For an hour, in the sanctum of an apartment in El Jadida, the maid was beaten with the hose of a gas cylinder. Her screams and supplications brought her aggressor, the daughter of her employer who “borrowed” her to help around the house, to a frothing rage; she repeatedly struck her over the head and face with the heel of a shoe until she collapsed on the floor she had so thoroughly scrubbed lifeless. The maid’s name is Khadija. She was eleven years old. She hailed from Tagadirt, a small village southwest of Marrakesh. According to the police report, the killer, a thirty-one year old educated Moroccan woman, was upset Khadija ruined her dress shirt while washing it.
Khadija’s path into child labor is not unique. It is the same path taken by Zainab Shtit, Najwa Bent Bouazza, and many others. Being illiterate, their parents didn’t see the added value in sending them to school; famine and disease are daily realities and survival is a primary focus. They, like many other mostly rural parents who are economically depleted, circumvent the Malthusian constraint by putting their children to work as soon as they are physically capable. For boys, the work is often seasonal menial labor in fields and construction sites or as ambulant cigarette hawkers and shoe shiners; girls are sent off to the city to work as maids and professional panhandlers. When Khadija turned nine years old, she was sent to Marrakesh to work as a maid. Her father would show up once a month to collect her measly salary – less than fifty dollars. She was eventually fired from that job. Thanks to a “samsara,” a headhunter who provides maids to customers, she was soon relocated to Casablanca where she was recruited by the mother of her murderer.
Until she was so viciously murdered, Khadija spent her days scrubbing floors, washing dishes, and kneading laundry. Every day, she was up before everybody else to prepare breakfast for her employer’s family and would labor long into the night. By the time she was done, her fingers would be swollen, her back sore, her eyes stinging, and her mottled skin taut. Her childhood was compressed; she was more familiar with detergent soap than cartoons. she didn’t have a favorite toy, dress, or bedtime story, nor did she enjoy the caring caress of a doting mother, nor the protective hug of a loving father. No school teacher to learn from; no friends to play with. Instead, her parents and the Moroccan society turned their backs on her; she was thrown into the hands of strangers who considered her a beast of burden, dehumanized her. They desensitized their children to her plight and paved the way to a generational lack of empathy. These are the same people who ball their eyes out when the heroin of their favorite Turkish or Mexican soap opera breaks up with her boyfriend. In her tangled perception, her employer is adamant she accepted Khadija out of sheer rectitude. After all, she was providing her with a roof over her head, food to her heart’s content, clean clothes, and protection from whoring and mendicity.
Khadija’s father dropped all charges against her murderer. I am fairly certain he received monetary compensation in exchange for his condonation. Associations “Bayti,” “Touche pas à mon enfant,” “Manal,” and “INSAF” initiated judicial action on behalf of the victim. It is demoralizing to know he was never charged of any crime. Is child labor not a crime in Morocco? Of course it is. Since 2003, the government introduced new legislation specifically targeting child labor, but it hardly ensures compliance.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) estimate there are over 90000 children under the age of eighteen working as maids in Morocco today. Over 25000 are in Casablanca alone. I suspect the number to be much higher. These sobering statistics highlight the pervasiveness of underage labor in our country. Morocco’s Ministry of Social Development concedes the problem is serious and can no longer be shunted. It has, according to its website, zero tolerance for child labor and has initiated a host of commendable programs to mitigate the issue. However, the Children’s National Action Plan (PANE), INDIMAJ, a program designed to reintegrate homeless children into society, and INQAD, to eradicate child labor, fail to yield tangible results. Efforts to promote children’s rights within the Moroccan society and to raise awareness of the deleterious effects child labor has on the country’s future generations have been dismal and mostly failing. The tragic ambivalence of the Moroccan society about these household slaves causes most crimes against them such as sexual abuse and domestic violence to go unreported. Moroccans, and Moslems in general, seem to hit the panic button when an artist scribbles verses from the Koran on his naked body, but are numb to the victimization of thousands of children. This ambivalence is deeply rooted in a toxic cultural legacy that extends back to the time when owning domestics denoted social prominence. There are a few things more endearing to a married Moroccan woman, when entertaining visitors, than to call out to her maid to bring the “siniya” – literally a “tray,” but in Moroccan household parlance, it refers to an expensive tea set.
In the meanwhile, legions of children are growing up to be failing adults, wallowing in servitude, in an environment that fosters moral decay, physical and mental sickness. They have no access to education and familial stability, tools necessary to enhance their ability to flourish and be productive members of society. I don’t believe in those parables that try convincing us that these children will be prosperous if they put their minds into it once they become adults. Malcolm Gladwell conveyed that sentiment best during an interview with New York magazine: “I am explicitly turning my back on, I think, these kind of empty models that say, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. Well, actually, you can’t be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can’t be.” Until we collectively, as Moroccans, denounce and proactively enforce our laws and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are willfully setting our nation for a multi-layered failure that will shackle our progress for generations to come.
A. T. B. © 2011