Olivia Crellin, shortlisted in the Guardian Development Journalism Competition, travelled with CARE to Ecuador. There she met domestic workers, and heard their tales of a "definite pattern of experience" of abuse. But she also heard how they are grouping together, with support from CARE, to improve their conditions and lives.
Arriving in any new place at night is always exciting. When I flew into Ecuador’s biggest city, the southern port of Guayaquil, and met Kathryn, my CARE International coordinator, I was not so tired that I wasn’t already looking forward to catching a glimpse of this tropical city in daylight.
The reality of my first 24 hours in Ecuador was appropriately different. After an early start and some exotic breakfast – an Ecuadorian delicacy of sweet maize and vegetables wrapped and cooked in banana leaves – our driver Jesus whisked us away to our first set of interviews in the modest offices of the Association of Domestic Workers of Guayaquil. Gisele Viteri, one of a handful of women who works for the organisation, greeted us, wielding a large set of keys that let us into the fragile looking building, apologetically hidden behind two metal gates and several hefty padlocks. For once these were to keep others out, not the domestic workers in.
Gisele led us into a dark room to talk to three women who were looking for, or had found, help from the Association, which provides largely technical support and legal advice to domestic workers and women’s organisations.
Abuse from a young age
The details of the stories I heard in those first few hours were to become appalling familiar over the course of the next days. Fifty-year-old Angela, raped at the age of 13 (a fact that casually tumbles out within three minutes, shocking both Alessandra, my Ecuadorian interpreter, and Miriam, who runs CARE Ecuador’s gender programme, into a momentary silence) doesn’t want to have to ask for help, but she was fired yesterday. After almost 40 years as a domestic worker, which included being tied naked to a tree in the garden of her employers, she is sick and does not want to return to domestic work. A friend told her to come to the Association.
Victoria, 39, told a story of such unbelievable abuse from such a young age that after the first hour of a three hour interview she stopped to apologise: we had only passed the mid-point of her story and there was much worse to come. The air full of nervousness apprehension we all broke down laughing with incredulity. As a domestic worker she had taken her unfair share of other people’s problems –her unstable employer‘s bad relationships with men had repercussions on Victoria physically and emotionally. She acted as mother to this woman’s children and was intimidated and molested by her boyfriends.
Martha’s began our conversation by saying that her employers, two lawyers, were good to her until their third child was born. After that something changed. The woman she worked for would not let her leave the house to study any more and also refused to pay for her diabetes medicine – something affiliation would cover if Martha felt confident enough to insist on it. At 63 Martha is also an expert seamstress but again lacks the confidence to leave a lifetime of domestic work and start a small business. Instead she juggles four or five jobs including selling chicken and other food she has prepared in the street.
A lifetime of domestic work
Angela, Martha and Victoria were chatty, proud and intermittently indignant and timid about their rights. They were all aware that they had been treated badly and that they deserved better. None had taken the steps to be affiliated, something that Rafael Correa’s government had been promoting in the recent months to improve domestic worker’s conditions. In many cases, however, this effort seems to initially only cause more friction and discrimination, with many employers refusing to hire domestic workers who demanded their rights and a higher wage.
Part of the fact these women had not taken the steps towards affiliation was, however, to do with self-esteem – something that many of the domestic workers I met struggled with. This is not surprising considering that many are treated as if both themselves and the job they do is worthless. For many, this way of viewing themselves and their livelihoods begins when they start domestic work, which could be as young as eight years old. It takes a lot of hard work from the women’s organisations that CARE supports to get beyond that.
Fight for women’s rights
As we sped away from Guayaquil and drove through the night to Machala we were all exhausted by the emotions we had invested in listening. I was soon to find out that those three stories had all the typical hallmarks of ‘the domestic workers’ tale’. While not generic, they still revealed a definite pattern of experience. A pattern that had been encouraged by culture, cemented in tradition, exploited by society and, until recently, ignored by politicians. It was the similarity between the stories, which could be seen even within the first few hours of interviews that made me certain that this was an endemic problem. If it could be solved there would be far-reaching consequences.
These domestic workers, especially those that were also heavily involved in grassroots women’s groups or like Miriam, from CARE, were facilitating such work, were on the brink of something that had begun in my own country almost a hundred years earlier: a fight for women’s rights. This was incredibly exciting and I was to be a part of it for the next few days.
About the author:
Olivia Crellin is a young freelance journalist currently based in Santiago, Chile.