“If I had done something wrong, if a I had broken a plate, for example, they would hit me in front of other people”
Although the law forbids it, there are still girls working in houses.
Many of them do it in their own neighbourhoods. At a neighbour’s house, for example, they work in exchange for food, a notebook or a tip. We have contacted girls aged 8 or 9 years, although there might also be smaller ones.
What is their profile?
Many of them are daughters of former child domestic workers. How did they start? Because their mothers had nowhere to leave them.
You may know girls, who after going through a terrible situation, have become entrepreneurs.
For me, being an entrepreneur goes beyond how much I achieved. If I now have got a grocery stand in the market, it has to do with the strength to get through difficult situations, such as sexual abuse and physical or psychological abuse. Teenagers are still coming to Lima with the same dream I had: Lima is the solution, I will study there, I will be someone better; however, it is not like that. If you want to study, for example, you are at a disadvantage in comparison to children who do have the opportunity to study.
You are an example, you broke the line. What was your breaking point?
Facing difficult situations of abuse, not only in my village but here too.
You came to Lima at the age of 12.
I do not know if it happens to all of them but I came believing that I was not going to work in a house. But once here I had nothing else to do. It was my only option. Unfortunately, I worked at a house where I suffered the worst abuses ever. I was about to finish my primary school studies (at night shift) and I met some friends facing the same situation. It could not be that normal!
You realized that you were not alone.
Of course. I was 12 years old and had to take care of a 15-day-old baby. The lady I worked for did not like my long hair, so she dragged me into the bathroom and cut it off. I felt like an object! She did not tell me what the reason was, she just did it. That situation together with the physical abuse and the meetings at night with my friends who were going through the same... It was then when we were invited to a meeting in a parish where we found more friends in the same situation and we began to talk, to reflect about it. We had to do something!
You waited anxiously for Sundays.
Of course! They were the most important days of my life because I could be myself only then. I got together with my ‘sisters’, we began to support each other, to realize that we are also people. It took me a long time to realize that this was a job! That is very difficult for someone who has never had anything... This is how we started meetings and, together with other friends, we formed the La Victoria’s Union of Domestic Workers. There were already other unions in Lima! We were not alone! We started to join forces, because alone we were not going to be able to do much.
On Mondays, you came back empowered to work.
No. I had to come with my head down because it was a secret. If I said something, they would surely put me on the street.
You applied for an institute but you did not continue because you had neither time nor money. What did you want to become?
First, a teacher, because I wanted to change the way teachers treated us. “Here you come to study, not to sleep!”, they would shout. They threw the chalk at us, they did not understand our situation. Later, when I learned my rights and began to complain, they wanted to throw me out of school.
Did you do that in houses as well?
Yes, everything was different in the penultimate house I worked. I think that gave me the urge to become a journalist.
How did you know about “La Casa de Panchita”?
I joined the union that I mentioned to you, and in 1986, Blanca Figueroa, who was part of the “Peru Mujer” organisation, developed a project to train leaders among domestic workers. That is how I met her. When I left the union by difference of opinion, Blanca invited me to join the “Asociación Grupo de Trabajo Redes” (La Casa de Panchita is part of that NGO) and I agreed to attend, because I wanted to continue my work in favour of domestic workers and my colleagues. I joined the NGO in 1996.
As a member of the NGO, you have been conducting the radio programme “No Somos Invisibles” (we are not invisible) for five years. What are the results of it?
We have significant results. Even though it is a purely musical station (Radio Union FM), we have managed to introduce our topics and, through telephone calls, the public's opinions. Our public is not just domestic workers, which is extremely important. Domestic workers also have got a space to make their complaints, say what is happening to them, make legal inquiries, etc. Even though there are not many calls, sometimes we receive calls from employers who ask about the benefits their employees should receive.
“When I train them and they tell me their experiences, I realize that (the situation of domestic workers) has not changed at all”
You might have even heard of worse cases than yours.
Terrible ones. That is why I always emphasize that I have also been a domestic worker, that I have also endured hardships. We are here for them, to listen to them, to give them emotional support and, if they decide it so, to go one step further and make the corresponding complaint.
Domestic workers are, therefore, more empowered.
The AGTR and the radio program asks us, as a society, to value and respect the work they domestic works do. Some people may say: “They do not have any university, or institute studies, what is their value?” However, they do know how to prepare a lomo saltado, an arroz con pato. Is it simple to do it? No! We teach them to value their knowledge, their experience. Many laugh and say that is simple. It is not. They specialise through workshops so that they learn to negotiate with employers and sell their work experience. Some of them, for example, know how to take care of children with autism and with Down syndrome; that is a specialisation. They do not have a diploma but they have enough knowledge to have a better salary.
Have you complained to your mother for what you had to live as a child?
No, but she cries when she listens the interviews I have on the radio and the TV. She says it is her fault. I told her she had no other choice. She wanted us to have something to eat, and that is what we got... For a long time, I did resent my father; I used to blame him for everything that happened to me. But that is something that does not allow you to grow and thanks to a series of therapies I managed to overcome it. He did not have the capacity; perhaps he was afraid of being the father of five children. All that matters is that I am here, and if I’m alive, I owe it to my dad and my mum. I’m thankful for that.
And being alive and having gone through what so much, now allows you to reach many domestic workers who need to be heard and understood.
Yes. The most important thing is that they do not feel the world is coming to an end. What we do here is a catharsis, because when we talk about our experiences ⸺since we were children until where we are now⸺ many end up crying. We make them realize that we are the owners of our lives, of the decisions we make, that we are all here to support each other, and that our work is important. It is important for the families we work for and for the country. That is why society has to value it.