x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Maid abuse puts Lebanon in harsh spotlight

Human rights group reports 40 suicides of domestic workers in Lebanon since 2007 following mistreatment and sexual abuse.

BEIRUT // Nitia was 20 when she arrived in Lebanon from Sri Lanka five years ago to work as a domestic helper for a Lebanese family. Two months ago, after years of alleged physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her employers, she fled the family home - where she had been imprisoned seven days a week for years, she says - without her passport or money.

Today, living illegally in Lebanon, she manages to find work cleaning streets and shops in a major commercial district. "I ran away because the father was beating me almost every day," she said in an interview with The National. "Sometimes I would be preparing coffee for him and then he would think I'm taking so much time to make it, so he would start screaming and would slap me on the face. [He would] always call me bad words."

At first, Nitia, who requested anonymity because she was afraid to have her name published, said mistreatment was limited to punching and name-calling, but within a few months of her arrival with the family, she said, the son began raping her. "The son is the only boy in the family so he is spoiled by every one," she said. "He is 22 and fat and ugly. At the beginning, he was nice to me until one day we were home alone. He called me to his bedroom, took his pants off and raped me. He started doing it every time the family was out, some times he would give me some money."

"I ran away from the house, but they kept my passport and two months of my salary. I cannot go back home to Sri Lanka; I'm stuck here until I don't know when. I have to work and send money to my family. I have six brothers and three sisters and my father is dead. I send 70 per cent of what I make here home." In Lebanon, abuse of domestic servants - who are estimated to number 200,000 and usually come from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka or the Philippines - is a major human rights problem, according to researchers at Human Rights Watch.

The group has undertaken a campaign against mistreatment, underpayment and sex abuse of domestic workers in Lebanon and throughout the region, including the release of a report this week that determined the top cause of death among domestic servants as "unnatural deaths", usually suicide or falling from balconies while trying to escape imprisonment inside family homes. Experts, Lebanese officials and domestic workers have detailed a broken system in which young women were trafficked to Lebanon and the Gulf to work in homes with little protection from unscrupulous brokers.

The women are often not paid, denied any days off nor allowed to leave the family home, and are often sexually abused by their male employers. This abuse and isolation, said Human Rights Watch, drives many women to suicide or to take such extreme steps as attempts to escape Beirut's many high-rise apartment buildings by climbing down balconies, sometimes with fatal results. "Access to victims is always a problem," Nadim Houry, an HRW researcher, said.

"The very worst abuse cases have often made it to shelters or have died trying; while the people we can find in churches or shopping on their days off - because they have days off - tend to report more positive experiences. So writing about these deaths is very tricky; everyone wants them to be suicides, and we often don't have any access to the friends or employers of those who have died." HRW also criticised Lebanese authorities for failing to investigate properly the deaths of domestic workers, often simply accepting the employer's testimony without question and refusing to follow up on allegations of abuse.

But once the group found evidence that - on average - one domestic worker a week was falling to her death either because she was committing suicide or as a result of an escape attempt that failed, HRW decided to focus on these deaths. "What drives someone to jump off a balcony?" Ms Houry said. "Or what conditions are so bad that women are willing to risk their lives in a dangerous escape without passports or back pay just to get away? These were the questions we needed to answer when we could confirm 95 deaths since 2007."

Of the 95 confirmed deaths cited in the study, 40 were classified as suicides and 24 were falls from high-rise buildings while trying to escape. "Only 14 of the 95 died from disease or health issues," Ms Houry said. The issue came to light in Lebanon during the July 2006 war with Israel, when several media outlets reported cases of families fleeing the Israeli bombing of the south but leaving their domestic workers locked inside the apartments.

Several reportedly fell to their deaths while trying to escape both the imprisonment and Israeli attacks. mprothero@thenational.ae