As Young Nannies Leave Workforce to Attend School, Cameroonian Mothers Are Taking Their Babies to Work
BAMENDA, CAMEROON – It’s a Friday morning and Brenda Kiven has much to do: care for her 17-month-old baby, wash his clothes, clean their apartment, and prepare food.A journalist and chief of news at Radio Hot Cocoa in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region, she also must get to work in time for the news organization’s weekly editorial meeting at 9 a.m.
Kiven does laundry, cleans the apartment and rushes to bathe before her son, David Achu, wakes up. By the time she steps out of her bath, David is awake. She bathes and nurses him.
It is already 8:30 a.m. Kiven has not completed all of her morning chores, but she cannot afford to be late for the meeting. She adjusts her schedule and dashes to work with her baby.When she arrives in the meeting room, her colleagues inform her the meeting has been canceled. It’s a busy news day, and reporters have been dispatched to cover breaking news events.
Kiven settles in the conference room with her baby and goes over scripts for a show that starts at 10 a.m. All the while, she also attends to David, feeding him and trying to keep his hands off of her papers.
Most of her workdays begin this way, she says.
“I come with my baby to work and go to press conferences with him,” she says. “I love my son and family as well as my job, and I have to keep both.”
She has searched for a baby sitter for six months and has yet to find one, she says.
The number of mothers taking their babies to work in Bamenda has increased because of a deepening shortage of nannies, working mothers report. Many school-age girls who used to care for children now attend school, thanks to an effective campaign against child labor.
While some employers say they do not mind mothers bringing their babies to work, others say they cannot allow the practice because it lowers mothers’ productivity. In response, one local nonprofit organization urges employers to give mothers the full maternity leave they are legally entitled to and to create rooms in workplaces where mothers can care for their babies.
In Cameroon, most nannies are children ages 5 to 14. According to a 2012 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, 36.5 percent of Cameroonian children in that age range were wage earners.
All child labor, including domestic work, is illegal in Cameroon. Under the Labour Code, young people cannot enter employment before age 14.
However, poverty compels many families to arrange for their children to work in spite of the law.
In addition, many Cameroonians are unaware of the rights of children, and the child labor ban is inconsistently enforced, says Joseph Chongsi Ayeah, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Peace Advocacy, a nongovernmental organization working to stop child trafficking and illegal domestic labor.
In the past year, however, heightened campaigns against child labor and trafficking have reduced the number of girls employed as nannies.
All over the country, the government is carrying out campaigns encouraging parents to send their children to school, says George Kisob, an officer of Child Protection Services at the Mezam divisional delegation of the Ministry of Social Affairs.
“As a result, many girls who could have been employed as nannies are going to school,” Kisob says.
The government has not yet obtained regional statistics on the number of girls who have left domestic service to attend school, he says.
A 2012 study by the Cameroon Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family found that 85 girls attended school for every 100 boys. That ratio has been relatively consistent for more than a decade, according to UNICEF. Advocates of children’s rights say they expect to see girls’ enrollment figures rise in the coming years.
Before the anti-child labor campaigns started, many girls from rural Cameroon worked as domestic servants in urban areas.
“A simple phone call could get someone in the city a domestic servant,” says Jamils Richard Achunji Anguaseh, the director of Global Welfare Association, a nonprofit organization that fights human trafficking in Cameroon’s Northwest region.
“But now, with much education and sensitization, people can’t find domestic servants or nannies from the villages even after months of searching,” he says.
The girls used to work long hours for little pay, some as little as 5,000 francs ($9.40) per month, he says.
As more school-age girls pursue their education, mothers have less access to child care. Many struggle to do their jobs while caring for their babies.
Kiven’s situation is a constant challenge, she says. She has trouble living up to the demands of her position, ensuring that her organization is the first to break news in the city.
“The baby cries during staff meetings, and I have to excuse myself to attend to him,” she says. “Sometimes the baby cries when I’m on air, disrupting my show.”Sometimes she is unable to meet her deadlines because taking breaks to attend to David slows her down, she says.
Women who bring their babies to work are less productive than their colleagues, says Pierre Anoufack, manager in charge of commercial services at Radio Hot Cocoa.They cover fewer news events than journalists who are not tending to babies, he says.
The colleagues of working mothers often lend a hand. Jude Muma, a DJ at Radio Hot Cocoa, sometimes plays with David while Kiven is on the air.
“I help when I can,” he says. “I carry the baby and stroll around with him. Brenda is like many women in Bamenda who will not let bearing and nursing their children stand in the way of their work. Walk on the streets or visit offices and you will see many women taking their babies to work.”
Marriatta Akougu, a primary school teacher in Bamenda, takes her baby to work too. Like Kiven, she can’t find a nanny or a baby sitter.
For as long as she can remember, Cameroonian women have been taking their babies to work, she says.
In the villages, women who can’t find or afford nannies take their babies to the farm, Akougu says. In urban areas, working mothers take their babies to their offices and shops.
“There is even a local saying which, when translated to English, means that having a baby is no excuse for a woman not to move forward in her career and in life,” she says.
Self-employed mothers also carry their babies to their shops.Sheila Fobusi, a mother of two who runs a beauty shop in the city’s main market, takes her daughter to the shop. She says she has no alternative.“It is very difficult to find a baby sitter, and day care centers in town are far from where I live,” she says.Fobusi has been running her business while caring for her children for six years.“I have to blend my work with caring for my kids because I can’t quit to be a stay-at-home mom,” she says.
Quinta Gakwi, the head teacher at Good Shepherd Bilingual Nursery and Primary School Banja in Bamenda, says she allows mothers to bring their babies to work because she understands their situation.However, she requires mothers to ensure that caring for their babies does not affect their work, she says.
Not all employers allow mothers to bring their babies to work.Emmanuel Kiven, the coordinator of the North West Association of Development Organisations, an association of nongovernmental organizations that work in the Northwest region, says he does not allow mothers to bring their babies to the office because it diminishes their productivity.
Mothers cannot fully concentrate on their work when their babies are around, he says.“I encourage mothers to take their children to a place where they can be taken care of against some pay,” he says. Emmanuel Kiven and Brenda Kiven are not related.
Cameroonian law does not guarantee mothers a right to bring their babies to work, says Elvis Ngala, the director of Prime Lactation Center, an organization that counsels mothers and provides a forum for them to interact.
However, the country’s Labour Code does guarantee every working woman 14 weeks of maternity leave starting four weeks before her due date.When a mother returns to work, she has a right to take nursing breaks for 15 months after giving birth. Under the law, the total duration of a worker’s nursing breaks cannot exceed one hour per workday.
Employers found guilty of violating these provisions of the code face stiff penalties ranging from 200,000 Central African francs ($380) to 1.5 million francs ($2,850) and including prison terms of up to six months.
The extent to which employers honor the rights of working mothers varies widely by sector. In Bamenda, only women who work in the public sector trust that their rights will be honored, according to a 2013 report by the Prime Lactation Center.
In a survey of 1,500 female workers of child-bearing age, all of the public sector employees reported they were confident of their job security while pregnant, on leave and while breastfeeding.
Among private sector workers, only 80 percent reported having job security of one form or another; the other 20 percent said they had either no job security or high job insecurity, according to the 2013 report.
Private sector workers also report being less able to nurse in the workplace. Only 20 percent said they were allowed to take breaks and did so while breastfeeding; 80 percent said nursing breaks were unavailable or unused in their workplaces.In the report, the Prime Lactation Center urges employers to create spaces to accommodate breastfeeding workers.
“There is a need for sensitization and awareness campaigns on the possibility of creating standard breastfeeding corners in companies, public breastfeeding spots,” the report says.
Some employers do not consider such amenities a priority. Emmanuel Kiven, for example, says his organization has no plans to provide such facilities.
Ngala and the Prime Lactation Center also call on private employers to grant mothers the full maternity leave guaranteed by law.Government employees get full, paid maternity leave. However, in some private companies, maternity leaves are short or nonexistent and often are unpaid, says Samuel Mokosso Ekema, chief of the Labor Inspection Brigade for the Northwest regional delegation of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.
As a result, many mothers start taking their babies to work shortly after they deliver, he says.
Brenda Kiven too calls on private organizations to give mothers full maternity leave so they have enough time to take care of their babies and work out child care plans before returning to work.She took 10 weeks of maternity leave – four weeks before delivery and six after.
Brenda Kiven plans to start dropping off her son at her mother’s home on workdays. Working while caring for David is wearing her out, she says.“Usually women have to choose between being mothers or career women,” she says. “I have chosen to be both.”
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