Tina Alvarenga was ten years old when her parents sent her to live in the capital city of Asunción from her home in Puerto Casado, a remote district in the Chaco region of Paraguay.
Her aunt accompanied her on the plane journey to the capital and took her to a stately home in the affluent neighbourhood of Sajonia. They knocked on a grand wooden door, almost three metres high. It was opened by a willowy, blonde woman with porcelain skin and blue eyes.
Tina just had time, before the woman quickly closed the door on them, to catch a glimpse of the marble staircase in the hallway of the residence and to be stunned by lady’s eyes, a colour she had only ever seen on her doll. “The side entrance,” she shouted at them, in an unfriendly voice.
“And that was the door I always used: the service door. I didn’t speak Spanish at the time, only Guarani,” (one of the official languages in Paraguay, along with Spanish) Alvarenga tells Equal Times, recounting her first day of the eight years she spent as a “criadita” or “little maid” in that home, during the 1970s.
Alvarenga lived as a servant in the home of this woman and her husband, a retired military officer, until the age of 18.
She found the first year particularly difficult. Her sister, ten years older than her, was employed as a domestic by the same family – she received a wage - but she was ill-treated and the lady of the house would often shout at her. On one occasion, Tina saw her throw a pan lid at her sister’s head.
A few months later, her sister left the job. Tina saw a long line of domestic employees come and go whilst she stayed there, working in the morning and going to school in the afternoon, and taking care of the most trusted tasks, such as serving the man’s meals or cleaning the lady’s jewellery.
Tina explains that she was seldom physically abused, but clearly remembers how the man of the house beat her with a belt when she was falsely accused of stealing a ring at school.
“I don’t recall them ever giving me a hug. I was terrified of the man, and they never went to the school meetings,” says Alvarenga, sitting in the living room of her home, where she now lives with her son, less than a kilometre away from the house where she worked for almost a decade.
Some 47,000 Paraguayan children and teenagers serve as domestic labour in the homes of “adoptive” families, who provide them with food and lodging and pay for their schooling in return for their services. It is a practice known as criadazgo, and UNICEF is calling on the Paraguayan government and society to put an end to it, as it undermines children’s full development.
The recent death of a 14-year-old girl, following a beating received from her “guardian”, has rekindled the debate over this hidden custom, considered to be one of the worst forms of child labour by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Retired soldier Tomás Ferreira, married to Ramona Melgarejo, returned to his home in Vaquería, a rural district in the department of Caaguazú, one afternoon in January and, as on many other occasions, decided to give a beating to Carolina Marín, a 14-year-old girl who had been living in his house as a servant since the age of three.
Ferreira beat her so badly that he killed her, according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which is calling for murder charges to be brought against him. The news stirred uproar in the media, as well as among social organisations and outraged citizens, who came out onto the street in protest on various occasions.
Since then, child abuse and domestic child labour are two issues that have regained a central place on the political agenda. “Criadazgo is a culturally accepted practice in our country. It mostly involves young girls coming from rural areas to work in the homes of families in the city, especially the cities close to the capital,” Mónica Basualdo, a psychologist at Global Infancia, tells Equal Times.
“They come to work, not for money, but because they are provided, or supposed to be provided, with a home, food and education. It is a situation classed as exploitation. It is a practice similar to slavery and it is punishable by law,” she explains.
Criadazgo is considered to be “one of the worst forms of child labour”, the psychologist points out. “But, because it is culturally accepted, people see it as a beneficial practice for the children, so they do not denounce it.”
The expert remarks that it is such a deeply rooted custom in Paraguay that examples have been seen of people asking for a “criadita” to serve in their home on social media.
According to a study on child abuse within families, conducted by UNICEF in partnership with the educational and community support organisation BECA (2011), 61 per cent of Paraguayan children reported some kind of physical and psychological violence.
Although six out of ten children said they had suffered abuses at home, 91.9 per cent considered their relationship with their parents to be good, according to the research based on a survey of 132,687 children and teenagers aged between 10 and 18 from pubic and private schools, with indigenous communities included.
“The absence of schools is the prime reason, but there is also the risk of abuse in rural communities, the dangers involved in walking over 10 kilometres to get to class. And the host families are looking for cheaper labour. The feudal mentality is very strong within Paraguayan society,” says Alvarenga.
In her view, the “promise that the girl will receive an education and be treated like a daughter” is not true. “They are sent to a different school (to that where their own children go). They are not seated at the family table. They are given chores that they wouldn’t give their own children, and they make up for the absence of a domestic employee,” insists Alvarenga.
“Criadazgo may have made some sense in the past, being the only way for girls and boys from rural areas to access schooling, because until the 1990s children could only study up to third grade (until age nine in rural communities), which coincides with the age they usually start as criaditas,” she adds.
In its defence, the Paraguayan government argues that it is “no longer on the child labour blacklist”, whilst recognising that one in every four minors aged between 5 and 17 is still economically active. The labour minister, Guillermo Sosa, announced on 6 July that the country’s slogan is “children should be studying, not working”, and that Paraguay is committed to “eradicating the worst forms of child labour”.
Around 47,000 minors are working as domestics under the criadazgo system in Paraguay, that is, 2.5 per cent of the country’s child and teenage population, according to the figures of an official survey conducted in 2011.
In addition, 18 per cent of domestic workers in Paraguay are aged between 10 and 19, according to a report drawn up by UN Women and the International Labour Organisation, presented in July.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is calling on Paraguay to put an end to the practice, which local organisations consider to be a form of slavery.
As the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations points out, although the criadazgo system has been outlawed in Paraguay, in conformity with Decree 4951 of 22 March 2005, the practice remains firmly in place in the country.