Himal Southasian ran an article of mine this week about the phenomenon of suicides by migrant women employed as domestic workers in the Middle East. You can see the full article, along with clips from filmaker Kesang Tseten’s forthcoming film Saving Dolma here. After seeing the horrible conditions that Asian migrants face in the Middle East for myself while I was working in the region as a researcher/financial journo a couple of years ago, human rights of migrant workers is something I feel really strongly about, and I was really happy that Himal ran this piece because this is still a much-neglected issue.

Suicide Epidemic

Shining a light on the phenomenon of suicide by migrant workers in West Asia and probes the abuse and the exploitation behind it.

Bengali migrant Safia D was hanging from a noose attached to a heating pipe when her employers found her in their apartment in Byblos, Lebanon, last November. Like thousands of other Southasian women in the West Asian country, 26-year old Safia had been working as a housemaid for a Lebanese family.Safia’s death was just one in a rapid succession of suicides by migrant domestic workers that were reported in Lebanon last autumn. In the space of less than two months, six or seven women from Ethiopia and Southasia were reported to have died after jumping from balconies or poisoning themselves with household detergent. These deaths were reported by the local media, but were rarely given more than a few lines of coverage in the papers. Those who had jumped to their deaths from balconies were euphemistically reported to have ‘fallen’. The authorities made scant attempts to investigate the deaths or look into what kind of abuse could have pushed these women to take their own lives. The spate of suicides and attempted suicides in Lebanon has not slowed, and each month new cases are reported. In December, another Bengali woman, named only as ‘S.I’, was rushed to hospital in Bekaa after drinking a large quantity of detergent at her employer’s home. Two Nepali women, Santi Maya and Lama Asmita, jumped from the balcony of an employment agency for migrant workers in February – Maya survived the fall but sustained serious injuries, and Asmita was killed. Lebanese human rights activist Wissam has been following this trend with increasing alarm, not just at the grim circumstances of the women’s deaths, but because of the indifference with which they were received by the media, the authorities and civil society. After the incident of the ‘falling’ Nepali girls, Wissam called the offices of a reputable NGO that had offices in the same building where the suicide attempt took place, to ask if they knew anything about the girls or the organisation they worked for. The NGO said that they were completely unaware that there had been a suicide attempt in the building.

Wissam is one of a number of activists and bloggers throughout West Asia who are trying to bring the issue of suicides and abusive treatment of maids by their employers out into the open. At present, the abuse of migrant workers is the human rights issue that no one wants to talk about. After four Ethiopian maids committed suicide in the space of just two weeks in October last year, Wissam created started a blog, Ethiopian Suicides to document the disturbing trend. Through the blog, Wissam has been tracking the growing number of suicides in Lebanon, not just of Ethiopian women, but of Sri Lankans, Nepalis, Indians, Bangladeshis and others.

Since domestic workers are usually confined to their employers’ homes, and have little contact with the outside world, little is known about the kind of problems that they face. “The situation for migrant women is bad, but it’s hard to know if it is getting worse because there are no official figures” says Wissam. “Part of the problem is the lack of protective laws and the absence of protective measures by the Ministry of Labour. This has led to a series of alarming suicides, but these cases are only the tip of the iceberg of the mistreatment and inhumane treatment of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.”

A suicide, or suicide attempt, seems to be the only time when the domestic worker, the ‘invisible’ woman, becomes visible. Because of racial and gender prejudice, the female migrant worker is not only easy to abuse, but easy to ignore. According to a recent position paper by Lebanese pressure group The Feminist Collective: “A Migrant worker is also seen as alien and inferior to “us”, so that her employers give themselves the right to “teach” (i.e. abuse) her…The lives of workers and their presence in our lives are also often erased from our literature, TV shows, and all other media.”

Suicide is not just female problem; many male migrants take their own lives, especially labourers working in the giant construction sites of the Gulf States. Men are often struggling under the crushing burden of a debt accrued in the process of securing and job in the Gulf through an agent, and also carry with them the heavy burden of sending back remittances to support their families and communities back home. Overwork and squalid conditions are common in the labour camps of the Gulf. This, combined with loneliness and anxiety all too often pushes men to suicide. However, the context of female migrant suicides is different. Unlike migrant males, female migrant workers normally work as domestics and as a result are confined to the homes of their employers, with little or no contact with the outside world. In this state of isolation they are more vulnerable to abuse than their male counterparts and often have no one to turn to for help.

Sexual abuse is a contributing factor in many cases of female suicides and suicide attempts. Gina (not her real name), a young Filipina working as a maid in Lebanon, is an example of this. She attempted to commit suicide by jumping from a balcony after she was sexually assaulted by her employer three weeks after she arrived in the country. She survived the fall and is now staying with a friend. Gina is desperate to return to the Philippines, but the agency which employed her refuses to give her a plane ticket home until she repays them USD 2000 for bringing her to Lebanon.

The ‘suicide epidemic’ has not been confined to Lebanon. Most of the other countries in the Gulf States, where it is common for both local and expatriate families to employ domestic help from the developing world, are seeing a similar trend. In Kuwait alone, 13 suicides were documented in November alone by us at Migrant Rights, an international organisation campaigning working to raise awareness of human rights of migrant workers in West Asia. Scarcely a week passes in Kuwait without a fresh report of a housemaid poisoning herself, hanging herself, or, most commonly, ‘falling’ from a balcony. In some of the ‘falls’, the women are not attempting suicide but are just trying to escape from intolerable living and working conditions.

A Filipina woman, named only as ‘Elena’, who ‘fell’ from her employer’s balcony in early January, told the Kuwait Times that she was trying to flee after her employer punched her in the head, locked her inside the house and told her to get on with her duties or face further physical violence. “In recent months there’s a growing attention to the phenomenon of suicides by migrant workers and particularly domestic workers in the Middle East. Still, the matter is under-reported both locally and internationally,” says Fatima, Editor at the Migrant Rights website. “We monitor local media all over the region, and usually at least one migrant worker commits suicide every day in the Middle East.” Fatima, who is based in Saudi Arabia, believes that migrant workers are driven to suicide through a combination of factors, including ‘feelings of hopelessness due to inability to escape horrible living and working conditions, financial difficulties due to low pay or withholding of wages, and abuse by employers or sponsors.’ Like Wissam, Fatima believes that the governments of countries in the Gulf are largely to blame for the continuing problem of migrant suicides. “All over the region, governments do not thoroughly investigate suicides and we are yet to hear of a case anywhere in the Middle East when an employer was charged for creating the conditions that led to his worker’s suicide,” she told this writer. “Employers must be held responsible for mistreating their workers and driving them to the desperate act of committing suicide.”

The other side of the problem is ease with which members of the public and the media turn blind eyes to the problem of abuse of migrant women. Migrant Rights recently persuaded the Gulf Times, a leading English language daily in Bahrain, to run a free advertisement calling for the recognition of the human rights of migrants. The graphic on the advertisement shows migrant men seemingly emerging from the shadows – an apt metaphor for what is gradually starting to happen in the region. Awareness of migrant abuses is starting to build in the West Asia, but there is still a long way to go before the problem is truly brought into the open. Until then, countless migrant women will remain hidden from public view, along with the exploitation that they face.

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2 Responses to “”

  1. Very important Sofia. I am pleased you are championing it. I would also like to add that the problem is just as severe, and perhaps even less documented, in South Asia itself where women and children face isolation and abuse as domestic workers, and threats against their families if they choose to leave. More needs to be done to regulate the bogus agencies and agents that recruit the women and children to promises of successful careers, but a reality of sexual and physical abuse.

    • Good point about domestic workers within South Asia, Martin. The agencies themselves for overseas work are a massive problem

      I plan to keep writing lots more on this subject in future so watch this space

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