Middle-Class Woman to Middle-Class Woman: Let’s Talk About House-Help

AWiB\’s Sehin Teferra brings to focus many points to reflect on as it relates to the treatment of domestic help by employers.

I want to discuss a difficult topic on this blog. It is something that has sat uncomfortable on the edges of my feminist consciousness for years but has grown into a major concern as its relevance grew in my life with the advent of ‘grown-up hood.’


If you are reading this, chances are you have been given the opportunity for formal, Westernized education and you are probably modern and even liberal in your views. Because of the readership of the website on which this blog appears, you are more likely to be female, and it is probable that having ‘graduated’ out of the family home, you manage your own house, either privately or in a partnership. Unless you are one of the handful of middle-class Ethiopians who manage to cover their own house work (and I give a deep bow of respect to these women, and rarely, men), you most likely hire part or full-time help. If this description applies to you, read on.

I want to challenge you as well as myself, and ask that you make a mental note to yourself in response to a few questions I will pose.  Firstly, how many of us encourage or even allow our house help to go to school, even at the primary level, which is a basic right? When, hanging out with friends on a leisurely afternoon, I wondered aloud if access to primary school had been included in the revised Labor Law, a friend of a friend, a Returnee commented, ‘’esun ke’semuma aychalum’’- ‘’if ‘they’ hear that right has been granted, they won’t be manageable.’’ The same woman went on to describe her sister’s house help who in this day and age is made to sleep on the floor, and I was left speechless.

Second question, how many of our house help have their own bank accountants and are encouraged by us to save their money? I think the age-old tension between Emebet and house-help would ease considerably if we all started to acknowledge that this is employment, not a life-term living arrangement and started treating it as such. Your boss is required by law to leave you better off than you started when she hired you, so why should that not that apply in the case of the ‘invisible’ labor of domestic work?  An employer’s monthly contribution of even 100 Birr into her account might be the crucial tide-over she might need as she finds her next employment.

Thirdly, even the most liberal, Westernized women I know say, ‘’you spoil her’’, when I give my house help time off every other week, but how comfortable would you be if you lived in your employer’s house week after week, and most of your conversation consisted of obeying commands? Would you not miss your friends and family, the people to whom you are more than a sum of arms to fetch and legs to carry?

That sentence I just typed reminds me of an interesting conversation I had with an elderly, conservative female relative. She told me, evidently expecting a sympathetic response, that she had told off her domestic worker for ‘smiling too much’, and the young woman had responded (I assume, with a smile), that her employer had no control over her facial expressions. Of course my relative was offended, while I wanted to clap in delight at the recognition of the boundaries of the Emebet- house-help relationship.


Another question for our mental self – how comfortable would we be with the knowledge that ‘our’ domestic employee has a boyfriend? If she does not have permission to go out at her will, granted this will necessitate her sneaking in and out, but for me therein lies the difficulty with live-in help. Don’t get me wrong, I hire live-in help as well. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see the inherent problem in bringing a perfect stranger to live in our home, not as ‘’one of us’’ but as a walking, talking, serving machine, choosing to forget that she is, first of all, a human being with desires and needs for human contact and relations. The issue becomes more fraught when we leave our small children in the care of these strangers but that’s not the topic of this blog.

An extensive research that I took part in a few years ago showed that in terms of social exclusion, domestic workers are up there with women and girls with disabilities and homeless youth.  As ‘sitting ducks’ living in other people’s homes, they are also one of the most vulnerable groups to sexual violence – even more vulnerable than sex workers. Even if no physical or sexual abuse of a domestic worker has taken place under our roofs, the uncomfortable truth is that for generations, ‘our’ middle-classed men have felt it to be their prerogative to sleep with their house-help regardless of consent. What is more, many a ‘respectable’ marriage has broken down because of dalliances with house-help. I know it is women employers I am speaking to in this blog, but I bring up this discussion because I want us to acknowledge the complete disenfranchisement of this highly feminized group.  After all, the term ‘gered’ or even ‘serategna’ remains an insult even though if you think about it, there is nothing that should be demeaning about honest, if unappreciated and underpaid work.

Most of us have complained at times that house-help fees keep rising but perhaps that is what it is needed to revolutionize our relationships with house-help. Perhaps we would take the practice of paying for household support less for granted if Ethiopian house-help came with employment contracts and started charging by the hour as in developed countries. Besides, we should not forget that we always have the option of cooking, cleaning our houses and doing the laundry ourselves.

You are probably thinking by now of all the headache you have been put through by house-help, and trust me, I have had my fair share. I had an employee I had to call the Police on, and I know many women who have been robbed by house-help. I am not excusing any of these misdeeds but in many ways, I see them as ‘weapons of the weak.’’ Poor Ethiopian girls are not taught to express themselves or be assertive without being aggressive and I often see the traits of manipulation or deceit creep into the ’tools of the trade’ of hired house-help.

However, in the words of Oprah, here is what I know is true – what I have observed from my own experiences and that of the people around me applies the same to house help as it does to anyone else. Usually, when you are nice to people, with boundaries, of course, they are nice to you in return. For instance, because my mother is so kind, she has house-help who left her employment years go who come to help out at her parties.  And when I hear about what so-and-so’s help did to her, I often wonder how the woman in question had been treated by the Emebet and her family.

I think Ethiopians and Addis Ababans in particular have come far in the last two decades in our understanding and practice of equality. We have dismantled much of the ethnic and religious divides that put some people above others, and we are so much better for it. However, as prevalent as discrimination against women is the way in which rich women oppress poor women – and we haven’t even begun to address that traditional injustice.

If you believe in equality between women and men, it is important to ask yourself, ‘’what kind of women?’’ Don’t forget that your house-help allows you to go out and work and practice equality to men. And for that, she deserves your thanks and respect.