From the moment she arrived in Lebanon, Martha*, 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.
*Not their real names.