When domestic work becomes child abuse

Endless chores at home leave one too tired for school and often late

In Summary

• Many kids in needy homes find themselves having to help with making ends meet

Child labour in Africa
Child labour in Africa

As another school term starts this month, 6-year-old Mike* (not his real name) is full of trepidation. Unlike other children happy to reunite with classmates, Mike knows the difficulties he will have with teachers for regularly getting to school late.

The public school Mike attends has a strict 7am deadline for all learners to be in class. Mike is often late, earning him scolding and punishment from teachers. Tired of his behaviour, the teachers sometimes send him back home to encourage a behaviour change. As a consequence, Mike is out of school for at least two days a week instead of being in class like his peers.

The frequent absences from school will have an impact on his learning, but why does he keep getting late, and what are his parents doing about it?

Mike lives with his mother and baby brother. The mother spends her day struggling to eke out a living. Furthermore, she is preoccupied with nursing Mike's infant brother. There is no money for a house help. Quite often, mother and her children have dinner as late as 10pm. After dinner, when many children his age are fast asleep, Mike's job is to scrub the sufurias, spoons and plates before getting into bed.


Going to bed close to 11pm inevitably results in waking up late, and that's why he is unable to observe punctuality in school. A child who has to be in school by 7am should have woken up by 6am. School holidays and weekends are more tolerable for Mike as he does not have to wake up early. He longs to be out with his agemates but has to split his time between playing outside and doing household chores.

"I cannot be hustling for these children and then do all the work at home. The baby needs attention. Mike is a grown child and must play his part in this family," Mike's mother asserts when asked about the situation.

Mike's true story is a typical example of the experience of many children across Kenya.

Esther Kulundu, an expert in educational psychology, explains in a paper on the subject: "Most cultures throughout the world recognised that learning begins at birth and involved children in housework as a stepping stone to the development of essential skills critical for wholesome development." 

Kulundu says children in traditional African society have been involved in supporting the family by participating in housework, but this is changing.

"Modern life appears to have promoted ways of socialising children which are likely to focus on schooling to the neglect of skills that children used to develop at home through participating in housework," she points out.

During her surveys, Kulundu found that both parents and teachers did not fully understand the contribution of housework in developing the child's academic skills and knowledge as a whole. With this explanation, is it reasonable to conclude that Mike's mum is making the right decision by putting her son to work?

The US-based National Library for Medicine also supports the argument that exposing children to household chores is a positive thing. "Household chores can serve to teach important skills about how to keep a household functioning," reads part of a report. However, too much housework is harmful to the child's health.

Children who engage in many hours of household chores will suffer from fatigue. Caring for younger children often requires lifting and carrying them, which can injure even the older child caregiver and put the younger child at risk. Child caregivers may lack the necessary judgment to adequately protect themselves and their younger siblings from harm.

How much work is bad for children? The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) considers housework to be child labour if the child is doing it more than 4 hours per day (28 hours per week).

The Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra) classifies child labour with age. Children aged between 5 and 14 years doing over 28 hours of domestic work per week (4 hours per day) are regarded to be in child labour.

Most people think of child labour in terms of employment outside the home. As indicated by Unicef and Kippra, excessive domestic work is also child labour and the consequences are similar to those of children working for wages.

According to Unicef, child labour causes physical and mental harm. As with Mike, who is frequently absent from school, child labour cuts children off from education.

Poor performance in school will badly affect the child's future as an adult. Most jobs these days require formal academic qualifications.

Illustration of child labour
Illustration of child labour


The Nairobi-based Gender Recovery and Violence Centre (GRVC) classifies child labour as a type of child abuse.

"Child abuse is the exposing of children to conditions that do not allow their natural healthy development," the organisation says in a statement.

"It is the subjecting of children to responsibilities meant for adults. In a nutshell, child abuse is the misuse of children due to their inability to protect or defend themselves."

Child labour interferes with the child's ability to regularly attend school. This has negative effects on the child's mental, physical and social development. This, GRVC says, is "morally dangerous and harmful".

Numerous studies have proved that the quality of teaching is not the only factor that determines a child's performance in school. The household environment and community are equally important.

Children whose parents or guardians are interested in their education do better in school compared to children in homes where education is disregarded.

As the case of Mike shows, a child subjected to long hours of household duties will be too tired for school. Even if the child gets to class on time, there is a very strong possibility that he or she will not have completed the previous day's homework. This results in conflict with the teacher.

Due to regular scolding and punishment, combined with fatigue, the child starts to view school as a hostile environment. Such a child may be tempted to skip school more frequently and eventually fall into bad company among school dropouts.

Household chores are key in teaching children life skills, but formal education is equally important. It is, therefore, the responsibility of parents and caregivers to find the right balance between household duties and school work for the children. Furthermore, children need time to play.

Unicef describes how playing serves as a foundation for children to develop social and emotional skills. Through play, children learn how to connect with others and to share, negotiate and resolve conflicts, as well as learning self-advocacy skills.

Play also teaches children leadership and group skills. More generally, play satisfies a basic human need to express imagination, curiosity and creativity, which are key resources in a knowledge-driven world.

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