family in Abuja that mistreated her to the point that she had to leave. She also notes that not all girls are as lucky as she was to leave such homes. 

"Yes, I know. I used to stay in Abuja with another family, and they mistreated me. It was why I left Abuja. Many girls working as house girls are not as lucky as I am now. Most families treat them badly and hardly educate them. But me and my siblings are grateful to this family. My younger sister stays with their firstborn, and they treat her well. She is now in SS2."

When asked about her hopes, Ummi compares herself to the children she works for.

"I will grow and become someone important, like the children of the family I am staying with. All his children are educated, and most of them have a career. " 

According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the north-central region of Nigeria has the highest rate of child labour in Nigeria, with 56.8 per cent of children involved in some form of work. This is followed by the North West, which has 55.1 per cent of its children involved in child labour, while the South South, South East, and South West have 48.7 per cent, 46.6 per cent, and 38 per cent, respectively. Overall, the research found that 50.8 per cent of Nigerian children aged five to 17 are engaged in child labour.

These numbers include children who are made to work in hazardous situations and unsafe working environments for children. Children not exposed to physical harm are often exposed to sexual assault and financial abuse. 

In Nigeria, children are largely treated as accessories subject to their parents' decisions over their lives, whether or not these decisions harm the children. Poverty and lack of education are significant factors encouraging child labour in Northern Nigeria, and most times, parents are forced to live off the income sent by the children who work. In the case of young girls like Ummi, working as a maid is the only way they can get an education.  

Relatively few laws can help save them from such a fate. The Child Rights Act, which criminalises Child labour, is not in effect in many regional states. The solutions to Child labour are in domesticating and enforcing the provisions of the Child Rights Act in Northern Nigerian states that do not have them. Another solution would be a change in traditional mindsets and ideologies that support child labour in the country.