4 Ethiopian women killed themselves in Lebanon

Elias Kifle | November 11th, 2009

By Hayeon Lee |NowLebanon

Over the last two weeks, four Ethiopian women in Lebanon were found dead, probably from suicide.

From the moment she arrived in Lebanon, Martha (not her real name), an Ethiopian woman in her twenties, was subjected to abuse by her employer and her three children – a 9-year-old and two teenagers. They beat her ceaselessly, verbally abused her, locked her in the house, and bolted the fridge door. “Imagine a 9-year-old child beating you. I cried,” said Martha. Two months into her ‘contract’, she escaped to the Ethiopian consulate where she was followed by her employer, with children in tow, who tried to publically beat her. The consulate protected her and let her leave with an apparently apologetic member of the employment agency that had brought Martha to Lebanon.

Surprisingly, Martha was sent back to the same family and the brutal regime from which she had fled. “I tried to kill myself by drinking some cleaning liquid, but only my mouth burned. I did not try again,” Martha smiled sadly. In fact, Martha lasted a year and escaped when her employer asked her to go out and buy a broom. “As soon as I was outside, I started to run.”

Martha survived, but many other women who come to this country as maids, only find themselves hostages to brutality that ends up taking their lives. In the past two weeks, four Ethiopian women have died in Lebanon as a result of either suspected or confirmed suicide. Three – Matente Kebede Zeditu (26), Saneet Mariam (30), and Tezeta Yalmiya (26) – were reported in the media. Although Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) figure of more than one death out of around 200,000 domestic workers per week created waves when it was released in August 2008, the Lebanese government has taken no substantial action, and maids keep dying needlessly.

“These deaths are the tip of the iceberg,” says Nadim Houry, senior researcher at HRW. “It is only the most dramatic manifestation of a number of violations [of basic human rights] such as ill-treatment, and isolation of these workers.”

For example, it is standard practice for Lebanese employers to ‘retain’ the domestic worker’s passport, while many do not let them go out for years at a time. Verbal abuse is common as is the withholding of salaries.

Although most of these “standard practices” are illegal under the Lebanese constitution and the overwhelming majority of Lebanese, who employ domestic staff treat them fairly, the problem is that there is no law enforcement body to protect the most basic human rights of foreign maids and prosecute abusive employers.

As a result, many choose to end their lives. But even then, the suffering continues with the repatriation of the body. A Nepali woman who died at the end of August is still in the morgue.  “There are some cases where a body is left in the fridge for a long time, and neither the insurance nor the employer wants to pay for the trip home,” says Houry. The best way to stop these deaths, he says, is to hold the Lebanese government accountable. “What would be required are concrete measures by the government that would reduce the isolation that these workers feel.”

Official police sources said that the Ethiopian woman who committed suicide by jumping from the seventh floor in Gemmayze, did so because of a soured relationship with her sister. Nevertheless, Broukti*, an Ethiopian domestic worker, who has worked for more than a decade in Lebanon and is also a local community organizer, is skeptical. “I don’t believe it. If it was in Ethiopia, nobody would kill herself because she fought with her sister.”

In fact, according to the deaths recorded by HRW, much more than half of all deaths are those of Ethiopian women who make up less than a quarter of the workforce. Broukti has two explanations. Firstly, the problem is that many of the women from her country come from rural areas and pay hundreds of dollars to smugglers believing they will work in white-collar jobs abroad. When they arrive in Lebanon, they find their situation unbearable. The Ethiopian government’s ban on Ethiopians coming to Lebanon since last year has only exacerbated the problem.

Furthermore, for many of these women, the treatment as second-class human beings without family, friends, culture and humanity is insufferable.  “We are Ethiopians with a history. We have never been colonized. We colonized until the border of Saudi Arabia. We’re a very proud nation,” Broukti says.

Women worked to death in Lebanon

By Dalila Mahdawi | Guardian

They mop floors, take out the rubbish, walk the dog, buy groceries and care for the children, the elderly or disabled. Many a well-to-do and lower middle class Lebanese family relies on migrant domestic workers to take care of their household, but when it comes to providing for these women, not all return the favour.

Migrant domestic workers – women who work as live-in or freelance housekeepers, cooks, and nannies – form a vital presence in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, where women’s increased participation in the workforce has not been accompanied by state-backed social or childcare services.

There are thought to be about 200,000 women, mostly from the Philippines, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, in Lebanon alone. But although they are becoming an intrinsic part of the country’s social fabric, their contribution is often overlooked. While many Lebanese people are careful to ensure their housekeepers are well treated, a significant number abuse them. In extreme cases, migrant domestic workers are killed or kill themselves.

The spate of suicides has become so bad in recent weeks it prompted Lebanese blogger Wissam to launch the grimly named Ethiopian Suicides blog. The website is dedicated to monitoring media reports on the deaths of foreign migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. “I have a dream,” Wissam says. “That migrant domestic workers will be treated humanely in Lebanon and will stop trying to commit or commit[ting] suicide.”

In the last three weeks alone, Wissam notes, four Ethiopian women have died. Lebanese police say the deaths of Kassaye Atsegenet, 24, Saneet Mariam, 30, Matente Kebede Zeditu, 26, Tezeta Yalmiya, 26 were probably suicides. But as human rights activists here will testify, the truth about what happened to them may never be known because police usually only take into account the employer’s testimony. Migrants who survive abuse or suicide attempts are not usually provided with a translator, meaning their version of events often does not get registered with officials.

Sadly, violations against such workers occur throughout the region and in some cases the women end up in slave-like conditions.

Reflecting the concern of sender countries for the wellbeing of their citizens, Ethiopia and the Philippines have placed bans on working in Lebanon and Jordan, but this has not stemmed the flow of illegal migrants smuggled in through third countries. Without the necessary work papers and embassy support, migrant women become even more vulnerable to human rights abuses.

One reason the women are driven to the edge is that, in Lebanon at least, they are not given protection under the country’s labour law. Such exclusion means that those who withhold salaries, confiscate passports, confine their employees to the house or otherwise abuse them, can literally get away with murder. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that five months after parliamentary elections, a Lebanese government is only now being formed.

The campaign to grant migrant domestic workers greater rights in the region has been led by Human Rights Watch. This summer, it contacted Lebanese beach resorts and found that 17 out of 27 private facilities practised some form of discrimination against such women by prohibiting them from swimming in the pool or even the Mediterranean sea.

A study conducted by the organisation last year found that more than one migrant domestic worker was dying in Lebanon each week – mostly from suspected suicide or by falling off a balcony while trying to escape abusive employers. The numbers sent ripples throughout the rights community and resulted in far more sustained local media coverage on the issue of domestic migrant workers. Judging by Wissam’s recent statistics, however, this does not appear to have persuaded the authorities to take sufficient measures to protect their rights.

The embassies of countries that supply migrant workers have a duty to protect their citizens. They could start by offering amnesty and assistance to all illegal workers, increasing their legal protection capabilities and properly informing women at home of their rights and responsibilities while working abroad. Many countries, such as Nepal or Madagascar, which are sending women to the Middle East in increasing numbers, would do well to increase their diplomatic representation from consular level to embassies.

Many migrant workers come to the Middle East seeking a better life for the families they left behind. The Lebanese themselves have a long history of migration and hardship, and should know first-hand the difficulties of living and working in a foreign country. Just as many Lebanese abroad work hard with the hopes of eventually returning home, the Lebanese should ensure that these women get to go back to their countries – alive and well, not in body bags.