Lanka war wid­ows traf­ficked as slaves

Kuwait Times - - NEWS -

JAFFNA:

When Nathku­las­in­ham Ne­se­mal­har took a flight from Colombo to Muscat in March she be­lieved the board­ing pass she clutched in her hand was her golden ticket to a bet­ter life af­ter decades of war where she lost ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing her hus­band. The 54-year-old widow from Sri Lanka’s for­mer war zone had been promised work as a maid for an af­flu­ent fam­ily in the Gulf state of Oman. She would get a nice room, de­cent work­ing hours and 30,000 ru­pees ($150) a month - enough to pay off her debts.

But Ne­se­mal­har’s dream soon turned into a night­mare. She found her­self en­slaved with other women in a dimly-lit room with no ven­ti­la­tion, miles from Muscat. She was taken out daily, sent to dif­fer­ent homes to clean, and then locked up again at night. “There were 15 of us. We never got paid. Fi­nally we got back home when the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment in­ter­vened,” said the mother-of-three whose hus­band went miss­ing in 2001.

“Peo­ple who have not gone through a con­flict will not un­der­stand how dif­fi­cult it is to take care of young chil­dren on your own. We suf­fered dur­ing the war and we are suf­fer­ing now,” she said at her home in Jaffna in Sri Lanka’s North­ern Prov­ince. The abuse of Asian and African maids in Mid­dle Eastern coun­tries such as Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman is com­monly re­ported.

But Ne­se­mal­har’s story high­lights a ris­ing yet un­ac­knowl­edged trend in the In­dian Ocean is­land where a lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties for thou­sands of war wid­ows is mak­ing them easy prey for traf­fick­ers who sell them as slaves over­seas. Ac­cord­ing to the Sri Lanka Bureau of For­eign Em­ploy­ment, over 1,000 women from the north - many from fe­male headed homes - sought jobs as maids in Gulf na­tions in 2015 and 2016. Cen­tral Bank data shows only 300 went in 2011. “The num­bers are in­signif­i­cant com­pared to the over 100,000 Sri Lankan women who leave an­nu­ally as do­mes­tic work­ers,” said S Sen­thu­ra­jah, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of So­cial Or­ga­ni­za­tions Net­work­ing for De­vel­op­ment, a Jaffn­abased char­ity. “But given that hardly any­one from the north left as do­mes­tic work­ers a few years back, it is an im­por­tant num­ber. It’s be­cause they can­not make ends meet.”

90,000 War Wid­ows

Sri Lanka is in its eighth year of peace af­ter a 26-year con­flict which ended with the de­feat of the sep­a­ratist Tamil Tigers in 2009. More than 100,000 died, around 65,000 re­main miss­ing and mil­lions were up­rooted from their homes dur­ing the vi­o­lence, con­cen­trated mainly in the is­land’s eth­nic Tamil ma­jor­ity Eastern and North­ern Prov­inces. Yet de­spite the gov­ern­ment pump­ing bil­lions of dol­lars into in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment in the north, lit­tle has been done for the es­ti­mated 90,000 women who lost their hus­bands, fa­thers and brothers dur­ing the con­flict, say ac­tivists. The North­ern Prov­ince is one of the coun­try’s most un­der-de­vel­oped prov­inces in terms of gen­der par­ity. Fe­male work­force par­tic­i­pa­tion is 21 per­cent com­pared to the na­tional av­er­age of 35 per­cent, gov­ern­ment data shows, while the ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity rate is 30 per­cent against 22 per­cent na­tion­ally. The United Na­tions es­ti­mates more than a fifth of the 250,000 house­holds in the north are headed by women like Ne­se­mal­har - war wid­ows who have be­come bread­win­ners.

With no jobs and few op­por­tu­ni­ties to earn a liveli­hood, these women - many of whom look af­ter up to four peo­ple - are be­ing forced to bor­row from money lenders, leav­ing them open to ex­ploita­tion by traf­fick­ing net­works. “They are the most vul­ner­a­ble and eas­i­est to con­vince to take up these of­fers,” said Ravin­dra De Silva, head of the char­ity As­so­ci­a­tion for Friend­ship and Love, which worked with au­thor­i­ties to res­cue Ne­se­mal­har.

Re­cruit­ment agen­cies em­ploy lo­cal vil­lagers who are known and trusted in their com­mu­ni­ties and who scout for in­debted and im­pov­er­ished women. They prom­ise de­cent jobs, gen­er­ous salaries and paint an al­lur­ing pic­ture of a good life in a wealthy na­tion. All the women have to do is sign a ba­sic con­tract and fill in some pa­per­work - but they are of­ten un­aware of any terms and con­di­tions. This amounts to a con­tract of bonded la­bor, where the re­cruit­ment agen­cies - which are gov­ern­ment reg­is­tered - dupe vic­tims into be­liev­ing no fees need to be paid, said Da Silva.

The agency that sent Ne­se­mal­har to Oman, for ex­am­ple, re­fused to repa­tri­ate her say­ing the em­ployer paid 300,000 ru­pees ($1,955) for her and she must re­fund that in or­der to be al­lowed to re­turn home. Ne­se­mal­har was luck­ier than most. Af­ter be­ing held for sev­eral weeks, she was res­cued when the Sri Lankan au­thor­i­ties found out about her plight through the rel­a­tive of an­other women en­slaved with her. But many vic­tims are not res­cued or can­not pay the money to re­turn home and can be ex­ploited and abused for years. In most cases, there is no pros­e­cu­tion of the re­cruit­ment agents or em­ploy­ers.

Only a hand­ful of cases have make head­lines. In 2013, a Sri Lankan maid was be­headed in Saudi Ara­bia, ac­cused of neg­li­gence af­ter a child in her care died. In 2010, doc­tors found a 50-year-old woman res­cued from Saudi Ara­bia had been burned with a hot iron and had pieces of metal em­bed­ded into her skin. Ac­tivists say that while re­ports of phys­i­cal and men­tal abuse are com­mon, women are re­luc­tant to speak about sex­ual abuse and rape, fear­ing shame and stigma. Of­fi­cials say they can­not can­cel the reg­is­tra­tion of re­cruit­ment firms and pros­e­cute traf­fick­ers or for­eign em­ploy­ers as vic­tims do not come for­ward - of­ten too poor and too trau­ma­tized to pur­sue le­gal ac­tion. The Sri Lankan au­thor­i­ties say most women go through reg­is­tered re­cruit­ment agen­cies and com­plete a 40-day house­keep­ing course be­fore their de­par­ture. — Reuters

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