Sareena (named changed) was a Nepali domestic worker who tragically passed away during childbirth on October 1, 2017 at the age of 34. She had been working in Kuwait for two years, first as a housemaid, then as a cleaner. Her departure from Nepal signalled the start of a better life for her three children, as work in Kuwait meant a higher income and a new life. This was the second tragedy to hit the family. Only a year prior to Sareena’s death, her husband had passed away due to heart complications. Her husband’s death forced her to seek work abroad, as she could no longer support her family on the money she earned in Nepal. So Sareena left for Kuwait to work as a domestic worker.
Domestic workers throughout Kuwait and other Gulf countries come under the jurisdiction of the infamous Kafala system. The legal residence for workers is tied to their sponsor, leaving them completely dependent. Therefore, Sareena would be unable to transfer employment without her sponsors consent. She would even be prohibited from leaving the country if they did not give her an exit permit. Given these circumstances, sponsors have a great deal of power and influence over their employees, leading to abuse and exploitation.
Despite these misgivings, Sareena’s new job guaranteed financial security and the perfect opportunity to provide for her family. But only two years after arriving, Sareena passed away due to heart complications during childbirth. The circumstances under which Sareena passed away are troubling. The death certificate provided by the Kuwaiti authorities’ claims that Sareena died due to complications during childbirth, raising several important questions. Firstly, what happened to her child? Under Kuwaiti law, the guardianship of the child passes to the father, but no attempt has been made to contact Sareena’s family in Nepal regarding the birth. And who is the father? Sareena was a widow when she went to Kuwait, she made no mention of seeing or being involved with anyone. Finally, how did Sareena fall pregnant? Sareena was not married, and in Kuwait, having a child outside wedlock can carry a prison sentence.
These circumstances lead us down an even darker path, suggesting that Sareena may have been sexually abused. Her family tells us that Sareena never mentioned that she was romantically involved with anyone. Furthermore, relationships and having children outside of marriage are heavily stigmatised in Kuwait and can lead to severe punishment. These factors coupled with a history of abuse of domestic workers, and the unknown location of her child lead us to believe that Sareena was sexually abused.
Sexual abuse is real
Quantifying the number of abuses proves difficult, as most workers fear retaliation from their employer. However, reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch indicate that each year, shelters throughout Kuwait receive thousands of domestic worker complaints. One ambassador told Human Rights Watch that in 2009 alone, he received over 950 rape and sexual harassment claims, while another stated they received violence and harassment claims on a daily basis.
If Sareena was sexually abused, the perpetrator will likely never be brought to justice. Kuwaiti law enforcement rarely apprehend Kuwaitis who have abused their power or committed a crime against a migrant. As for the child’s fate, it will most likely be abandoned or given up.
Sareena’s death brings to light the hardships that many domestic workers and migrants endure while abroad. Tragically, these cases have become so common that only the most gruesome and shocking receive attention from the authorities. Others are often ignored, leaving domestic workers with little to no protection. Sexual abuse against domestic workers should never be normalised and Sareena’s death should not become another statistic.
In recent years progress has been made to protect migrant workers. The Nepali government has signed bilateral agreements with Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE but these do not cover domestic workers. In fact, the only actions the Nepali government has taken is to impose bans on Nepalis intending to pursue domestic work. Furthermore, Nepali embassies operating throughout the Middle East have little to no power to assist domestic workers. What little help is offered comes in information leaflets and workshops prior to departure. The story of Sareena is just one of the many tragedies domestic workers have faced abroad. Countless migrants continue to work in appalling conditions, treated as though they were slaves. Although Sareena’s story is a painful one, perhaps it may serve to bring greater awareness to the struggle of domestic workers and spur change.
– Ferguson is an intern at the Centre for Migration and International Relations in Nepal
Published date: 31-10-2017
Published on: Kathmandu Post