Some time in March, a teenage housemaid was jailed for 28 months for abducting her employer’s two-year-old son and keeping him for 128 days, demanding an unspecified amount as ransom.
In June last year, a local daily carried a report about a 15-year-old maid arrested for sexually abusing her employer’s seven-month-old baby left in her custody while the parents were at work.
The offence was discovered when the baby’s mother noticed an abnormal lump on his genitals.
Cases of children abused by housemaids have become common, leaving parents who have to leave children under the care of maids often asking themselves: Are our children safe back home?
“Some of the stories are quite scary and you wonder if it is a good idea to trust the maid to look after your children,” said Marceline Nhewede, a Harare-based businesswoman and mother of two.
“While some maids abuse or ill-treat children in retaliation for the treatment they get from their employers, in some cases they just do bad things even when they are treated well.”
With parents often away from home due to work, most families employ maids either full-time or part-time to look after children or do household chores.
“It’s a real dilemma,” Nhewede said.
“Our lives today demand that both spouses work in order to make ends meet, so one can’t stay at home to look after the little ones and at the same time one can’t just trust a stranger with one’s children.
“Some parents believe their children are safer with older maids of a certain age or from a particular background, but it does not always work.
“Some employ close relatives as maids, but that can also create problems.”
A maid from Marlborough who identified herself by her first name, Claris, said maids were often ill-treated by their female employers who made them work long hours without commensurate pay and sometimes denied them food.
“I don’t think anyone would like to be cruel to children, but it’s all about the way one is treated by the employer,” Claris said.
“Our bosses, who are mainly women, are the main culprits because they ill-treat us, forgetting that we have the life of the whole family in our hands because we cook and take care of the children who are vulnerable.”
But a Harare woman differed saying maids who bear grudges against their employers should resign and leave their job rather than vent their frustration on innocent children.
“If I am ill-treating her, she should just leave the job,” the woman said.
“If I am being ill-treated at my workplace, I just leave the job. I don’t revenge,” she said.
Zimbabwe Domestic Allied Workers Union secretary-general, Hilarious Ruwi, said the abuse of children by domestic workers was usually linked to the way the workers were treated by their employers.
“As a way of hitting back, they can pass on their anger and frustrations to the children under their care,” Ruwi said urging employers to observe laws and ensure fair conditions for their workers.
“We are against child abuse as a union.
“It should not be like that. The employee should deal with the employer not the children.”
He said domestic workers had aspirations and they are also entitled to a normal life like anybody else.
He urged prospective employers to first trace the background of people they were considering for jobs to avoid the abuse of children by maids.
Many families often resorted to employing unvetted maids to avoid paying high wages and strict work conditions demanded by maids who come through recruitment agencies.
The other problem is salaries for maids ranging between $50 and $100.
In 2009, the police recorded 3 448 child abuse cases while the victim-friendly courts heard 1 222 cases of child sexual abuse.
Rights groups say many more cases go unreported.
According to figures in A Situational Analysis on the Status of Women’s and Children’s Rights in Zimbabwe 2005-2010, compiled by United Nation Children’s Fund, the country has five million children.