This week’s post is a little late because I have been away on holiday. There is plenty I could write about my little sojourn on the golden beaches of Queensland, but I will save that for later because there is a more important topic I wanted to write about today.
Last week a friend posted this link on Facebook. In the days before that I had seen several friends post messages about Rizana, most of which said the following. I am ashamed to say until then I had no idea of the story behind the picture…
The gist of the story is Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan Muslim domestic worker was put to death on 9th January in Saudi Arabia for killing her employer’s 4 month old baby who was in her care. At first glance it almost seems like a just sentence; if you take a life, you pay with a life. But as always there is more to the story than that. Rizana started working for her Saudi employer when she was only 17 years old. The agent who recruited her falsified her documents to show that she was older in order to get her the job. She was only in the second week of her employment when the baby died of choking while she was bottle feeding him. She was employed as a maid, not a nanny and had no prior experience with child care. And in a country that operates under Sharia Law, she was tried without legal representation, based on a confession obtained under duress, which was translated by a fellow immigrant worker who could not be cross examined as he had left the country by the time the case was heard.
I will let you read the full article by Basharat Peer in The New Yorker. It talks about the extreme poverty that leads both men and women like Rizana to take up various forms of slavery in the oil rich countries of the Middle East and the different sorts of abuses they suffer. They have no rights or privileges and when something goes wrong like it did in Rizana’s case, even their own governments are powerless to help them.
This is modern day slavery, no two ways about that. It is perpetuated not only by the dreams of many a young person growing up in poverty that seek to rescue their families from hardship by spending a few years working in the Middle East, but cultures where “doing” for yourself is considered to be beneath you and the many middle men looking to make a profit out of human trafficking. These young people have very little understanding of what they are getting themselves into and when things do go wrong, they do not have the resources to seek help from outside. Even when major human rights organisations do wade into to help, they find themselves powerless against the governments of countries such as Saudia Arabia. And as long poverty exists in countries like ours, cases like Rizana’s will continue to happen.
I personally have never employed a maid even when it was much the norm in Singapore where we lived for an year. But being Sri Lankan and married to a Ang Mo (Caucasian or White), I was often mistaken for a maid. My husband always carried the baby and I followed carrying the bags, so I guess the mistake was logical. But the worst experience I had was in the playground of the apartment complex we lived in. There was a little Chinese boy riding a tricycle with his maid following close behind. My son Jacob went up to them and asked if he could have a go on the tricycle. They both agreed and Jacob climbed on. He didn’t get very far before being attacked by a 5 year old spitfire; the sister of the little boy. She let loose a stream of abuse directed at both her maid who she addressed as “you stupid Malaysian maid” and me who she called “you stupid Indian maid”. I won’t go into the details of what was said, but suffice to say if at 5 she was that abusive towards those that work for her family, imagine what sort of employer she would be when she grew old enough to have her own maid…
In 2011, there were 1.7 million Sri Lankans working overseas responsible for remittances of over USD 5 billion, which is 25% of the Government’s revenue or 8% of GDP. The services provided by the Sri Lankan Government to these workers have slowly but steadily improved over the last two decades, but there is much that could still be done. This is especially so in the Arab Countries like Saudi Arabia which are pretty much a law unto themselves.
In Rizana’s case we were helpless to change the outcome, but the questions I wanted to raise were; ” Is there something more that can be done to ensure it does not happen again?. Is there a way to educate and increase awareness among those that employ domestic workers so that they understand these are living breathing human beings with feelings and families that depend on them, that these people are not an inferior life form that they can torture for their own amusement and deny all rights and privileges? And lastly, what will it take to do that?”.
I know there are employers that treat their workers with kindness and some that are even treated like family members, but that is still the minority, especially in the Middle East. So action is urgently needed…..