Evidently, the housemaid culture in Nigeria needs reform, at the personal and policy levels. While Nigeria is signatory to United Nations’ Child Labour Laws, enforcement doesn’t seem to be very strong. Could our legislators and civil society justice activists take up this cause and pass legislation to protect domestic workers in Nigerian homes?


Housemaids are beyond the reach of the professional class in America. This is so because of the laws that guarantee a certain wage, the numbers of hours they are allowed to work, and the payment of social security taxes by their employers. Only the truly rich can afford them, hence women bear the heavy burden of house work and child-rearing, which has a huge negative impact on the professional and financial growth of women in the U.S. It limits career choices and causes a lot of stress in the marriages of young parents. To rear children effectively, one parent has to make the sacrifice, even when couples try to share the duties. Middle-class children in America enjoy intense parenting from birth to the end of their high school education, with parents planning every aspect of their academic and extra-curricular activities so that they can be competitive academically. American education has become increasingly competitive because of highly-driven and smart immigrant and international students who want to study in American universities. Hence, mothers who desire for children to excel put their own careers aside and organise their lives around the achievements of their children. There is a laser focus on academic performance and extracurricular activities in music, sport, dance, science and drama, which not only take time and energy, but also cost a lot of money.

Unlike Nigerian women, most American women cannot rely on their mothers to spend years or even months with them raising children. Grandmothers here have their own marriages and lives that preclude that possibility. Often, because of the nature of the wide geographic dispersal of families in the U.S, most people do not live near their families, foreclosing the option of family support. Paid baby-sitters fill the need, but that service is usually event-driven and for brief periods. Diaspora couples experience this culture of motherhood as a culture shock because motherhood in Nigeria is never a lonely affair. Traditionally, women could rely on their own mothers, their husbands’ mothers, aunts, and even neighbours to help with child rearing, whether requested or not. I have noticed a new development in my area of the U.S. recently. Affluent grandparents, husbands and wives, relocate to their children’s city or state to help out with their grandchildren and be a part of their children’s lives. As a young mother decades ago, I missed my family and the help of a housemaid sorely. I would have given anything, with gratitude, for a housemaid to relief my exhaustion and delirium from lack of sleep, and to pick up the slack in the never-ending demands of housework, career building, and effective child-rearing. It occurred to me then as a new immigrant, looking back at the country I just left, that housemaids are the backbone of professional women’s success in Nigeria. They are always there even when grandmothers or extended families are not. They are affordable, young, poor, and very far away from their homes. They are vulnerable and eminently exploitable. Most importantly, there are no laws to protect them from the predations and exploitations of their employers.

How we treat housemaids is really a reflection of our humanity. Some people treat their maids nicely, but in the majority of cases, housemaids are regarded as work horses. I have been in Nigerian homes where the housemaids are treated so cruelly one wonders if the mistress sees them as human at all. The children of the house sit in front of the television or are doing nothing in particular, while the housemaid is ordered around to serve them and their parents. The maid is sometimes about the same age as the children. Not only is this deleterious to the moral upbringing of children who are taught by this example early that it is normal to use and abuse weaker and vulnerable people. It also deprives children of learning excellent work ethic and domestic skills both male and female children need to acquire for the future. Michelle Obama, the recent first lady of the United States, in an interview, said when they were in the White House, she made their daughters, Sasha and Malia, do house chores. The girls had to make their beds in the morning! Mrs. Obama could easily have allowed the army of White House domestic staff to serve her children all day, but being a smart and ethical mother, she knows how injurious this would be to the development of the children.

Men who do not undertake any house work, but enjoy the labour of their full-time working wives and overworked maids are complicit too, if they are not concerned about the treatment of their maids. Many housemaids cannot sit in the living rooms with the members of the family, they cannot watch television, they eat only after everyone has eaten, they are the first to wake up and the last to go to bed.


Most mothers want the best for their children, and because of the shadow cast by superstition on our society, problems are believed to be caused by invisible forces, awon aiye. To counter these forces and protect their children from harm, some mothers resort to spiritual practices and rituals, doing iso oru, anointing, special baths, week-long fasting, and donating generously to their churches. The same mothers then go home to treat their housemaids abominably. Would God not have preferred a little kindness to the housemaid than fasting and anointing if you want your prayers answered? One of the rituals people do to bring good fortune is to throw parties for children, doing sara, cooking for them and plying them with gifts so that their innocent spirits can bring good fortune to the giver. The housemaid probably does the heavy lifting for these parties. Is she not a child too? Does she not belong in the category of the pampered children? What is the point of all the rituals, if you miss the true opportunity to show godliness, which in this case is the kindness and fairness you show to the most vulnerable person living under your roof? The maid works seven days a week and she has no legal rights. She has no family or authority figure to protect her from abuse. Her parents and people who love her are two or three countries away, or they live somewhere far in the rural areas.

Men who do not undertake any house work, but enjoy the labour of their full-time working wives and overworked maids are complicit too, if they are not concerned about the treatment of their maids. Many housemaids cannot sit in the living rooms with the members of the family, they cannot watch television, they eat only after everyone has eaten, they are the first to wake up and the last to go to bed. Some sleep on mats in some corner of the house and not a single conversation is ever exchanged with them on their humanity, how they are feeling or doing, whether they miss home, and what difficulties they might be having. Some are locked out of the house all day while their employers are at work, standing or sitting around in the compound, or roaming the neighbourhood until their employers are back!

It is a pernicious form of slavery sometimes. Some trafficker brings these children from poor families around West Africa and distribute them to urban Nigerian families who need the services of housemaids. Money exchanges hands. The trafficker gets his cut, and supposedly the parents of the girl get something. No one can really verify how much poor parents get from this deal. The poor child never touches the money. She is just a commodity. Employers of these children are participating in child trafficking, even if unwittingly.

Some diaspora couples in the U.K. and the United States, desperate for the services of maids, bring girls from Nigeria in the pretence that they will be given the opportunity for education and advancement. Instead, they are abused, coerced, and turned into slaves, against the laws of the host countries. You don’t have to search far on the internet to see how many Nigerian couples, some of them physicians, have been sent to prison because of the unlawful treatment of their housemaids. One of the great things about living in a place where laws are enforced is that everyone is protected. The rights of a doctor are not greater than the rights of a maid. Poverty is not a crime. Nobody chooses their parents. It is a lottery of the womb to be born into favourable circumstances. The irony of the ill treatment of housemaids in Nigeria is that some of their employers were poor as children themselves!

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Our humanity is most evident in how we treat the most vulnerable. Housemaids work hard to make family life comfortable and enjoyable. Maltreating and exploiting them demeans us personally and corrodes society. Housemaids are workers with rights, and these rights should be honoured and protected by the people who use their services.


Nigeria is not peculiar in the maltreatment of housemaids and the lack of laws to protect them. Some horrendous stories coming out of the Middle East indicate that maids from the Philippines and some African countries, are often subject to barbaric abuses like beatings, rape, and even murder by their employers. The attitude toward housemaids is just a step above slavery.
Sometimes, housemaids strike back, by fleeing with the possessions of their employers, or in a few cases, attacking their employers physically, or disappearing with the children of the house. Others, having been trained well in middle class home management, if they are mature enough, seduce the husbands to become wives, taking over the house and kicking Madam to the curb. There is a toxic mix of exploitation, resentment, and lack of trust between many housemaids and their employers, regardless of the pretence of deference and servitude.

Evidently, the housemaid culture in Nigeria needs reform, at the personal and policy levels. While Nigeria is signatory to United Nations’ Child Labour Laws, enforcement doesn’t seem to be very strong. Could our legislators and civil society justice activists take up this cause and pass legislation to protect domestic workers in Nigerian homes? Their hours of work, their compensation, holidays and what is expected of them and their employers should be clearly delineated. They are not beasts of burden on whom all manners of work in or outside the home should be heaped.

Our humanity is most evident in how we treat the most vulnerable. Housemaids work hard to make family life comfortable and enjoyable. Maltreating and exploiting them demeans us personally and corrodes society. Housemaids are workers with rights, and these rights should be honoured and protected by the people who use their services.

Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate. Email: bunmimatory@yahoo.com