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Hard work, new opportunities

by Eva-Maria Verfürth
In Latin America’s big cities, women from rural regions slog away as household workers in the service of wealthy families. Thanks to educational opportunities in weekend schools, some of them manage to become upwardly mobile. In Guatemala City, internal migrants, who initially lacked formal qualifications, have become nurses, teachers or social workers. [ By Eva-Maria Verfürth ]

“I am my sisters’ a role model”, says María (only the women’s first names are used here, to protect their identity). “They have seen that I am earning money and going to university, so they too are now coming to the capital city to look for work.” María is talking about a job that doesn’t seem all that appealing. For 14 years, she worked as a “maid” in Guatemala City. She swept, polished and did the washing in someone else’s home: six days a week, up to sixteen hours a day.

Driven by poverty, she had decided to leave her village at the tender age of eleven. When she arrived in Guatemala City, she didn’t know anyone there. She barely spoke any Spanish. In her home village, an indigenous language is spoken. María became a household helper. Her first employer paid her the equivalent of €2.50 a month, her room was full of vermin and she received little to eat. She had never heard of labour laws.

Today, her life looks very different. She does not have to work in strangers’ homes anymore. She mamaged to attend weekend school, and subsequently started studying social work with a scholarship at the state university. She lives in an apartment she shares with other students and has become quite self-confident moving around the city. She has been fluent in Spanish for a long time now. After completing her studies, she wants to return to her village and support the cause of rural women.

In the city, other village women also succeed in climbing the career ladder, thanks to personal savings and educational opportunities they take advantage of after doing their household work. However, they are not the majority. For most domestic workers, the first job is already the end of the line. Illness, psychological or family problems, abuse by the employer or simply very little self-confidence are among the many many reasons that keep women from breaking away from household work.

Better than at home

In Guatemala, it is estimated that eight percent of all women work in other people’s households. They hardly enjoy any legal protection. According to Guatemalan labour law, domestic work is “subject neither to a working time statute nor to regulations on the maximum number of working hours in a day”. Legally, domestic helpers are only entitled to ten hours of free time in 24 hours, and one day off per week. But very often, these minimal employment laws are disregarded, and so are basic civil liberties.

Despite the difficult conditions, many young village women choose to work as household helpers. They see it as a way to escape poverty and a lack of prospects. They can perform domestic jobs without an education, and at least they are guaranteed board and lodging. Most of these housekeepers come from the rural regions in Guatemala, where 75% of those under the age of 18 live in poverty – and 28% in extreme poverty. They know precisely what future village life holds for them: they will attend school only for a short time or not at all, marry young, and be expected to raise a lot of children.

Often, tensions in the family or the village community force women to leave their homes. Petrona, for example, was no longer tolerated in her community when rumours spread that she had become too intimate with a boy in her neighbourhood. Isabel, on the other hand, left her family after she was raped: Her father had threatened to kill her if she lost her virginity before marriage.

Compared with such circumstances, domestic workers in the city have a small advantage at least: they can quit when things become unbearable. “My sisters got married and had eight or nine children,” Lucía says. “Sometimes they have nothing to eat - they suffer worse abuse than I do. If I am treated badly somewhere, I quit. But once you are married, you cannot leave your husband.”

Much changes for the women once the move to the city. For the first time, they earn money which they have at their own disposal. A housekeeper’s monthly wage ranges from around € 50 to € 150, and board and lodging is free in the employer’s household. That is not much, but it is a great deal more than women’s average monthly wage in rural areas, which amounts to € 58 - without board and lodging. Rural women, moreover, normally are not allowed to keep their earnings, but have to hand the money over to their husbands.

In the city, there are various night schools and weekend courses for working adults. Household workers can afford such curricula. Six months of Sunday class make up for an enitre year lost at school as a child. Some women even go on to gain a university degree.

Income and education can thus become the foundations for a career change. With the money they save, the women can build a new life for themselves; and with a formal education, they can pursue qualified work. First of all, however, they have to understand their opportunities. Often, work in wealthy households gives them an important insight in this respect too. They get to know women professionals. Their employers, who are well educated and pursue attractive careers, set the example. Earlier, most household workers were not even aware of women going to universities or doing professional work.

“Women like us do not go to school because we grow up in a social setting that leaves us with no idea of what women can achieve. It would never have occurred to me to study,” says Aura, who is a project assistant in the national government today. If she hadn’t observed this other kind of woman’s life at her place of employment, she would never have completed school.For many women, perspectives and aspirations change in the city. Some want to start their own business, others want to become nurses, teachers or politicians. “The way I think has changed,” María says. “What I want from life is no longer what rural people would expect.”

The only chance

However, most household helpers will never fulfill their aspirations the way that María and Aura did. It takes a great deal of discipline to save the little money that is left over at the end of the month or spend it on tuition fees. And going to class means sacrificing the one day off.

Many women are overburdened already, suffring from hard work, bad treatment and even sexual abuse. They cannot summon the strength to strive tenaciously for better circumstances. And those who have to cope with long periods of unemployment, pay for the treatment of serious illnesses or support their family are unable to save enough money.

It is a slim chance that opens up when women migrate to the city in the hope of finding a better life through hard work. Success requires a great deal of sacrifice and a quantum of luck. For the women who manage to leave the tough times behind, however, this was the only chance they ever got.