Getting a nanny-cam? Beware of falling into the trap of hyper-surveillance

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All women are being constantly surveilled, and more so, mothers, since it is they who are saddled with the roles of ‘bringing up the next generation’.

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When a casual ‘alaa, you’re going home right now at 10 am, did you sleep here?’ from a cheeky male colleague elicited trembles, incoherence, and a reversing from the parking lot that almost shaved the side-mirrors of three cars off from a woman colleague, we became very concerned. 

Home emergency, someone whispered in commiseration, and we waited to hear what had transpired to transform our usually equanimous colleague into a nervous wreck. It turns out, she had spotted her nanny beating her two-year-old daughter via her CCTV, connected to her smartphone.

‘You mean there are people who install CCTV in their houses to monitor their house-helps?’ One user on Twitter posed in mid-2020, at the height of the Covid19 pandemic, expressing shock at something that has been the norm since the late 2000s into the 2010s.

 The first search results on Google when one types “cctv” brings a number of shops here in Kenya where one can purchase CCTV equipment, ranging from simple surveillance bulbs, to more sophisticated and high-tech gadgets, most of them with corresponding apps linked to one’s smartphone, such that one can easily keep an eye on things wherever they are with nothing but an internet connection on both ends. 

CCTV (closed-circuit television cameras) installed in public places, business establishments, or at work, are normalized. We are routinely fed with CCTV footage of robberies in progress in Kenya for example, and subsequent arrests made based on said footage.

However, while CCTVs are now a normalised part of public life, CCTVs installed inside the home are where many draw an uncomfortable line, as the Twitter user above expressed. 

This line is based on what many read as a breach of privacy, a garish exposure of the goings-on in one’s home, which is supposed to be a secret abode shielded and protected from prying eyes. 

The discomforts around CCTV in the home become more pronounced when speaking to several CCTV sellers and installers based in Nairobi’s CBD – the majority of those that come asking for CCTV installations in their homes are women, and mostly, working women with children, and who have employed nannies they do not particularly trust and would like to keep an eye on.

‘I install CCTV almost every single day in Nairobi, and send associated equipment to places like Embu and Chuka to my trusted clients,’ says Mr Njeru who owns an electronics and toy shop in Imenti House, one of Nairobi’s SME hubs. ‘You get both men and women asking for CCTV for their shops, businesses, or exteriors, but many of those that want the nanny-cams are mothers.’

And this is the crux of the matter – the nanny-cam, and the parent, usually mother, in the thick of it.

Gendered parenting

The nitty-gritty ‘dirty work’ of parenting has always been gendered, falling mainly on women the world over. This includes housework, and the practicalities of parenting children, from feeding them and bathing them, to spending time teaching them. 

This is partly because society has for decades organised itself around gendered roles in society. The men traditionally provide for the family, while the women stay home and take care of the household and children, ensuring people are fed, watered, and that the home is running like a well-oiled machine.

While these roles thrived in the past, the modern age has brought with it challenges that have required women to step out of these home-grown roles and enter the workforce to supplement incomes in increasingly inflated economies where the sole income provided by men is no longer enough to cover the needs of the home – in fact, many households are now increasingly held by women either as single parents, or the working parent.

 Some pundits even argue that women have always supplemented household incomes from as far back as the 60s and 70s in Kenya drawing from their informal chamas and networks, only that their contributions were not always overt. This lack of overtness in appearing to usurp the roles of men in the family are indicative of a certain guilt and shame that women feel when they step outside their hitherto traditional roles.

 Mothers, including single parents, are particularly tormented with this immense guilt, especially because choosing career and monetary pursuits when they should be staying home and taking care of their children is termed as ‘abandoning’ said children.

This guilt is arguably part of the reason for the nanny-cam. Mothers who should be at home with their children feel the need to still be, at least virtually, in the home, keeping an eye on things, ensuring the home is run as they would run it themselves. To achieve this, mothers turn to the nanny-cam, that CCTV is their eye in the home while they are away at the workplace, or in the hustle.

However, this is just one of the reasons for installing the nanny-cam in the home. A lot of lore has emerged in the public space around the use of CCTV in the home, and this stems from the disbelief the Twitter user poses that there are ‘people’ (read: women and mothers) who install them to ‘monitor house-helps’.

 These narratives, some true, others not, only serve to exacerbate the guilt mums feel, leading to what I call double-surveillance – while mums work to surveil the home while they are away using these nanny-cams, they are themselves already under societal surveillance, judged as either working mothers, or mothers who have dared to step out of their prescribed, home-based roles.

Double jeopardy of cruelty

One of these narratives has been that of cruelty in the treatment of nannies, or in the common, albeit problematic term, ‘house-help’. Problematic because the term has its origins in servitude, while the term ‘help’ has a sliding scale of meaning that allows for some to be poorly compensated, if at all.

The idea of ‘help’ is itself steeped in gendered roles that are not particularly seen as worthy of compensation. We, in 2022, still have cases where young girls (and in some cases, boys) come to the urban centres from the rural area to ‘help’ families as they look for a job, but end up being indentured servants who are used to perform manual labour for little to no compensation.

It is no secret that domestic workers are usually subject to long hours of work, and low wages. Some are compelled to wake up in the wee hours, perform both housework and childcare, and then get paid about Sh3,000-8,000 per month. The average pay for domestic workers in Nairobi, at 2021 was Sh 13,200 per month. A large percentage of domestic workers are paid far below this minimum wage.

Such low wages, coupled with impossible and/or cruel work conditions, are seen as some of the reasons why domestic workers forced to perform jobs far beyond their intended scope, routinely unleash their frustrations on the children of their employers. Here, cruelty (from the employer) is said to beget cruelty (towards the children).

On the other hand, many parents, especially mothers, lament about how difficult it is to find a reliable nanny, or domestic worker, citing that no matter how kind one treats these employees, a bad apple will always remain a bad apple.

The expectation of kind treatment as a currency of exchange for good behaviour is as problematic as the idea of reliability. For instance, on asking my distressed colleague much later whether she had given her nanny a proper contract, job description and orientation, she shook her head with some irritation.

Unpacking surveillance

As was my friend’s reaction, many do not bother with proper job contracts, job descriptions, and job orientations for their domestic workers and/or nannies – in fact, as I have pointed out, these roles usually merge into one. Domestic workers double up as co-parents, nannies, and house-helps, and sometimes, as school next-of-kin in cases where there are school-going children, attending meetings and parent-teacher conferences when the parents are unavailable, mostly due to the pressures of life and work.

They also sometimes double up as therapists and caregivers, taking care of the psychological needs of their employers, and taking care of sick/aged/bed-ridden in-laws or parents visiting from upcountry. These roles can become overwhelming, especially if the pay is not commensurate.

Worse, a lack of job description and orientation can lead to unclear, and therefore unmet, expectations. Some mums will expect their domestic workers to do all the housework and the parenting, both in their absence, and presence. When some come back from work exhausted, they would expect the domestic worker to continue with the chores including bathing and feeding the younger children.

Meanwhile, the domestic worker may expect the mother of the home to take over duties once she is back home, simply because she too is exhausted from working in the home all day. The belief that house-work is not as exhausting as office-work, a belief that women have resisted, continues to be perpetuated here.

Some mothers may expect the domestic worker to engage the younger children in reading and structured play activities, which may be beyond their skill level – structured play is not an automatic skill that comes with proximity to children. Many mums expect the cleaning and cooking to be done a certain way.

When the domestic worker fails to deliver these expectations, conflict may ensue. Conflict management itself is also a big source of poor work conditions. In many cases, mistakes are addressed through harsh reprimands, the employer taking on a patron role that leaves no room for discussion or negotiation or understanding.

It is important to understand these working conditions as having their modern roots in the master-servant dynamic perpetuated by colonialism, where the servant is seen as being below the master in the general hierarchy, therefore undeserving of space to explain, only existing to work in silence.

We must understand that overall, the high level of surveillance meted out on women in society actually exacerbates the challenges of motherhood and domestic work – a mother may not give a proper job description because it is understood that all women know how to cook, clean and perform childcare with a minimum of fuss.

Failure to live up to these expectations always attracts societal derision, and in the home front, derision from the employer to the domestic worker. It is that surveillance that we must be aware of.

What happens once we are aware of this surveillance? After all, women are not going back to the days of compelled domesticity, unless the world, ours or the global one, slides back into the slave-era inspired narrative of the Handmaid’s Tale (after all, it is not impossible to imagine a strict theocracy that polices women to the point of seen and not heard, as we live these realities on a daily basis).

Women are now in the workplace, but they are also in the home, as domestic workers, as housewives, as nannies. We deride these are lesser roles because society has us believing that advancing women can “outsource” these roles to “other” women. But we need to become aware of the double-jeopardy we are all existing within. All women are being constantly surveilled, and more so, mothers, since it is they who are saddled with the roles of ‘bringing up the next generation’.

This surveillance is based on gendered roles, and a certain shame when women step out of their places in the home to pursue different roles. It behoves us to, in turn, ensure we are not hyper-surveilling those we leave our children with, or, perpetuating the abuse meted out to us, on the women we leave in the home to take up the roles we leave behind, be these people domestic workers, nannies, relatives, or spouses as the case may be.

It also behoves us to bequeath household roles and duties the same dignity those jobs outside the home embody. This includes treating those doing the domestic work with professionalism, including legal pay, and workplaces that are not toxic. It behoves us to realise that surveilling our domestic workers is in line with societal surveillance of women in general.

While many argue that having home CCTV is akin to employers having CCTV at the place of work, it is also important to interrogate that office CCTV – is it a lack of trust that employees are thieves, or bosses abusive? What are the deeper questions at play here, that would make a satisfied employee steal, for example, or a fair boss abuse others? This is not to discount the use of CCTV in the workplace(s).

It is to question the constant surveillance, which in part stems from a lack of trust, and a lack of a deeper interrogation of systems of abuse of power we have accepted as the norm. In the home, this surveillance is sometimes done in secret, since many domestic workers may not even be aware their every moment is being captured via CCTV. 

What are the deeper questions here? Even the question the male colleague posed ‘did you sleep here’ is indicative of that surveillance – one that monitors movement in and out of the workplace, and does not give people, especially women, room to breathe.

 I recall a former workplace where women who took smoking breaks were hyper-surveilled in ways men were not, even the minutes they stood outside to smoke counted, simply because they were women who smoked, an aberration to societal eyes.

In this modern era where we are seeing cases of the abuse of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, one driven by racist capital, we must become very aware of how we may be perpetrating cycles of this same abuse. 

This abuse has its roots in racism, and in judging those that perform the household chores we claim to have surmounted, or outsourced, the same way a hyper-vigilant society continues to judge women, especially those that dare step out of their (invented) traditional roles, such as motherhood and parenting – as lesser beings in need of control, censure, and surveillance. Ultimately, it is these questions we need to ask. A just society is one that does not require hyper-surveillance. This is what to strive for.

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