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Shackled dreams, lost learning: The costs of child domestic labour

They are the hidden face of child labour. In Latin America, nearly 2 million girls are child domestic labourers. Like millions of other children employed outside of their family homes - often in abusive, exploitative conditions - they form a vast, cadre who are hidden behind closed doors, can't go to school and face a lost childhood. This year's World Day Against Child Labour focuses on their plight, and their hopes for the future.

Article | 09 June 2004

GENEVA - "I wanted to study, make a career, become a famous soap opera actress", says 17 year old Leidy from Colombia. But her dream was harshly shattered when at only 10 years old she had to find work in someone else's house to help support her sick mother. One year later she left the school.

Nearly 2 million girls share Leidy's fate in Latin America and the Caribbean ( *). The ILO considers child domestic workers one of the most vulnerable groups of child labourers in the world today. And their working conditions - often long hours behind closed doors, hidden within the privacy of other people's homes - make efforts to protect them from abuse or exploitation much harder.

"They have limited access to education and no time to play. With little or no pay and even fewer rights or protection under the law, they are highly vulnerable and almost totally unseen," reports the ILO in "The Invisible Children", a brochure on child domestic workers ( *).

The World Day Against Child Labour this year is dedicated to giving visibility to the situation of child domestic labourers.

"In many countries of the world, children working as child-minders, maids, cooks, cleaners, gardeners and general house-helps are a familiar sight", says the ILO in a new report on this subject, " Helping Hands or Shackled Lives? Understanding child domestic labour and responses to it" that will be published on eve of the world day.

The ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) ( *) estimates that more than 200 million children between ages 5 and 17 work worldwide. Of these, more girls under the age of 16 are employed in domestic service than in any other form of work.

According to the IPEC definition, "child domestic labour refers to situations where children are engaged to perform domestic tasks in the home of a third party or employer that are exploitative". When this practice also includes trafficking, slavery or other forms of forced labour, or hazardous work that will likely harm the health, safety or moral well being of the child, it becomes a worst form of child labour.

Exploitation can take several forms: economic exploitation by having to work long hours for low wages; a lack of legal protection; or exposure to harsh and dangerous working conditions. Children are also deprived of the rights to play and enjoy good health, education, freedom from sexual abuse or harassment, and even family visits. Some are also subjected to verbal, physical, emotional and in some cases even sexual abuse.

ILO/IPEC projects help countries tackle the goal of preventing and eradicating child domestic labour on two fronts: political action to increase the ratification and implementation of international conventions, and the development of national, regional or local law. At a social level, efforts are aimed at helping child labourers directly, while fighting the invisibility of the problem through awareness-raising campaigns that can mobilize key sectors of society.

Leidy's story was collected as part of a project implemented during the last 3 years in Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru by ILO/IPEC with financial support from US Department of Labour (USDOL) and participation from government agencies and civil society organizations in each country.

In Colombia, where available data indicates that more than 300,000 children are engaged in domestic work, one survey showed that 77 per cent start working before they are 14 years old. All the girls and boys surveyed earned salaries under the national minimum wage, and as many as 63 per cent of the girls over 14 years had left school.

Leidy, who is a young mother, now has a goal for the future: "I have worked all my life, and even if as my mother says, work does not dishonour anyone, I hope my child will not have to work as much as I did. I want him to grow up with another mentality and to get a job when he has grown up."

*For more information visit:

  • The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC),
  • "The Invisible Children",
  • Prevención y Erradicación del Trabajo Infantil Doméstico en Hogares de Terceros en Sudamérica,
  • Leidy's story is part of the publication "Trapitos al sol", available at