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Domestic service and gender in urban southern Africa
Author: Hepburn Sacha

Home economics offers an innovative, comparative history of domestic service in southern Africa’s post-colonial cities. Focusing on Lusaka and drawing wider comparisons, it provides the first in-depth study of domestic service in Black households in the region. Drawing on rich oral histories and diverse documentary sources, it develops a new theoretical approach which, for the first time, brings wage and kin-based domestic labour and child and adult workers into a single frame of analysis. In so doing, it challenges the narrow focus of existing scholarship and policymaking and breaks new ground in the theorisation of work. The book traces how Black employers and workers adapted existing models of domestic service rooted in colonial labour relations and African kinship structures, revealing how waged domestic service was gradually undermined by increased reliance on extended family networks and the labour of young female kin. It demonstrates how women and girls pursued employment in and came to dominate both kin-based and waged domestic service. It also explores efforts to regulate and organise these largely informal and intimate forms of work, and the gendered and generational impacts of such interventions. This rich and timely study provides essential insights into the nature of gender, work, and urban economies across southern Africa. It reveals the strategies that children, women, and men have pursued to support themselves and their dependants in the face of economic decline, precarious employment, and stark inequalities, and shows how gender, age, class, and kinship have shaped work within and beyond the home.

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Hepburn Sacha

This chapter provides an overview of the book’s core arguments and outlines the book’s interventions into several existing fields. It situates the study within histories of labour, gender, and post-colonial development in Zambia and the southern African region, outlining how the book re-evaluates existing multidisciplinary scholarship on these themes by demonstrating the importance of domestic labour and female workers to post-colonial urban economies. It provides an overview of existing scholarship on domestic service in Africa and globally, demonstrating how the book moves beyond existing understandings of domestic service in southern Africa by foregrounding labour relations in Black households in post-colonial societies and the women and child workers who predominated in these spaces. It introduces the book’s innovative theoretical approach to domestic service, illustrating how this brings a wide range of labour relations and workers into a single frame of analysis and captures the realities of domestic labour relations in post-colonial southern Africa. It situates the book in relation to contemporary debates around domestic worker rights and labour in southern Africa, highlighting the ways in which the book provides new insights into organising workers and regulating labour relations, and the gendered and generational dynamics of such interventions. Finally, it surveys the book’s methodology, paying particular attention to the use of oral history and the processes surrounding the gathering and analysis of oral testimonies.

in Home economics
Hepburn Sacha

This chapter examines the varied ways in which domestic workers in Lusaka and other southern African cities have pursued collective organising, from efforts to establish formal associations and trade unions to participation in informal relations of solidarity. In the Zambian case, despite the efforts of successive groups of domestic workers and labour activists from the 1930s onwards, formal organisations have failed to secure broad support amongst the labour force or achieve significant improvements in domestic workers’ rights. This resulted from the limited financial and organisational capacity of such organisations, the government’s dismissive attitude towards the sector, and the failure of workers’ organisations to tailor their interventions to reflect the breadth of domestic service practices. Formal worker organisations in Lusaka and across the region’s urban centres were dominated by adults engaged in wage labour, with no efforts to organise working children and limited engagement with kin-based domestic workers, most of whom were female and, often, young. The formal labour movement model was also unsuccessful because male and female domestic workers of all ages could pursue alternative solutions to their grievances at work, from individual strategies of resistance to informal collective organising.

in Home economics
Hepburn Sacha

This chapter examines official efforts to regulate and formalise domestic service practices in Zambia, tracing change over time and comparing this case with other southern African nations. Taking colonial labour policies as a starting point, the chapter shows that domestic service practices across the region were regulated and monitored as part of broader efforts to discipline workers, police racial boundaries, and maintain social order. After independence, the Zambian state took a more detached approach towards domestic service than its colonial predecessor and the sector declined as a topic for official concern and intervention. It was only in 2011 that the Zambian state introduced protective legislation for domestic workers. Zambia’s approach contrasted with several other southern African nations where legal protections for domestic workers were introduced following independence and the transition to democracy. The chapter explores the local, regional, and global contexts within which Zambia shifted from a position of disinterest to one of protection, and considers the influence of developments in neighbouring states and at the International Labour Organization. It demonstrates the mixed impacts of protective legislation on domestic workers in Zambia and elsewhere in the region. While labour protections brought about important gains for many domestic workers in relation to wages and working conditions, these laws were often inadequately monitored and enforced. Labour protections also failed to address the particularities and diversity of domestic service, excluding child domestic workers from protection and exacerbating gender and age inequalities within the sector.

in Home economics
Hepburn Sacha

This chapter explores how gender and age shaped domestic service practices in Lusaka, and how these dynamics shifted over time. It outlines how specific gendered and racialised models of domestic service developed under colonial rule in Lusaka and other southern African cities. In African households, domestic service practices were grounded in the gendered and gerontocratic hierarchies of kinship and marriage, and primarily involved women and girls’ labour. In the households of White settlers and colonial officials, by contrast, the majority of domestic workers were African men and boys. The male dominance of domestic service in White households declined over time in some colonial contexts but persisted in Northern Rhodesia. This dominance was eroded following Zambian independence because of growing demand for female domestic workers, particularly from Black employers, and growing supply of women and girls’ labour. The chapter reveals how these dual processes led to the feminisation of domestic service in Lusaka, and Zambia more broadly, a process which involved the reorganisation of work along gendered lines, with female workers coming to dominate indoor roles involving cleaning and childcare, and male workers moving into outdoor roles as gardeners and guards. The chapter relates the feminisation of domestic service in Lusaka to broader regional developments and shows that, across southern Africa, domestic service was unevenly but unmistakably transformed into a predominantly female occupation during the twentieth century.

in Home economics
Hepburn Sacha

This chapter explores the life histories of girl domestic workers, exploring how they found their first jobs, their perspectives on their working conditions and pay, their experiences of spatial and social mobility, and their relationships with employers and kin. It reveals how girls used employment in domestic service in Lusaka to support themselves and their dependants in the city and the countryside, and how they made significant contributions to household and local economies in the process. Making comparisons with girls’ employment in other southern African cities, the chapter also makes a broader argument about the ways in which gender and age intersected with sexuality and kinship in the making of labour relations in the region. It also engages with contemporary discourses on children and employment in Africa. Specifically, it complicates the representation of girl domestic workers through a lens of victimhood by illustrating how girl domestic workers in Lusaka pursued their own goals and aspirations even in the face of significant personal and structural constraints.

in Home economics
Hepburn Sacha

This chapter explores the struggles that Lusaka’s women have faced to fulfil gendered domestic ideals while working beyond the home. It focuses particularly on women’s experiences as mothers and their childcare strategies, exploring the types of childcare that were available, women’s perspectives on these options, and their relationships with those who cared for their children. Women’s testimonies reveal that the most common forms of childcare were reliance on family members and the employment of domestic workers, both of which primarily involved female labour. The chapter explores how Lusakan mothers’ childcare strategies were similar to and different from those of urban women elsewhere in southern Africa. It examines the emotional and practical challenges women in Lusaka experienced when leaving their children in the care of others, and the complex and sometimes fractious relationships they developed with those who cared for their children.

in Home economics
Abstract only
Hepburn Sacha

This chapter draws together the book’s arguments, summarising findings from the Lusakan case and outlining what these reveal about the nature of gender, work, and urban economies across southern Africa’s post-colonial cities. It argues that the Lusakan case demonstrates the centrality of domestic service to livelihood and housekeeping strategies across the region’s urban centres; highlights the importance of women and girl workers and kin-based labour to household and broader economies; and shows how traditional forms of regulating and organising labour do not match the complex realities of (domestic) labour relations in the region. The final part of the conclusion suggests new avenues for historical and interdisciplinary scholarship. The economic, social, and cultural importance of domestic service in Lusaka and across the region’s urban centres shows no signs of abating, given the continued precarity of employment and the failure of regional governments to extend public services, bolster employment opportunities, and combat gender inequality. It thus seems likely that waged and kin-based domestic service will continue to play a key role in individual and household survival strategies in future years. The chapter argues that future research and policymaking on work, gender, children, and development in the region must reckon with these realities, and should pay particular attention to the interplay of kin-based and wage labour; the role of child workers in the region’s economies and the gender dynamics of children’s employment; and the potential of informal strategies of worker organising.

in Home economics