Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA
THE upsurge of cholera cases during the festive season, has put the disease at the centre of social discourses.
With cases rising to over 2,800 and over 60 deaths recorded from October last year, the development has instilled fear in many people in the country, especially the capital Lusaka, which is the worst affected region.
The fear by many borders on the possibility of becoming the next victim or having their family members falling prey.
This phobia has elicited different reactions – some culminating into improved hygiene, while others have reacted by victimising their employees in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from the deadly waterborne disease.
While Government and its allies have stepped up measures to contain the cholera pandemic, some people are taking drastic measures that could throw their workers into destitution.
On my visit to a newly- opened salon in my neighbourhood last week, cholera was the subject of discussion.
The conversation erupted into a heated debate after two young women walked in to ask if there was anyone interested in hiring live-in maids.
Their previous experiences as commuter maids prompted the two to consider living in with their prospective employers, hoping that the move would secure their jobs.
The girls from Bauleni township claimed they had been working faithfully – one in Kabulonga and the other one in Nyumba Yanga – but they were fired because they come from a cholera-prone community.
Coincidentally, both girls were told to take a break from work and that they would be recalled when their services were needed again.
The one who was working in Kabulonga said she was sent on forced leave after word went round that someone in the upmarket neighbourhood had suffered from cholera.
The talk in the neighbourhood was that the cholera contamination in that home was linked to a maid coming from one of the cholera epicentres.
One morning, out of the blue, the girl’s warm-hearted boss put her on indefinite leave, saying she would be travelling with the kids.
But from the garden boy the maid later learnt that her boss was going nowhere and had in fact employed a live-in maid from Helen Kaunda township.
As for the other girl who had been working in Nyumba Yanga, her employer gave no reason for sending her on leave, but she figured it out because such things happen to maids when there is a cholera outbreak.
From our conversation, I learnt that a lot of middle-aged women in Bauleni subsist on domestic work, piecework and vending.
However, poor sanitation facilities and erratic supply of water makes their community prone to cholera outbreaks.
So, every cholera outbreak actually threatens the jobs of maids, and some are even fired on flimsy grounds.
So, when this girl’s boss said she needed to take leave, she knew why and did not bother to demand for a reason.
Probably, this is the story of many other domestic workers in the cholera epicentres such as Kanyama and Chipata townships.
From our discussion in the salon, I learnt that the victimisation of domestic workers by employers when there is a cholera outbreak is real.
Equally real is the fear by employers with domestic workers coming from cholera-affected townships.
The fear borders on the fact that maids are, by nature of their work, food handlers and in some households, their job involves cooking and feeding infants.
This is why when there is an outbreak of cholera, people who have maids take particular interest in knowing the most affected communities.
And this culminates in the victimisation of domestic workers coming from cholera epicentres.
In Zambia, maids are normally hired and fired by word of mouth, and this makes them vulnerable to unfair dismissals.
If we are to carry out a survey, we will probably discover that a lot of domestic workers are being dehumanised or fired in view of the current cholera outbreak.
But is this the right way to protect one’s family from contracting cholera?
Of course not. In my view, firing maids from cholera-affected communities is an insult to this category of workers and a serious violation of the worker-employer moral code.
No domestic worker deserves to be fired on account of poor sanitation in their community because cholera is a national problem.
What would happen if other employers decided to put workers coming from cholera-affected communities on forced leave? Probably, the majority of us would be thrown out of employment.
In any case, this time around cases have been reported in townships where sanitation is fairly good. And some supermarkets as well as eateries in the upmarket were found contaminated with vibrio cholera. Some people may link the vibrio cholera contamination to food-handlers coming from cholera epicentres.
But to me, this shows that every community and person is vulnerable to cholera infection if we don’t observe the basic rules of hygiene.
For example, in the suburbs of Salama Park, Kwamwena Valley, Chalala, Vorna Valley and other areas where the middle class and apamwambas live, are a lot of caretakers living in homes without sanitation facilities and are practising open defecation.
Many people in townships that are under construction depend on groundwater for domestic use, yet we have allowed caretakers to live in unsanitary conditions and pollute the environment.
Instead of firing maids, we need to enforce strict adherence to the practice of boiling or chlorinating drinking water, washing hands after using the toilet and keeping our surroundings cleans.
What domestic workers as well as children in our homes need, is sensitisation on cholera prevention measures. The fact is that the majority of maids come from high density communities where hygiene standards are not as good as desired.
All they need is training to fit into their work environment.
Remember, firing workers from cholera epicentres is not a solution, but rather cleanliness in every aspect is.
Mind you, the cholera scourge will pass, and those who aren’t careful may lose good domestic workers in the name of protecting themselves from cholera infection.
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