Front pages of most newspapers carry her photograph. The 8’ o clock news highlights the number of nails hammered into her, then drawn out of her. The whole country speaks of her. A 49 year old woman from the South of Sri Lanka who went in search of a better life to Middle East and returned home tortured. All sympathise her, feel for her, speak ill of those who held her down while nails were put into her. Some even speak of providing housing for her.
But the question remains posed whether this be the story of one individual or of a generation?
Thousands of Sri Lankan women travel each year to the unknown lands for work. Their profession being “house maid” to those who have signed contracts and bought them over through agencies. In short they are on their way to the hands of a modern form of slavery that is existent and encouraged in its existence by many nations in the name of economic elevation.
But what be the plight of these women? It is the bleak picture that remains visible to many. Unfortunately it is equally ignored by many.
The statistics available highlight that around 15 to 20 % of these women return prematurely. Many as victims of physical abuse, with broken arms and legs gifts of efforts of escape from the homes where they remained “imprisoned”. And for some who are unfortunate, it is their lifeless body which embarks on the travel of return.
Ariyawathie is not and is unlikely the only victim of this barbaric treatment in the hands of employers. There have been many who have suffered similar or worse. The plight of those such as Thangarasa Jeyanthi be an example to this. Her suffering came in the form of being assaulted on a daily basis, cut with knife and tied with ropes and denied food. Are these shocking for the ears who jot down these complains? This seems highly doubtful as these be among common complains of many house maids who return home with shattered dreams. One may deem such situations to be the norm of the trade of house maids: a story of “she” who barters her rights with the status of house maid prior to leaving the soil of Sri Lanka. Hence she is expected to suffer in silence, die in silence and be transported back and be buried in silence.
In an essay J.C Pieris highlights that about forty bodies are brought back monthly from the Middle East to the Katunayake Airport. On an observation of numbers it is easy to perceive that this amounts to one death per day (or more). The cause of death of these maids is not sought or discussed. What being told is that deaths were caused due to natural causes. But the dilemma persists as to how a woman may break her arms and legs by jumping from 7 or 8 storied building while trying to escape from informal imprisonment of her employers due to “natural causes”!
We are left with the question of what the protection be to these women which is offered? One a rephrasing of the question we could also pose whether there be any form of protection for these women?
They who take flight with hopes, land on unknown destination to find themselves deprived of their passports which are taken by the workers of the agencies that promise them riches. They are then handed over to their masters. Despite the hardships they face, no hope is present for them as the stringent contract to which they accord is not to be breached. They are tied down by a signature or a thumb print and no help is availed to them. The misfortunate factor here remains that many of these individuals have no understanding of the dire consequences of the waiving off of rights through employment contracts provided by these agencies, which they do be it, knowingly or unknowingly.
The HRW illustrates that Sri Lankan maids and migrant workers face atrocities on a daily basis in the Middle East. These women are subjected to sexual harassment, rape, confinement, verbal and physical abuse. They work between 16-21 hours without day off during the workweek.
The time is right for each of us as citizens to spare a moment on reflection on seeking answers for a few questions.
What are we as a country doing to its citizens? More specifically some of the most vulnerable in many ways. Are we not as guilty as those who torture these women in playing dumb, deaf and blind to the reality? Have we as fellow citizens, as a nation moved towards a collective action regarding this form of barbarism that is prevalent?
Unfortunately the answers to these questions remain in the negative.
We have read the occasional articles published on the matter, and perhaps felt the anger rising within barely for seconds and then moved ahead to conveniently forgot the situation. The reaction has been of such indifference that even the knowledge of the dead bodies arriving in Katunayake on a daily basis does not seem to have an impact on many of us.
Is it the fact that we have come to accept the situation as the norm or is it that we are not bothered to be bothered?
What we need to question is the reason behind all this calamity. And majority of the time the lack of language ability of the maids is highlighted as cause. The short duration of the training provided to them prior to their departure for employment, as pointed by many of the civil society is deemed insufficient to provide the knowledge of a foreign language which becomes indispensable for her survival. Not comprehending what be the instructions given my her employers, the house maids face the wrath of the employer.
While some recommends that training and legal facilities be provided to these women and certain legislations be drafted which have for their objective the wellbeing of these women, others question the morality of encouraging the practice of packing off poor women for modern day slavery. Their question being, why cannot Sri Lanka provide employment facilities and better living conditions for these workers within the country leading to curb the flow of Sri Lankan house maids to the Middle East, risking their lives in order get a few thousand rupees.
The debate on the matter continues and we follow the debate since we love the drama that it emanates. The horrific stories of suffering and torture of these women feed the grotesque taste of the public. But when the information is absorbed, the horror felt, the pivotal task of reacting in a constructive and productive manner appears to be what is lacking. We lay in sleep for the next drama to arrive providing us opportunity to debate, to speak of what needs be implemented, and what never be implemented in reality.
The story of Ariyawathie has not reached its happy ending. Her objects of torture being removed she heads home to her family after eleven days of residential treatment. She is grateful to the hospital workers who have treated her with kindness. She expects compensation from the Saudi Arabia for the alleged torture inflicted upon her.
As response to her accusations, the Saudi officials release statement refuting the claims and consider the incident to be baseless and “one big drama”. The embassy spokesman adds “the important factor is that this housemaid cannot pass security checks and sophisticated machines at Riyadh and Colombo international Airports with these metal things inside her body.”
It’s another question of debate. Is this the commencement for debate on the credibility of the security systems in these airports? But another question of debate being as to the means these nails wound up under the skin of the former house maid.
As public loves debate, the debates shall continue in length. Nevertheless what needs be noted is whether common sleep of indifference shall prevail or whether the story of Ariyawhathie would be an exception to the norm, paving way for a better tomorrow for these house maids.
Or better would be to hope that it be a step towards Sri Lanka’s pet name “the land of housemaids” be used with less frequency in foreign land.