Jacqueline Dembele has founded the first association dedicated to defending the rights and improving the working conditions of young women employed as domestics in Mali. She is helping make domestic work a transition rather than a destination, a means to achieving education and financial stability rather than an endpoint for poor young women.
The New Idea
By changing the attitudes of employees and employers alike, Jacqueline Dembele is fundamentally changing the lives of domestic workers in Mali. Her initiatives have improved the lives of thousands of Malian women and led to a change in the public attitude about the treatment of domestic servants. She has fought for and won significant increases in compensation, shorter work hours, employer-sponsored access to education, and recognition from the courts that women employed as domestics are to be treated with respect. People are now beginning to understand that physical and sexual abuse of domestics can lead to fines and/or imprisonment.
Before Jacqueline started, there were but a few scattered efforts to train girls in the technical aspects of domestic work, but even this type of service was not widely available. Her approach is to train prospective employees, place them in homes after negotiating the full range of employment conditions, and monitor their relationships with their employers. The employing household, in turn, gets an assurance of quality and intervention if the domestic does not perform sufficiently. In such a case, Jacqueline provides a qualified replacement. Jacqueline pioneered this effort in Mali, and her approach has been widely imitated as similar associations have multiplied.
Rather than focus narrowly on professional training, Jacqueline’s approach deals with the needs of domestic servants as people in transition, people who do not want to be stuck for life in low-wage positions. On the other hand, the training and dedication to self-improvement required of members produces higher quality workers who see themselves as working for their own advancement. This fundamental change of perspective allows for personal growth, individual savings, and education.
Domestic workers are a common fixture of many households in Mali, particularly in urban areas like the capital city of Bamako. A great number of professional women, civil servants, businesspeople (to name just a few) rely on domestics to run the household while they pursue their professional interests outside the home. Paradoxically, these young women are treated very harshly and unfairly in many instances.
For example, the average monthly wages of these girls is very low, about 5 000 FCFA (US $9) per month. In addition, upon taking these jobs, many girls are met with sexual and otherwise violent abuse from their employers, sexually transmitted diseases, unintentional pregnancies, and infanticide.
Addressing the rights of domestic workers is a neglected area. Typically, these domestics are young women and girls, who are treated like chattel, with little prospect for advancement. The treatment of domestic workers also reflects a more general societal attitude toward women. While professional women have acquired some level of emancipation and equity in Malian society, the benefits have not been transferred to women at all income levels.
Statistics show that many children are involved in this (domestic) sector. It is difficult to find reliable data, but a study conducted by Enda Tiers Monde in Senegal indicates that 50 percent of the house workers in Senegal are between 9 and 15 years old. The situation in Mali and other West African countries is similar.
Previous approaches to the issue have been conducted only by individual families, or by for-profit placement agencies. Until now, no broad, coherent initiatives have been implemented.
In 1989, Jacqueline and her collaborators decided to create the non-governmental organization Muso Dame, of which Jacqueline is the president. The name of the association means " Dignity of the Woman" in Bambara. Work started in 1991 with nearly 144 girls. There are now approximately 800 domestic workers who constitute the Association Muso Dame, and it has spawned six other groups doing similar work.
To gain access to these girls and to interest them in her initiative, Jacqueline Dembele facilitates their placement with employers. It is in this manner that Jacqueline Dembele is building a base of supporters. After the placement, Jacqueline works with employers to demonstrate that allowing these girls to receive an education can only increase the quality of their childcare (the girls are often hired to take care of the children of professional parents). Jacqueline has opened training centers near homes where domestics work and succeeded in convincing the employers to let the girls come to the evening courses after their household chores.
Muso Dame then prepares evening courses relating to literacy, nutrition, health and hygiene, family planning and various other practical topics related to a domestic worker’s profession and personal life. The association also helps girls initiate projects in the manufacture of soap, syrup, and jam, small animal breeding, gardening, etc. From their incomes, the girls are encouraged to set up savings accounts to help them plan for the future: " the objective says Jacqueline is to help them to make a good stay in Bamako and to be able to develop their lives in a different way."
Once affiliated with Muso Dame, the rural girls are better protected, change jobs less often, and have fewer problems with their employers. Unwanted pregnancies and child abandonment are less frequent. Meanwhile, the girls learn to read, write, and perform arithmetic. They take part in workshops that design and evaluate new activities that interest them. To address issues such as wage negotiations, working conditions, work schedules, and grievances, domestic workers and their employers also have recourse to the mediation services of Muso Dame. Moreover, periodic meetings of domestic workers and employers are organized at the Muso Dame training center.
Muso Dame is financed through membership fees of 1,750 FCFA per month, employer contributions, grants from donors, and in-kind support from government agencies.
Jacqueline’s new focus is on the expansion of Muso Dame into rural areas: she wants to start branches in localities from which rural girls are migrating to the city. In these sub-branches, the girls will receive assistance in reintegrating into rural life after their harsh experiences in the city. The establishment of sub-branches relies heavily on groups of local women: Jacqueline teaches them her methodology, gives them hands-on training, and lets them run the local programs. Additional contacts have been made with women’s organizations in the cities of Djenné, Ségou and San.
Jacqueline also already has contacts with women’s associations and journalists outside of Mali, in Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire. She has exchanged strategies and ideas with groups interested in the situation of domestic workers in those countries.
Born in 1944 into a relatively well-to-do family, Jacqueline explains that justice and equity, and assistance to the weak and needy comprised the guiding principles of her education.
Jacqueline was married in 1959 at the age of 15 and without her consent. This was the same year she obtained her certificate of primary studies. Not having had the opportunity to go to secondary school, she took evening courses to improve her education. In 1961, she decided to register at a school of social work, and in 1980, she began taking courses at a school of community development for four additional years.
In 1976, she began to work with blind people, state social workers, company directors, and volunteers on an idea that is still moving forward: the creation of a school for the blind in Bamako. This school advocates for disability rights relating to the blind and enables students to have their own association and obtain gainful employment.
Herself a mother, Jacqueline began to question the harsh way in which domestic workers – “housegirls” – were treated. There was no private or governmental action plan centered on the situation of these family-aides, who are commonly needed but not officially recognized. She started working with domestic workers in secret during the military dictatorship and developed initial organizing efforts. She was moved by the plight of these girls, the majority of whom are rural migrants who come to urban areas in search of a better life and are often taken advantage of by their employers. Jacqueline has built the Muso Dame organization with little outside financial support.