In Saudi Arabia, the punishment for adultery is stoning to death while in most of the other countries in the Middle East, the punishment ranges between 1-10 years. Writes Anito Febria Blanco from the Philippines
In 2014, a rape case was lodged with the United Arab Emirates court by a Filipina maid. According to the records, a corporal handed his uniform to the Filipina to wash shortly after returning from duty. Then he dragged her into his bedroom where she was raped.
But the Emirati’s lawyer said before the appellate court that the corporal had consensual sex with the maid. He said, “She [the housemaid] exchanged phone calls and SMSs with my client. She is the one who invited him to her room. She tried to extort money from him when she complained. She blackmailed him and asked for money to waive her accusation”.
The Filipina alleged that the incident happened around 3 pm shortly after her sponsor arrived home. He handed her his uniform to wash.
“When he learnt that there was nobody at home, the defendant forced me into his bedroom. He pinned me down to the floor and had sex with me. Once he finished, I rushed to my bedroom and locked myself inside. He knocked on the door… but I did not answer. He apologized to me in English but I asked him to leave me alone. When he left by car, I immediately rushed out of the house and went to the Philippines consulate [in Dubai]”.
Records said consulate staff referred the woman to the recruitment agency that flew her into Dubai. But the Dubai man’s lawyer, instead of to paying any heed to the plea of the victim and said, “All her claims were unfounded and fabricated. They had consensual sex and he did not rape her”.
Subsequently, the court had listened to the rapist instead of the victim.
Most importantly, the Philippines embassies or consulates in the Middle Eastern nations mostly ignore the complaint of rape lodged by the Filipinas as they believe it would spoil its prospect of a “huge employment” opportunity.
Here is another case from Saudi Arabia
The rapist was an officer in the Saudi Royal Navy assigned to the strategic Saudi base of Jubail in the Persian Gulf, and he wanted to hire a maid. The victim was a single mom from Mindanao in the Philippines who saw, like so many others, employment in Saudi Arabia as a route out of poverty. When he picked her up at the Dammam International Airport in June 2011, little did she know she was entering not a brighter chapter of her life but a chamber of horrors from which she would be liberated only after six long months.
Walden Bello wrote in the Foreign Policy in Focus, “The tale of woe recounted by Lorena (not her real name) was one of several stories of rape and sexual abuse shared by domestic workers with members of a fact-finding team of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs of the House of Representatives of the Philippines. The high incidence of rape and sexual abuse visited on the women we met in the shelters run by the Philippine government for runaway or rescued domestic workers in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Al Khobar most likely reflects a broader trend among Filipina domestics. “Rape is common,” said Fatimah (also an alias) who had been gang-raped in April 2009 by six Saudi teenagers. “The only difference is we escaped to tell our story while they’re still imprisoned in their households”.
“The working conditions of many domestics, which include 18-22 hour days and violent beatings, cannot but be described except as virtual slavery. Saudi Arabia abolished slavery by royal decree in 1962, but customs are hard to overcome. Royal and aristocratic households continue to treat domestic workers as slaves, and this behavior is reproduced by those lower in the social hierarchy. Apparently among the items of the “job description” of a domestic slave in Saudi is being forced to minister to the sexual needs of the master of the household. This is the relationship that so many young women from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and other labor-sending Asian countries unwittingly step into when recruitment agencies place them in Saudi homes.
“Rape does not, however, take place only in the household. With strict segregation of young Saudi men from young Saudi women, Filipino domestic workers, who usually go about with their faces and heads uncovered, stand a good chance of becoming sexual prey. This is true particularly if they make the mistake of being seen in public alone — though the company of a friend did not prevent the teenagers from snatching Fatimah. And the threat comes not only from marauding Saudi youth but also from foreign migrant workers, single and married, who are deprived by the rigid sexual segregation imposed by the ever-present Religious Police from normal social intercourse with women during their time in Saudi. Perhaps as a result of the institutionalized repression of Saudi women and their strict subordination to males, Saudi society is suffused with latent sexual violence, much more so than most other societies.
Lorena is in her mid-twenties, lithe, and pretty — qualities that marked her as prime sexual prey in the Saudi jungle. And indeed, her ordeal began when they arrived at her employer’s residence from the airport. “He forced a kiss on me,” she recalled. Fear seized her, and she pushed him away.
He was not deterred. “One week after I arrived,” she recounted, “he raped me for the first time. He did it while his wife was away. He did it after he commanded me to massage him and I refused, saying that was not what I was hired for. Then in July, he raped me two more times. I just had to bear it because I was so scared to run away. I didn’t know anyone.”
While waiting for her employer and his wife in a shopping mall one day, Lorena came across some Filipino nurses, whom she begged for help. On hearing her story, they gave her a sim card and pitched in to buy her phone time.
But the domestic torture continued. She would be slapped for speaking Arabic since her employer’s wife said she was hired to speak English. She was given just one piece of bread to eat at mealtime and she had to supplement this with scraps from the family’s plates. She was loaned to the wife’s mother’s household to clean the place, and her reward for this was her being raped by the wife’s brother; kinship apparently confers the right to rape the servants of relatives. Also during that month, October, she was raped–for the fourth time — by her employer.
She not only had to contend with sexual aggression but with sheer cruelty. Once, while cleaning, she fell and cut herself. With blood gushing from the wound, she pleaded with the employer’s wife to bring her to the hospital. The wife refused, and when Lorena asked her to allow her to call her mother in the Philippines, she again said no, telling her this was too expensive. The employer arrived at that point, but instead of bringing her to the hospital, he said, “You might as well die.” Lorena had to stanch the wound with her own clothes and treat herself with pills she had brought with her from the Philippines.
Rape During Rescue
Wildly desperate by now, Lorena finally managed to get in touch with personnel of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Al Khobar. Arrangements were made to rescue her on December 30. That morning, the rescue team from POLO and the local police arrived at the residence. Lorena flagged them frantically from a second storey window and told them she wanted to jump, but the team advised her not to because she could get break her leg. That was a costly decision since the employer raped her again — for the fifth time — even with the police right outside the residence. When she dragged herself to her employer’s wife and begged her to keep her husband away from her, she beat her instead, calling her a liar. “I was screaming and screaming, and the police could hear me, but they did not do anything”.
When the employer realized that he was about to be arrested, he begged Lorena not to tell the police anything because he would lose his job. He even offered to pay for her ticket home. “I said I would not tell on him and say that he was a good man, just so that he would just let me go,” Lorena said. When she was finally rescued moments later, Lorena recounted her ordeal to the POLO team and police, and the employer was arrested.
Released from captivity, Lorena was determined to obtain justice. However, arduous bureaucratic procedures delayed a medical examination to obtain traces of semen right after her rescue. When it was finally conducted, she was given an emergency contraceptive pill – -an indication said the POLO officer who led the rescue, that seminal traces had been found in and on her. Also, the examination revealed contusions all over her body and bite marks on her lips.
The criminal investigation is still ongoing and the employer, who has been identified as Lt. Commander Majid Al-Juma-in, is still in jail at the Dammam Police Station. Lorena is worried that the evidence might be tampered with. “These people are influential,” she said. “They have a lot of money. I am only a maid. They said they could put me in prison.” Her fear is palpable. Her greatest wish is to be repatriated, but she knows she must stay till he is convicted and sentenced to death.
Other governments have begun to take drastic steps to protect their citizens in Saudi Arabia. Owing to numerous cases of abuses of its nationals, India has banned the deployment of women under 40 to Saudi Arabia. After a much-publicized case in which an Indonesia domestic worker suffered internal bleeding and broken bones from a ferocious beating by her employer, who pressed a hot iron on her head and slashed her with scissors, two labor-exporting Indonesian states, West Nusa Tenggara and West Java, banned the recruitment of domestics for employment in Saudi Arabia last December. Earlier, in October, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Labor backtracked from an agreement arrived at between the Saudi National Recruitment Agency and the Sri Lankan labor federation, asserting that the terms of the agreement were unfavorable to the Sri Lankan domestics and the Sri Lankan economy. This led the Saudis to indefinitely freeze recruitment from Sri Lanka.
These moves by other governments have led to greater demand for Filipino domestic workers. While the informal policy of the Philippine government has been to slow down the recruitment of domestics to Saudi Arabia, legal and illegal recruiters, many of them tied to Saudi interests, have been trying to step it up. The new Aquino administration may soon reach a critical decision point on the issue of Saudi recruitment since the amended Act on Overseas Workers requires the Department of Foreign Affairs to certify that a country is taking steps to protect labor rights if workers are to be deployed there. With its hideous record and its resistance to expanding coverage of its labor code to domestic workers, Saudi Arabia will not likely be certified.
For the many who have already been raped and degraded sexually, however, a move to prevent the deployment of more women to Saudi Arabia comes too late. Lorena may well secure the conviction of Lt. Commander Majid, but that will not restore her to her former self. As Fatimah put it in a handwritten note she passed on to the team, although her tormentors had been sentenced to seven years imprisonment and 2500 lashes each, “there’s no equivalent amount for what they’ve done. They destroyed my life, my future”.
The Kuwait scenario
On January 16, 2013, it was reported that three Kuwaiti brothers took turns in raping their Filipina housemaid every night before she managed to flee to her country’s embassy in the oil-rich Gulf emirate.
The maid had wanted to report them to the police but she was frightened by their threats against her, Alwatan newspaper reported.
“Since she came to Kuwait to work as a maid for that family, she has fallen victim to those three wolves as they have forced her to sleep with each of them every night,” the Arabic language daily said.
“Finally, she could no longer stand this and fled that house to her country’s embassy, which reported the brothers to the police,” it said, adding that the three brothers were arrested and would be tried.
Female domestic workers in the world
There are at least 67 million domestic workers worldwide, most of them women, and nearly all of them from poor or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. A lack of work at home means that every year approximately one-fifth of all domestic workers migrate abroad, particularly to the Gulf region, where they are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, forced labor, and violence.
The Philippines is one of the world’s top four sending countries of migrant domestic workers, along with Uganda, Kenya, and Indonesia. An average of 86,000 Filipinos migrated abroad for jobs as household service workers every year between 1992 and 2015.
Sheila Mabunga was one of them. The 37-year-old single mother left her 13-year-old daughter in Oriental Mindoro in the southern Philippines to find a job in the capital city of Manila. But on the train there, she was given a flyer about job openings in Saudi Arabia advertised by a local recruitment agency. She applied for a job as cook.
“I was desperate,” Sheila tells Equal Times. “My mother was sick and selling cooked meals back home did not earn me enough money to buy her medicines or send my child to school.”
Sheila arrived in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in August 2014 where she was met by a different employer (or kafeel, which specifically describes the individual or company that sponsors a migrant’s employment visa and work permit) to the one indicated on her job contract. It was then that she found out that she would be working as a house help.
“It was such hard work. I endured physical abuse and humiliation,” she says. Every day, Sheila had to walk up and down 80 steps to clean the three-storey mansion in Riyadh where she worked and attend to her employer’s four children aged five to 16.
From then on, things just got worse. Sheila’s workday began at 05.00 and she was not allowed to eat until 16.00. “I would wait for the leftovers of the couple to snatch a few bites but they would tell me to feed their cats instead,” she recalls tearfully.
Although she is a Roman Catholic, Sheila used to join her employers at the mosque. “I would call on their God, Allah, to save me. To allow me to go home to my family once more and end my suffering,” she says.
After one horrific year in Saudi Arabia, Sheila’s prayers were answered; she managed to return home thanks to the assistance of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), a Manila-based NGO working to protect the rights of migrant workers, but her story is far from unique.
One in every five Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) is a domestic worker. That’s an estimated 2.067 million, mostly women, out of 10 million people. And every year many of them suffer from terrible, even fatal, abuse.
Sonny Matula, president of Federation of Free Workers, the oldest general trade union in the Philippines, says it is difficult to obtain accurate data on the number of migrant workers that suffer from abuse while working abroad.
“However, we have reports from our foreign service that more than 90 percent of all the problems involving Filipino migrant workers in Middle East concern household service workers,” Matula tells Equal Times.
One of the most notorious examples is the case of Jennifer Dalquez, a 30-year-old domestic worker and mother-of-two who has been sentenced to death by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for murder.
Dalquez says her employer attempted to rape her at knifepoint on 14 December 2014 and that she accidentally stabbed him in self-defense. The case has caused international outrage: during the trial, Dalquez was not allowed to claim self-defense, nor was the long history of abuse that she suffered at the hands of her employer taken into account.
“My daughter is a good person. She went to work abroad because she could not bear to see her children go hungry,” her mother Rajima said in a telephone interview. “We just want to see her come home.”
With 760,000 OFWs – down by half from a one-time high of 1.5 million a few years back – Saudi Arabia is home to the largest number of Filipino migrant workers in the Middle East.
The Philippine government banned the deployment of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia between 2011 and 2012 due to the rising number of abuse cases.
The ban was lifted after a bilateral agreement on the recruitment of domestic workers was signed between Saudi Arabia and the Philippines on May 2013. As a result, the number of domestic workers deployed to Saudi Arabia sharply increased from 42,440 in 2013 to 71,316 in 2014. In 2015, the figure was 68,005.
“Volume and speed are now the name of the game,” he says. Prior to the agreement, domestic workers had to pay placement fees but now it is the employers who have to pay huge amounts ranging from US$3,000 to US$5,000. Meanwhile, the average domestic worker salary remains between US$200 and US$500 a month; sometimes domestic workers get paid even less as employers seek to self-compensate recruitment fees through illegal salary deductions or total non-payment.
In the first half of 2015 alone, the Philippine Congress logged 358 cases of migrant Filipino workers in prison, detention centers, under house arrest, or with pending criminal cases.
As Professor Philip Alston, the current United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said in his 2017 report on Saudi Arabia: “The many bilateral agreements between Saudi Arabia and sending countries containing labor protections for female domestic workers cannot make up for the domestic enforcement gap.”
In 2013, for example, the Saudi government adopted new regulations to protect domestic workers, but Alston highlights the “chronic lack of enforcement” which allows for the proliferation of abuse, particularly trafficking. Some domestic workers are transferred or sold from one kafeel to another if the original employer cannot afford to pay back the recruitment fee but this is done illegally, without the transfer of the original employment visa, which makes it difficult to track workers once they have been moved from their original placement.
In May 2017, the Philippine labor secretary Silvestre Bello III announced that the government might soon limit the deployment of Filipino domestic workers to the Gulf region.
“I receive a lot of concerns and complaints from our Filipino household workers in the Middle East. This is why I am seriously considering, if not to suspend, to decrease the number of deployments of domestic helpers, OFWs, and skilled workers, especially in the Middle East,” Bello said at a press conference in Manila on 9 May 2017.
But this is easier said than done. The financial contribution of OFWs is significant. Cash remittances of Filipinos abroad hit a record US$26.9 billion in 2016, up 5 percent from $25.61 billion in 2015.
However, working abroad is not always a ticket to a better life, says Hans Cacdac, administrator of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), an agency of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).
Cacdac was with Secretary Bello II in Saudi Arabia in August 2016 to facilitate the repatriation of displaced workers. Cacdac recalls visiting Irma Edloy, a 35-year-old domestic worker who fell into a coma after she was violently assaulted and raped by her employer.
“Irma died few hours after our visit to the hospital,” Cacdac says, visibly upset.
He also mentions the case of Amy Capulong Santiago, who died in Kuwait on 25 January after allegedly being beaten to death by her employer.
The deaths of these two women, who were both mothers, could have been prevented with proper monitoring of worker conditions by recruiters, Cacdac says. But while such measures are already in place they are seldom implemented.