Sunday, January 1, 1995

A Death Sentence for a Young Filipino Maid Highlights the Problem of Abuse of Asian Servants



MANY WHO KNOW HER SAY SARAH Balabagan is sweetly innocent, a child quite unprepared for the cruel situation she faced in a strange land, more than 7,000 km from home. Only 15, barely able to read or write, and unwise to the ways of the world, says her mother, she felt driven by a single ambition: to rescue her family from the poverty and hunger of their life in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. So 17 months ago, she defied her parents' wishes and, after lying about her age, flew to the United Arab Emirates' sheikdom of Abu Dhabi to work as a domestic servant.

But Balabagan's dream of fortune and adventure was a mirage that dissolved into a bleak reality. Last month she was sentenced to death by firing squad for stabbing her employer after he allegedly raped her.

The case caused an international uproar. Human-rights and women's groups from Berlin to Kuala Lumpur joined Philippine President Fidel Ramos in showering the U.A.E. government with protests and appeals for clemency. Women demanding Sarah's freedom marched daily outside the U.A.E. embassy near Manila.

All the protests, however, had an impact. Sheik Zayed bin Sultan an-Nahyan, the President of the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven sheikdoms, intervened in the case, and late last week the victim's family agreed to settle for compensation in the form of the payment of an undisclosed amount of "blood money"--an age-old Bedouin method of solving disputes among clans. The Islamic court then revoked the death sentence against the girl.

Despite the settlement, the case cast a spotlight on a dark practice throughout the Arabian peninsula: an almost medieval system of servitude that each year turns thousands of young women from underdeveloped Asian countries into virtual slaves for prosperous Arab families. The women are frequently lured to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the lesser emirates and sultanates by shady "employment agents" who offer them attractive-sounding jobs at relatively high pay. Once there, they learn that much of the money they initially earn--the going rate is $100 to $150 a month--goes to pay for their airfare and the employment agent's fee.

Worse, the maids find themselves in virtual bondage to their employers, who almost without exception confiscate the servants' passports to prevent them from walking out before fulfilling their typical two-year contract. It is common for the maids to be forced to work from dawn to midnight, seven days a week. Often they are fed scraps and leftovers, are beaten and verbally abused and, in the worst cases, raped and murdered. Only in the most egregious instances is an employer ever charged with sexual abuse or assault.

The maids suffer their indentured servitude with government sanction: those who flee their assigned households are breaking the Persian Gulf states' immigration laws. Nevertheless, thousands of the maids run away every year. On any given day hundreds crowd the gulf embassies of the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India, the nations from which most of the women are hired.

The region's history of maid abuse, dating back to the 1970s when foreign workers began flooding to the peninsula, is such that few observers were surprised when details of the Balabagan case emerged. When she arrived in Abu Dhabi, Sarah was sent to Al-Ain, a remote oasis town, and placed in the home of Almas Mohammed Baloushi, a Bedouin who had earned a comfortable retirement after reportedly working in the security detail at Sheik Zayed's Al-Ain palace.

The young woman quickly found herself fending off Baloushi's sexual advances. He would squeeze her breasts, she says, or grab her between the legs. He offered her gold jewelry in exchange for her virginity. A pious Muslim, she fled. She got no help from her Filipino employment agent, who allegedly locked her in a goat pen until she agreed to go back. On May 22, 1994, by Balabagan's account, Baloushi lured her into his bedroom, put a kitchen knife to her throat and raped her. After she had escaped his grasp, she picked the knife up off the floor and stabbed him 34 times.

At her first trial, an Islamic judicial panel found her guilty of manslaughter and sentenced her to seven years in prison, while ordering her family to pay 150,000 dirhems ($50,000) in blood money. The court also found, however, that she had been raped, and ordered the Baloushi family to pay her family 100,000 dirhems. After the Philippine government protested this confusing verdict (If she was assaulted, officials asked, why wasn't the homicide justified as self-defense?), Sheik Zayed ordered a new trial. But the result was a harsh surprise: the second set of judges found no evidence of rape, convicted Balabagan of premeditated murder and sentenced her to death.

Since then the case has become a subject of widespread protest and high-flying diplomacy. President Ramos has been in frequent touch with Sheik Zayed over the matter. Philippine Foreign and Labor department officials have flown to Abu Dhabi several times to plead for yet another trial or executive clemency. Sarah's family--flown all-expenses-paid to the gulf by the Philippine government--presented a birth affidavit, which gives her age as 16 and too young for capital punishment. (She is 28 according to her working papers.)

Balabagan owes this vigorous advocacy by her government to the unfortunate fate of Flor Contemplacion, a Filipino maid sentenced to death for a double murder last year in Singapore. Opposition groups in Manila charged that the Ramos government did not do enough to defend Contemplacion--there was evidence that she may have been framed by her employer--and she was duly hanged last March.

This time the government spared no effort to prevent another execution, and Philippine officials were convinced that they could save Balabagan. "No Filipino has ever been executed here," said Roy Seneres, Philippine ambassador to the U.A.E., "and I don't think Sarah will be the first. The case for self-defense is very strong."

But Balabagan's reprieve will not alleviate conditions for the hundreds of thousands of other Asian maids who labor there, for the contract-labor system that took her to Abu Dhabi is well entrenched, and neither Arab nor Asian governments have much incentive to change it. The oil-rich but underpopulated gulf states need workers, and the Asian nations that send the domestic workers need the foreign exchange they send back to their families.

The majority of male Asian expatriates in the peninsula, who work as computer programmers, hotel managers, road builders and at many semiskilled jobs, suffer little or no abuse. But household servants are a special case because they are not protected by labor laws. "These maids don't exist in the law," says Father Estanislao Soria, a Filipino Roman Catholic priest in Kuwait. "That is the root of the evil. They are here, but they don't exist."

One measure of the level of abuse comes from London, where an organization called Kalayaan says it has aided some 4,000 domestic workers who since 1987 have fled from their gulf Arab masters while they were visiting or residing in Britain. Kalayaan interviewed 755 of the women: 88% complained of name-calling and verbal abuse, 38% of beatings. A shocking 55% said they were not paid regularly, while 42% were denied a bed to sleep in, and 10% had been raped.

SOME OF THE WORST TALES OF ABUSE have come out of Kuwait, a country that has moved closer to the West since it was liberated by U.N. forces from Iraqi occupation in 1991. The Philippine and Sri Lankan embassies in Kuwait City are constantly jammed with women complaining of ill-treatment at the hands of Kuwaiti employers. This year 2,100 of the 23,000 Filipino maids employed in Kuwait have sought refuge in the embassy-and many more who do not flee are also abused, according to human-rights workers.

Says a report on Kuwait by Human Rights Watch, which was submitted to last month's international women's conference in Beijing: "Our investigation found that in a significant portion of households there exists a pattern of rape, physical assault and mistreatment of Asian maids that takes place largely with impunity."

Women who have taken refuge inside the Sri Lankan embassy in Kuwait City provide graphic evidence of the problem. Fatima, 21, a Muslim woman from Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, has to communicate by means of pencil and paper. Her tongue is stuck to the roof of her mouth--a psychological reaction, doctors say, to the trauma she suffered when an employment agent who eased her passage to Kuwait allegedly raped her. The embassy contacted the police, who had a physician examine Fatima. He concluded she was still a virgin, which means the employment broker is unlikely to be charged.

Maryham, 25, a married woman with a husband and child in Sri Lanka, resides in the embassy with her one-year-old daughter, progeny, she says, of her employer's son, who allegedly raped her. After the child was born and Maryham accused the son, she was held in the hospital by police for eight months while they investigated. In the end, the son denied responsibility, and the police believed him. Maryham, who has lived in the embassy for six months, is fearful of working for another Kuwaiti family, but equally scared to return to Sri Lanka, where she will probably be shunned by both her husband and community because of the alleged rape.

The cases do not have to be extreme to be wrenching. Thusary, 26, from Anuradapura, Sri Lanka, complained that she was paid irregularly to work from early morning until late at night, watching a Kuwaiti family's children and cleaning house. Then she was forced to work at the wife's beauty salon for no compensation. Punishment for perceived slights, she says, was a hard punch in the stomach from her employer's wife. On the fourth punch, Thusary ran away. "I want to go back to Sri Lanka," she says bitterly. "I hate it here. They are rich, and we are poor, so they treat us like animals."

While many horror stories come out of Kuwait, Asian diplomats say that maid abuse is equally bad in Saudi Arabia, the biggest and wealthiest of the sheikdoms, but the repressive government in Riyadh succeeds in hushing up the scandals. The Philippine government reports that of the 43,000 Filipino maids working in Saudi Arabia, about 4,000 seek their embassy's assistance each year. So far in 1995, 1,022 maids have sought shelter at the Philippine embassy in Riyadh alone; 11 of them alleged they were raped. Those who file formal rape charges are held in prison while an investigation is conducted; not surprisingly, few file.

Some of the explanation for the mistreatment of Asian maids is a clash of cultures. The maids may dress and act less modestly than is the custom in conservative gulf societies and therefore be written off as loose women, and treated as such. For their part, Arab employers, particularly those with limited education, sometimes conclude that they own their domestic servants. This is particularly true of uneducated men who are nonetheless affluent enough to afford household help. "These kinds of people exist," says Ali al Baghli, a member of the Kuwait national assembly's human-rights committee. "They lack the education that might have taught them how to treat their servants, but they have enough money to hire them. They think that slavery still exists."

Far from pledging to address the problem of domestic-servant abuse, government officials in the gulf countries tend to minimize it. "Let me be frank with you," said Brigadier Ahmad al Wahib, Kuwait's immigration chief. "There are some cases of abuse. But it is not nearly as big as is being publicized. In general, we don't have human-rights violations." A senior Kuwaiti official issued a stern admonition to complaining governments. "I have one suggestion for the countries who send these girls over here: 'Keep them home.' This has become a nightmare for us."

Not surprisingly, gulf Arabs were contemptuous of the international effort to free Sarah Balabagan. "Should we give her a rose for killing this man?" asked Al Shuruk, a newspaper in Dubai, another U.A.E. principality. "As Arabs and Muslims, we are always condemned as suspects. They are not allowing us to apply our own laws."

In fact, the gulf Arabs are being asked only to apply their laws equally to their foreign guest workers. To their credit, some are doing so. Abu Dhabi officials point out that one of the eight people executed in recent years was a policeman convicted of raping his maid. Instances of conspicuous leniency, however, are much easier to find. Last month a Kuwaiti court convicted a woman of beating her Filipino maid to death. Her sentence: five years in prison.

--Reported by Scott MacLeod/Al-Ain and Nelly Sindayen/Manila