When Nora Adhiambo, 21, started working as a housekeeper for a family in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, she expected to cook, clean and look after their young children; not that she would have to regularly have sex with her employer.
"He would force me to have sex with him; every time he would sleep with me without a condom and this went on for two years," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "He threw me out when I told him I was pregnant; I realised later that I had not only left that house with a pregnancy but also HIV."
Five years ago, when she was 16, Adhiambo had been brought to the city to work for the family by an aunt after the death of her parents forced her to drop out of school. Her employers paid 800 Kenyan shillings a month (US$10), but the money was sent directly to her aunt.
After losing her job, she found shelter at a local church and started antiretroviral (ARV) treatment; her employer has never been charged with rape or for employing a minor - people are legally allowed to work in Kenya from the age of 18.
There are more than one million domestic workers in Kenya, according to the Centre for Domestic Training and Development, which fights for their rights and welfare. Most are employed on a casual basis, meaning that the terms of employment - including salary, time off and medical insurance - are largely determined by the employer.
Salaries are sometimes so low that they are forced to seek additional sources of income, including sex work; those forced out of their employer's home after being raped may resort to sex work as the only way to survive.
"While I have never had sex with my boss, I have been having it with other men in the neighbourhood to earn more money when my bosses are away at work," said Lillian Atieno*, 17, a domestic worker in Nairobi. "Most of them assume that I am confined [to the house] and therefore do not have sex with many people, [so] they rarely use a condom with me."
Maureen Murenga, a programme officer at Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK), a local NGO, said condom use among domestic workers was generally low. "Most of the time domestic workers have sex it is unplanned, so condom use is non-existent; furthermore, few of them know about post-exposure prophylaxis [ARV treatment that prevents HIV infection after intercourse] and so most of them do not seek these services."
|He threw me out when I told him I was pregnant; I realised later that I had not only left that house with a pregnancy but also HIV|
Labour laws not implemented
Kenya has legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers but it is rarely enforced, and few of the women know about the existence of the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals, and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA), which was set up to protect their rights.
"Most domestic workers are unskilled, have poor education and do not even know that they have rights within the law," said Irene Opiyo, a labour policy consultant who would like to see a more user-friendly system of legal redress put in place for domestic workers.
A survey in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa in 2009 by KUDHEIHA and the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity found that 77.3 percent of 982 domestic workers interviewed earned salaries below the minimum wage, while 32 percent reported having experienced sexual, verbal or physical abuse.
Building knowledge, building self-esteem
Family Health International (FHI), which works to improve reproductive health worldwide, runs a project to empower domestic workers by giving them information on HIV/AIDS, sexuality and reproductive health, and the skills to manage their personal finances.
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Aside from the high incidence of sexual abuse, domestic workers are also at higher risk of HIV because their working conditions make it harder to reach them with HIV prevention messages, and limit their access to social support. Using the church as an entry point, the FHI project has been able to reach the girls and their employers.
"Making information about HIV/AIDS available to these girls and empowering them to boost their self-esteem and self-worth is very important in reducing their vulnerability," said Dr Jane Alaii, an FHI research associate.
Tabitha Gathoni, a domestic worker who participated in the FHI project, commented: "I have more information about HIV than I did before, and through the training I am now able to appreciate both myself and the work that I do. Now, I cannot do with my body what I could easily do before."
*Not her real name