The life of domestic workers amid sexual abuse by employers

A domestic worker cleaning the house. Their risk of being sexually abused by their employers is a danger that dishearteningly underlies their work. 

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The risk of being sexually abused by their employers is a danger that dishearteningly underlies domestic employees' work.
  • Most domestic workers who are survivors of domestic violence, are threatened to silence.
  • Pursuit for justice is a tall order considering gender-based violence cases take more than a year to resolve in courts.

It’s mid-morning on a Tuesday. I am seated on an orange linen couch in a safe house in Kiambu County. I cannot identify the shelter as I need to protect the survivors under their care.

Esla (name changed to protect her identity) walks past and sits on a one-seater sofa to my left. She is dressed in an ankle length denim and grey floral sweater.

I give her a warm smile and say hello, to which she responds and moves closer to me. She stares at my watch, and confesses that she likes it.  The admiration extends to my phone before she asks me to get her a job as a domestic worker.

Contrastingly, I am here to interview her on sexual abuse she suffered in the hands of her previous employer while serving in the same capacity in a household in Karen, Nairobi County.

Africa Labour, Research and Education Institute and Wage Indicator Foundation estimates that there are about two million domestic workers in Kenya. The number is approximated to have grown, with the job cuts that came with the Covid-19 pandemic.

But even as the numbers grow, the risk of being sexually abused by their employers is a danger that dishearteningly underlies their work.

Gated community

SweepSouth, a South African on-demand home services provider carried a survey on 600 Kenyan domestic workers who worked between May 2020 and May 2021. Ninety per cent of the 600 responded including 31 per cent who were male. The study found 16 per cent of the workers had faced sexual abuse at their workplace.

Based on calculation, it implies 86 out of the 540 who responded had been abused.

In retrospect, this would mean in a gated community of 86 households, a domestic worker employed in each of them had suffered the criminal offence.

Most domestic workers who are survivors of domestic violence, are however, threatened to silence. Often, employers take advantage of their vulnerabilities; some are partially or totally orphaned and are desperate not to lose their source of income. Others come from extremely poor or dysfunctional families and have no one to turn to.

Their wages are also low. SweepSouth found a domestic worker earns an average of a monthly wage of Sh8,522, an equivalent of a bedsitter rent in Buruburu, Nairobi County.

Pursuit for justice then becomes a tall order considering gender-based violence (GBV) cases take more than a year to resolve in courts. The financial resources needed to seek not only legal services but also psychosocial and medical support, also amount to Sh24,797 annually, as per the calculations of National Gender and Equality Commission.

Household pets

International Labour Organisation describes a domestic worker as one who performs work in or for a private household including tasks such as cleaning the house, cooking, washing and ironing clothes, taking care of children, or elderly or sick members of a family. They also include those who do gardening, guarding the house, driving for the family, and even taking care of household pets.

Kenya is an attractive market for domestic workers from Uganda, Sudan, Tanzania and Rwanda. And it is not just the Kenyan employers who perpetrate the sexual violence, foreign employers in Kenya, are also perpetrators of this criminal offence.

For close to 20 minutes, Esla and I converse on the things she likes and what she plans to do with her life in the future. I discreetly shift her to the main agenda of the interview with a question “where have you worked before?”

Five minutes into the interview, I realise I'm making zero progress. Her responses to the queries are either “I don't remember” or a mumble in Kikuyu, a language whose only word I’m most familiar with is ‘tuthie’ (let’s go) a word often spoken by touts to signal a driver to drive on.

Recovery centre

The 22-year-old Esla is not trying to be a difficult interviewee. She is in a very difficult phase of post-traumatic stress. I let her go.

The shelter's manager fills me in on her case. She was referred here from Kenyatta National Hospital’s (KNH) gender-based violence recovery centre (GBVRC) in June this year.

In 2019, Esla, then aged 20, was raped by her employer. The man and his wife later took her for a check-up when they noticed pregnancy signs. The tests were positive, a confirmation that led to the couple chasing her away. She told the manager, the perpetrator was a pastor in a Karen church.

“She went to live with her cousin.Her baby died but it’s unclear how that happened. She does not want to talk about it,” says the shelter manager.

She, however, developed fistula and it is her cousin’s neighbour who noticed her condition and got a relative to take her to the GBVRC at KNH for treatment.

She was admitted for two months, and did not receive any visitor during her hospital stay, not even the cousin she stayed with or any other relative from her home in Thika. She does not know her father, and her mother disappeared when she was young. She was raised by her maternal grandmother.

National Shelters Network convener Edith Murogo (pictured) says lack of funding has limited their services, a deficit whose impact is felt by survivors who need emergency rescue and specialised care.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

With nowhere to go, the social worker attached to the centre had to find her a shelter.

From her narration to the shelter's manager, Esla neither went to hospital for any counselling after the sexual abuse nor sought justice. She had no one to turn to and so her life went on as normal.

“She is still attending counselling sessions at KNH but we will be transferring her to a rehabilitation centre where she can receive specialised attention since we don't have that capacity here,” says the shelter manager.

And indeed, a day after the interview, she was transferred to a rehabilitation centre in Kiambu County.

Sadly, her relatives rejected her, says the shelter manager.

“You see, shelters are not permanent residences. The women and girls have to be reconciled with their families. But when they reject them, you are left wondering why families can’t love and appreciate their people no matter who they are,” the distraught shelter manager says.

Shelters are even struggling to keep their doors open.

National Shelters Network convener Edith Murogo, says lack of funding has limited their services, a deficit whose impact is felt by survivors who need emergency rescue and specialised care like Esla. As at December 22, 2021, the network had mapped out 52 shelters in 18 counties.


“Shelters are practically struggling to remain in operation. Many can’t take in more survivors because they don’t have money. Covid-19 has made the situation even worse as donors either pulled out or cut their funding,” she says.

“The government should start giving shelters grants if only it is committed to eradicating GBV,” she says.

She adds that the State should first streamline provision of shelter services by harmonising their registration. This would facilitate identification of the providers qualified for the funding, she says.

Under Generation Equality President Uhuru Kenyatta has committed that by 2022, his government would allocate $23 million to GBV prevention and response. This amount would be increased to $50 million by 2026. These efforts constitute the 12 strategies the government is effecting to accelerate end of GBV by 2030.

As the government moves to eliminate GBV, 18-year-old Loko (name changed) lives with a lifetime reminder of defilement by her employer.

Orphaned at 14 years, the teenager from Turkana County was taken in by her aunt who lives in Nakuru County. She was in Form Two when her parents died.

She wouldn't continue with her studies due to lack of school fees. Her aunt got her a domestic job in Nyeri where she was on a Sh6,000 monthly wage.

In April this year, however, her aunt informed her of a better offer in Nakuru County. She was to be paid Sh8,000.

Spinal cord problem

She moved to Nakuru and got into an agreement with a man who offered to pay her fees in exchange for her taking care of his wife who is confined to a wheelchair. Loko says the woman had a spinal cord problem and could not stand or walk on her own.

She joined school in June and a week later, her employer suddenly changed.

“He kept on asking me ‘How are you going to reward me now that I'm paying your fees?’ Then one night, he came to my room and covered my mouth and defiled me,” narrates Loko, who turned 18 last month.

For two months between June and August 5, he repeatedly defiled her. Now Loko is six months pregnant with his child.

“I had no one to tell what I was going through,” she says from her bed in a safe house in Murang'a County, amidst a hiccup.

“I wouldn't dare open up to my aunt. She always scolded me for telling her my problems. So I told myself ‘Let me just suffer in silence,’ says Loko whose abuser vowed to kill her should she report him to anyone.

Had it been that she hadn’t confided in a doctor who had earlier written a medical report that was needed for her admission in school, Loko would still be spending her nights in the hands of the monster.

He didn't deny being responsible for the pregnancy when she informed him. Instead, he booked her for an abortion at a private clinic. The doctor's call to a Nakuru children protection network, saved her. The perpetrator is still at large.

Nine years ago Richard (name changed to protect his identity) too, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of his employer.

From January to mid-March, 2012, Richard worked as a guard at his uncle's estate in Eldoret. His uncle was a businessman and was always travelling leaving behind the wife to manage the estate.

In February, she started making sexual advances on him with underwear gifts and at times allowed him to keep change whenever she asked him to buy a newspaper or feed their dogs.

University education

But even when she did so, she would make comments like “si utanunua ile kitu” or “tutaonana baadaye” (which translates to “will you buy that thing?” or “we'll see each other later”). Richard says he assumed ‘that thing’ referred to a condom because she made a sex gesture with her thump, index finger and middle finger.

“I sold the underwear,” says Richard, “Iwouldn't say no to money. I needed it so badly to save for my university education.”

He lost his father in 2016 and his mother was a tea picker at an estate in Kericho County.

He says: “I told myself I would be very careful with her until at least I had saved enough to leave the job,” he adds. His monthly wage was Sh9,000.

Unfortunately, he was unable to achieve his goal of leaving before anything happened. Richard remembers one Sunday when she returned home during a power blackout.

“It was around 8pm when she arrived. There was no one in the house since all her three children were in boarding school and the house girl was a live-out,” he explains.

“She had some shopping, which she asked me to take to the house. She went first and opened the door. The moment I stepped into the house, she grabbed me and started touching me. I dropped the shopping, pushed her to the floor and ran away," he says.

That night, he slept in the latrine in the compound for fear that she would come to his cubicle to accomplish her mission.

Getter Wasilwa, a clinical psychologist attached to the gender-based violence recovery centre at Kenyatta National Hospital during the interview with last month.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

The following day, minutes after 5am, he tiptoed to the cubicle, picked his belongings and left for his home in Nyamira County.

The wife later told his uncle, she chased him away because he had stolen fertiliser.

“I’ll never forget that experience. I think I need to see a counsellor because I’m always imagining that in future when I get married, my wife will rape me,” says Richard who  in 2018, got a scholarship to go study in Germany.

He says he mistrusts women and has found it difficult to commit to a relationship.

Esla, Loko and Richard are living testimonies of the damages of sexual abuse against domestic workers.

Most worrying though, is the fact that there are hundreds of abused workers whose wounds are covered and not healed. The danger to that is living in a nation of ‘walking bombs’ as elaborated by Getter Wasilwa, a clinical psychologist attached to the GBVRC at KNH. The centre is domiciled at the mental health department.

“I want people to know that rape, defilement or sodomy is the worst thing to do to a girl, woman, boy or man. It is like killing them over and over again,” she says in a drawn face.

The fact that the domestic workers fear revealing the cause of their injuries, makes it all difficult to capture the actual numbers of those who have sought treatment at either the centre or KNH.

Ms Wasilwa, however, says they receive 40 to 20 survivors each month.

The few domestic workers who have been upfront, often come from Karen, Ngong’, Kibra, Kayole, Madaraka and Mukuru kwa Njenga, she says.

In some cases, she says the perpetrator’s wife accompanies them to the hospital and their presence is a barrier to any attempt to open up.

Others only seek services at the HIV/Aids unit for fear of having contracted the disease or to get treated at the casualty department for the injuries caused during the sexual abuse, she says.

Female survivors

For the few cases where the domestic violence survivors speak out, she says they express fear of being killed by their perpetrators, as forewarned. In such cases, the domestic workers are admitted in their 14-bed capacity ward.

Seven beds are for adult female survivors and the rest for boys and girls under the age of 13. The social worker attached to the centre then finds a shelter for them if above 18, or a home for the children. A children’s officer has to permit the transfer of the child, a process that protects the children from illegal trafficking, she says.

The act of suffering in silence is as catastrophic as the criminal offence committed against them.

“It is disastrous for a GBV survivor to get all other treatment and not psychosocial support,” the clinical psychologist emphasises.

She says they develop serious complications later in life.

“Some become perpetrators. They want to pass the same bitterness to somebody else. If it’s a man, he becomes a rapist. If she is a woman, she becomes a rapist too,” says Ms Wasilwa, who has worked at the GBVRC since 2006 when it was established.

“They also become criminals. Others end up committing suicide. There are others who hate men and so they remain single for life,” she says.

She gives an example of a 42-year-old woman who had sought psychosocial support at the facility. She had been defiled when she was 10, but the pain was still fresh and all she needed was an outlet to transfer what was consuming her. She had become a gangster as it offered her that opportunity.

“Some people have become mad. They are picking papers on the streets yet we don't realise this is a result of rape or defilement,” she says.

At the moment, KNH has 14 psychologists who help survivors regain their mental health.

She wishes for a GBV unit with all the services provided within the same vicinity to relieve the survivors of the burden of walking from one department to another for the medical services.

“I look forward to the training of at least two nurses attached to each of the 42 wards alongside a doctor and social worker, to help handle GBV survivors,” she says.

This is part one of the two-part series of investigative piece on sexual violence against domestic workers in Kenya. The story was produced with support of a grant from Voice for Women and Girls’ Rights-Kenya