THE PLIGHT OF SRI LANKA’S ENSLAVED MOTHERS, DAUGHTERS AND SISTERS Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean, is seen as a tropical island paradise by many. Though beautiful, its troubles, both political and economical, mean that there has been an efflux of migrants for many years. In countries such as Canada, Australia & New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Sri Lankan migrants from the upper middle classes form a prominent sector of the communities settled there. These Sri Lankan doctors and lawyers and their children tend to be well assimilated, with strong voices and positions in society.

However, those from the less affluent socioeconomic strata of Sri Lanka face a very different fate when they move abroad to work. Figures from the Centre for Women’s Research show that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among the top destinations for female workers from Sri Lanka between 2001 and 2005. Indeed, there are few places on earth with a greater demand for domestic labour than the economically affluent parts of the Arab world, and for unskilled female workers such places represent a promise of greater prosperity and job security. Drawn in by assurances of decent pay and working conditions, Sri Lankan women have migrated in their droves to wealthy households in the Middle East to serve as housemaids. Tragically, the reality they meet is frequently more akin to modern day slavery than economic emancipation.

In the petrol-rich states of the Gulf, the private domain of the family home can and often does become an isolated arena for long-term physical, psychological and sexual abuse of domestic staff recruited from Sri Lanka or the Philippines. Within the walls of the home, women are raped, beaten, burnt and abused by both female and male employers and their families. Promises of pay may never materialise, flights and phonecalls home withheld, and the concept of time off work dismissed by employers free to behave as they choose away from the critical eyes of society.

Anecdotes relating the horrific abuse of maids in Saudi Arabia and the UAE abound, and the issue of the maltreatment of maids in the Arab world has begun to crop up in the media. The New York Times ran an article on the matter in 2005 and in 2003, an article by the BBC’s correspondent in Colombo, Sri Lanka, detailed stories of battery, torture by burning, sexual abuse and gang rape of female domestic workers in houses in the Middle East. Yet despite some awareness of the issue, problems continue and thousands of women continue to live as indentured labourers with no way out.

For many housemaids, leaving an abusive household is simply not an option – they have often not been paid for months or even years and have not a shred to their name with which to fly back home. Worse still, in many cases, women are actually locked within homes with no physical access to the outside world. The 2004 Human Rights Watch report on the abuse of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia noted that “living in forced confinement and extreme isolation made it difficult or impossible for these women to call for help, escape situations of exploitation and abuse, and seek legal redress.” It also highlighted female domestic workers as the most vulnerable group of migrants. For those that do run away, their fate as destitute foreigners in the arid lands of the oil rich Arab world is almost as bad as that within the torturous employer’s household. Despite that, many do still run away. In 2001, an official at the Saudi Ministry of Information estimated that there were 19,000 runaway maids in the country from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. These women had escaped abuse and maltreatment at the hands of employers and were housed in shelters awaiting repatriation, or living rough, penniless and vulnerable.

In 1962, King Saud boldly abolished slavery in Saudi Arabia. However, behind closed doors the culture of slavery persists, and the biggest victims are women from South and South East Asia working in a domestic setting. Organisations such as the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights are attempting to raise awareness and force governments in the Middle East to stop the abuse of women domestic workers, but with a background of human rights violations across the spectrum in this region, hopes are not high for change in the near future.

Of all Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange, the largest net income comes from the supply of labour. Economic pressures and high unemployment rates in the country mean that government officials even admit that, in the words of Minister of Labour Samarasinghe, “We are not in a position to say, ‘Look here, ensure that all of these things are in place otherwise we will not send our people’.”

Minister Samarasinghe’s statement regarding the provision of adequate health insurance for migrant workers does convey the sense of economic obligation that Sri Lanka is under. However, without sustained pressure from the governments of countries supplying domestic labour, the appalling abuse and torture of women of all ages will continue. The abysmal human rights record of countries such as Saudi Arabia suggest that it will be some time before changes take place within the countries in which such abuse occurs. It remains for us to apply pressure to the governments sending out their vulnerable women to a fate of torture, imprisonment, slavery, rape and even death, to make a stand for their safety.

Farrah Jarral is a junior doctor of British-Pakistani origin working in St Mary's Hospital, London. She has traveled widely in the Middle East.

By Farrah Jarral on Monday, March 17, 2008