By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
ABUJA, July 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Handed over by her mother to an agent at the age of 10, Titi was crammed into a truck in the tiny West African nation of Benin and driven across the border into southwest Nigeria.
Titi feared the worst. She recalled how a previous employer in Nigeria had welcomed her with a thin mat and a leather whip.
"Sometimes, she beat us," said Titi, recounting the businesswoman who had flogged the girls for the smallest mishaps, such as breaking a plate.
Bed had been the floor.
"Sometimes, she didn't give us breakfast till after 1 p.m.," Titi, now 14, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Lagos, where she works for a "nicer" family - cleaning, cooking and caring for children for 18 hours a day.
Titi is one of countless young girls working as domestic servants in cities across the nation, far from their own homes in rural Nigeria or neighbouring countries such as Benin.
Many girls are sent away by their parents who cannot afford to feed or school them, while others provide for their families - sometimes acting as the main breadwinner.
Some girls, like Titi, are abused, cut off from their relatives, denied an education and left with nowhere to turn.
With Nigeria facing its first recession in 25 years, rampant unemployment and booming population growth, activists fear more and more girls may be forced into housework as families plunge deeper into poverty and so-called agents seek out profits.
Halting this phenomenon presents a huge challenge.
Little data exists on the number of girls working as maids, confusion surrounds the laws about their minimum age and the practice is deeply ingrained in Nigerian culture.
"These are under-the-radar crimes so there is no data on how many house help are trafficked through Nigeria's borders," said Arinze Orakwue of Nigeria's anti-trafficking agency NAPTIP.
"These are usually done under the auspices of the family so it's difficult to prosecute," Orakwue added.
TAKING A CUT
House girls in Nigeria are usually employed by upper- and middle-class families with disposable income to spare, especially by working women who rely on these children to ease their domestic load while they focus on paid jobs.
"I decided to hire house help because of too many domestic responsibilities," said Eucharia Anuligo, a banker and mother of two in Abuja, who employs three girls, the youngest aged 14.
"I believe the girls are better off with me than with their families," added Anuligo, who sends her employees to school.
Many women who are in the market for house help turn to the agents, who source young girls from within Nigeria, as well as nearby countries, before transporting them to their new employers, taking a cut of the salary as commission.
Many agents demand that the young domestic workers provide a guarantor who knows their family, so that they can be held accountable if the children steal or commit other crimes.
One agent, a 50-year-old known as 'Uncle', said those in his ranks, as well as the families of the girls, like to move maids regularly from one household to another because of the fresh commission it generates, and the higher wages they can demand.
Despite the long days of domestic slog, Titi wants to stay with her current family. While they do not send her to school or teach her English like her previous employers, they are kind and provide her with a salary of 10,000 naira ($33) per month.
Yet, despite her protests, Titi's mother says she must move to a new family when her two-year contract expires in December.
"Some agents just collect the commission from the girl's salary," added the Lagos-based 'Uncle'. "When she has worked just three months in a place, they want to move her again.
"They don't care whether the girl is happy there or not."
While police, NAPTIP officials and human rights activists are working to curb the trafficking and abuse of house girls, Nigeria's laws regarding the minimum age of employment are inconsistent, according to a 2015 U.S. Labor Department report.
The Child Rights Act prohibits those under 18 from working yet the Labour Act sets the minimum age of employment at 12, said the report, which detailed the world's worst child labour.
However, Nigeria in 2015 amended its trafficking law to increase penalties for offenders and criminalise the employment of children under 12 in domestic labour, a move activists hope will give authorities greater power to crack down.
The National Human Rights Commission, a government rights watchdog, said it frequently received reports of house girls being abused, and worked with the police and NAPTIP to secure prosecutions as well as provide shelter and aid for the victims.
"There is one case... a girl of about 14 was serving this woman, who mistreated her to the extent of running a hot iron over her breasts," said Lambert Onuoha from the commission.
The watchdog is striving to ensure abusers are prosecuted and challenge the norm of settling cases out of court, he added.
Civil society groups such as the Abuja-based Literacy and Skills Place are helping female domestic workers to leave a life of servitude by teaching them to read and write, and providing vocational training in skills such as baking and sewing.
"The house help industry can be a positive thing because you get to help other people who are less privileged, but it should be regulated," said Chinelo Ezenwa, founder of the project, adding that there should be laws governing treatment of maids.
For house girls like Titi, such interventions from the authorities or activists may prove too little too late.
"My mummy told me I'm now too old to go to school," said Titi, who hopes instead to learn tailoring.
(Reporting By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)