On the International Day to Eradicate Poverty, we spoke to unionists and domestic worker leaders on their insights of how poverty affects the sector of domestic work and how women bear its disproportionate burden. Full of power, these leaders envisioned a more equitable world, with decent work for domestic workers, free of economic and gendered violence. Hear their voices!
Roula: Today, on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, I am speaking to Nellie Dina Kahua who is the General Secretary of the Namibia Domestic and Allied Workers Union (NDAWU). Nellie, thank you so much for accepting this invitation. Would you like to say a few words about yourself?
Nellie: Being a domestic worker myself in Namibia for many years, and being the general secretary of our union now, allows me to capacitate domestic workers and educate ourselves at least to have our basic rights. And I must say thank you to NDAWU for accepting me and having confidence in me to lead the organization country-wide and at the international level. And thank you Roula for this space to speak representing my union.
R: The pleasure and honor are absolutely ours. We are living through difficult times now with the COVID-19 with economic hardships increasing. There is an especially important ILO Domestic Workers Convention C189, that is yet to be ratified in Namibia, that would greatly alleviate the injustice faced by domestic workers. A more recent convention is C190 on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, that has only been ratified in a few countries. Do you feel these conventions can support your plight?
N: First I would like to appreciate the International Labor Organization that has fought with us for these conventions. While C189 is specific to domestic work, C190 is on Occupational Health and Safety and the Violence and Harassment in the World of Work. They are linked together, and we are joining hands with the ILO and asking that governments prioritize the ratifications to improve our access to safety and security.
R: What challenges do domestic workers encounter and come seek your help for?
N: I see many challenges that domestic workers encounter. Sometimes they do not know how to come to the union when they are facing challenges in the workplace, or do not know how to negotiate in a workplace, they would either say yes or no. The biggest challenge that domestic workers are facing in the workplace are the abuses of their rights. We have some cases of abuse and sexual harassment, accompanied with other forms of violence. Sometimes, when they have an exceptionally low income, they would be forced to sleep with someone’s husband to have an extra money. At the end of the day, you might end up having a baby, while you are a black woman, and your husband is of a dark complexion and it adds to the violence you experience. Violence is already happening in the workplace, but then when you add violence at home, it breaks up families. A worker can become a single mother and be the only breadwinner for her children. Sometimes a single mother, as a domestic worker, is not even able to have accommodation for herself and her kids. Although regulations are there to protect women regarding violence at home, we need regulations to protect women elsewhere, such as in their jobs. Domestic workers are facing so many challenges that they are in reality living with fear. Following this harassment, women often keep it to themselves and psychologically it is killing you inside. And that is a reason why we need to unionize, because as women, we know what it means to be harassed and we can hear each about the harassment we face in our homes and our employers’ homes. We are also facing cultural norms that tell us that we cannot interrupt men when men are talking. Domestic workers are facing a lot of challenges, when some of them cannot even access reporting mechanisms. Recently, for example, a previous domestic worker, a young lady, was pregnant of 7 months and she needed help to prepare herself for raising her baby, because she had nothing at all, no job, no accommodation. She was in tears. I called the ministry of health, to get some welfare services, but this is not an easy task. When domestic workers are abandoned when they are pregnant, they cannot access services in general. We always try to help and give the necessary information and support these women who are being harassed and abused and their rights as women are being taken away from them and they find themselves unemployed and with child. We need to think of procedures such as adoption. I am happy with the work that we are currently doing but it is not sufficient because not everyone speaks up about this type of violence, they fear losing their husbands or fear society, and we cannot resolve issues that are unspoken.
R: These struggles are so multilayered, and they recreate themselves. As women already start from an impoverished position, they find themselves in situations that increase their poverty, and facing violence that makes them and their families even more vulnerable. This really reflects that poverty needs to be addressed through addressing specifically women issues.
N: From a perspective of poverty, going back to the cultural norms, this is where the exploitation of poverty starts. Now, we have learned a lot of things and established some standards and regulations that protect women. Our government is taking gender-based violence as a priority, even speaking about spousal matters: that when your husband wants to have sex with you, you have the right to refuse. But to think again of what increases poverty in women is the idea that men are baring most of the hardships of work, so they must earn more. Women have been kept at home and have not been sent to school. If you have been sent to school, as a woman, you probably were removed from there at a young age because of the responsibility of care. I started working, for example, at the age of 16. Fortunately, I have been raised in a way that tells me that I am able to do things equally as men, and equally as other workers. We cannot accept things that are wrong and that are put on our shoulders. We need to express ourselves and claim our rights. So, we are working as sister unions to take back our power.
R: Absolutely. On this day, what is your message to domestic workers around the world fighting poverty?
N: My massage to the women out there is that they must learn the facts and myths about domestic violence and share their knowledge with friends and family. They need to teach their children about healthy relationships and the warning signs of abuse. They need to share their stories. It is important. If you are a survivor of domestic violence, consider sharing your story. This could help other victims as well feel less alone and empower them to seek help or leave their abusers. Attend or host a domestic violence awareness candlelight vigil in your local community, make sure your local doctors’ offices have posters and pamphlets about where victims of domestic violence can go for help. Poverty is not a crime, and poverty is not a job. We must fight for our rights.