Sri Lankan women support families at home

(WOMENSENEWS)–Her legal appeal has been filed, but a trial date has not been set.

The uncertain status of the appeal–funded by human rights groups including the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission–is a matter of life and death for 19-year-old Rizana Nafeek, a migrant worker from Sri Lanka sentenced by a Saudi court to beheading on June 16.

A Sri Lankan activist who is in touch with Nafeek’s parents and lawyer says that if the appeal is rejected “no one will be informed but the prisoner who is in the death row. In this case Rizana will be informed three days before the beheading. Neither the embassy nor the parents nor the lawyers will be informed.”

The case of Nafeek, a domestic worker in a Saudi household, has moved through a Saudi judicial system condemned by London-based human rights group Amnesty International, which says its defendants do not normally have access to lawyers and convictions can result from confessions obtained under duress, torture or deception.

“It is an absolute scandal that Saudi Arabia is preparing to behead a teenage girl who didn’t even have a lawyer at her trial,” Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, was quoted in the press last summer. “The Saudi authorities are flouting an international prohibition on the execution of child offenders by even imposing a death sentence on a defendant who was reportedly 17 at the time of the alleged crime.”

Refugee from War, Tsunami

Press reports and advocacy groups describe the prisoner as one of several children in a family torn apart by the civil war in her native Sri Lanka and the 2004 Asian tsunami. She arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2005 to work as a maid for the Otaibi family in Dawadami. Like all immigrant workers, she had to surrender her passport to her employers and could not leave without their permission.

In letters home she complained of inhumane treatment and overwork as she was assigned to caring for 10 children, including a newborn, and doing a heavy load of housework, BBC Sinhala has reported. Weeks after her arrival the child she was bottle-feeding choked to death and her employers accused her of murder.

The Asian Human Rights Commission reports that the police sided with the employers and pressured the teen into signing a statement in Arabic, a language she does not understand, confessing to murder.

Later, after talking with an interpreter from the Sri Lankan embassy, she recanted it, according to various press reports.

Hundreds of thousands of women, many adolescent, leave developing Sri Lanka to work as domestic help in richer countries in the West, the Middle East and Asia. They are as much as 80 to 90 percent of Sri Lanka’s migrant workers, the country’s highest net foreign exchange earners.

While they contribute well over $1 billion that makes its way back to Sri Lanka each year they have not earned much in the way of legal protections.

Among them, Nafeek is just one of thousands who each year wind up in serious trouble.

Call for Absentee Voting

David Soysa, director of Sri Lanka’s Migrant Services Center, a leading advocacy group for migrant workers, says part of the problem is the country’s failure to provide a system of absentee voting.

While overseas workers represent 12 percent of the country’s registered voters they have no access to the electoral process because they reside outside the country, and lack the political influence that could improve their government’s diplomatic response to the situation of migrant workers.

“We believe that political representation of migrant workers at a high political level is the best guarantee to restore the rights and dignity of migrant workers,” he said at a recent workshop in Colombo.

In reports in 2004, 2006 and 2007 New York-based Human Rights Watch pieced together interviews and statistics probing the various forms of abuse suffered by female migrant workers from Sri Lanka.

The most recent report, in November, finds that of the 125,000 Sri Lankan workers who seek domestic employment each year in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and United Arab Emirates as many as 18,000 return “in distress.” Sri Lankan embassies in these countries–where labor laws exclude migrant domestic workers from the most basic workplace protections–“are flooded with workers complaining of unpaid wages, sexual harassment, and overwork.”

In early 2004, the Sri Lankan ambassador in Riyadh reported the embassy was receiving about 150 female domestic workers who fled their employers each month.

That year, In “Bad Dreams,” a Human Rights Watch report took stock of some of the women who sought refuge in the Sri Lankan consulate in Jeddah in 2002. One was Musahina, who said she had been employed by a Medina household since she was 13. For 18 years her wages had not been paid regularly and she earned a total of $1,867.66.

She said her sponsor had recently paid her $666.67 and took her thumbprint on a bit of paper that had Arabic writing on it. “Afterward, I was told that the thumbprint meant that I had acknowledged receipt of everything that was due me. The Labor Court, after a few hearings, asked me whether the thumbprint was mine. When I confirmed that it was, the court said that I don’t have an argument.”

Sexual Abuse Common

Sexual abuse is common among migrant domestic workers.

Human Rights Watch testimonies describe women who say they were repeatedly raped by employers but when they tried to escape they were returned by the police.

One worker, Amanthi K., told Human Rights Watch that Saudi authorities arrested her at the hospital after she gave birth to a child. Because she could not prove that her employer had raped her, she was considered to have participated in an act of fornication, which is punishable by criminal law.

Twelve-hour days without breaks and one-meal days are routine for these workers, according to the reports.

Many are expected to handle household chores, child care and assist in small businesses. Locked beyond household gates, few have any free time or recreation.

Since their legal status in Saudi Arabia is dependent on the employer, many suffer in silence rather than change employers or go back to Sri Lanka, where their poverty could be even worse than when they left because of all the debts they have incurred.

Shahnaz Habib is a Muslim woman who has not been circumcised, forced to wear a hijab or denied an education. She writes fiction, literary nonfiction, criticism and poetry, and lives in a state of flux, approximately located in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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For more information:

Human Rights Watch, “Exported and Exposed: Abuses Against Sri Lankan Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the UAE”:

Human Rights Watch, “Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia”:

Human Rights Watch, “Swept Under the Rug: Abuses Against domestic Workers around the World”:

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