An Ethiopian domestic worker hangs washed clothes on a balcony in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2007. Photo by AP/Grace Kassab
Elhanan is a 24-year-old Ethiopian woman with broad shoulders, short black hair, and a nest of wrinkles surrounding her brown eyes. She came to Lebanon five months ago to work as a maid. She was promised a monthly salary of $200 and the option to return to her native country if she disliked her working conditions. Yet after Elhanan arrived in Beirut, the man who owned the house she tended took her passport and, when his wife and children left the house, often raped her.
“I said, 'No, mister,'” Elhanan (which is not her real name) told me in an office near a safe house in the suburbs of Beirut. “I always said, 'No, mister.' But then he would threaten to kill me.”
Thousands of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon are part of what is known in the Arab world as the Kafala system, a way that people from surrounding regions can emigrate to Arab states and work for higher wages than what they would earn in their homelands. Kafala guest workers are used in a variety of industries, notably construction and domestic labor. The conditions of laborers working in places like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have been reported on widely. In Lebanon, like other countries, the arrangement gives employers the power to take away workers’ passports, withhold their salaries, and keep them in what sometimes amounts to a kind of indentured servitude.
For women guest workers, there are added dangers. With more than 250,000 domestic workers in Lebanon—mostly from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines—this system doesn’t only subjugate women to a kind of tacit bondage, but it also empowers perpetrators of sexual violence and forced prostitution, according to both traffickers and those working to stop the trafficking.
Najla Chahda, the director of the Caritas Lebanese Migrant Center (CLMC), an NGO supporting domestic workers in the country, says that while some women routinely suffer from rape or sexual abuse from the hands of their employer, it’s also prevalent for gangs to offer false promises of better working conditions to entice women to leave their abusive household. But once a worker escapes before her contract finishes, she loses her legal status completely.
“The legal system needs to be improved,” said Chahda. “Domestic abuse is pushing these women into the hands of traffickers.”
“Let me tell you how it works,” said Ali, a 26-year-old Lebanese gang member living in Shatila, a Palestinian camp in south Beirut and a space inaccessible to Lebanese authorities. “I charge $30 for a Filipino and $20 for an Ethiopian. You give me the money, and I make the call.”
Ali says he often sends women to meet his clients next to a fast food restaurant called King of Fries in Hamra, the most cosmopolitan district in West Beirut. But to avoid the police, Ali stays in Shatila and relies on a network of taxi’s to escort women.
Taxis are the primary way people get around in Lebanon. But since drivers typically make a meager two-thousand Lebanese liras ($1.33) for every passenger, shuttling women presents a lucrative side job.
“Taxi drivers are not strangers to this business,” said Ghada Jabbour, the director of KAFA, a Lebanese NGO advocating for an end to violence against women. “Too often, one of the first questions foreigners ask their driver is where they can find some girls.”
These are precisely the questions that a 40-year-old taxi driver, who goes by the name of Castro, receives all the time. Castro makes $200 a week through ferrying women, and though many have approached him freely, he admits that he’s fixed clients for traffickers before.
“Some of the foreign girls didn’t have a choice,” Castro told me while chain-smoking in his bedroom in Shatila. “Even if they didn’t want to have sex, what could they do? Run to the police?”
Because of their lack of legal status, domestic migrant workers who approach the Lebanese police are detained and sometimes further abused until their original sponsor pays for their deportation.
Consequently, without any option to escape, many contemplate suicide as a last resort. According to a report by Human Rights Watch in 2008, approximately 95 domestic workers died from unnatural causes in Lebanon between January 2007 and the report’s publication. Forty of those workers committed suicide. While there haven’t been conclusive numbers released since that report, advocates in Lebanon report that deaths are still a common occurrence.
After escaping to her recruitment agency’s office to request for help, Elhanan was grabbed by the hair and beaten for hours before being returned to her employer’s household. The next day she grabbed a kitchen knife and closed herself inside the living room.
“Madam wouldn’t let me do it,” said Elhanan as she showed me the scars on her wrist.
The mother of the household managed to push open the door and take the knife away. But she was in her own way complicit in Elhanan’s mistreatment. With two children in the house and an insufficient support network, Elhanan says that “madam” always knew she was being raped but was too afraid to speak up.
Days after her attempted suicide, Elhanan began going for short walks around the neighborhood whenever she found herself alone in the house. One morning she bumped into a fellow Ethiopian woman on the street. Elhanan softly whispered for help.
The woman immediately waved down a taxi and instructed the driver to head straight to the Ethiopian embassy.
Today, Elhanan resides in a safe house in the suburbs of Beirut. With the help of CLMC, she’s pressing charges against her sponsor and awaiting a court hearing next month. But despite her pursuit for justice, she has little faith that conditions for domestic migrant workers will improve.
“How about I offer you a Filipino for 20,000 Lebanese liras [$13],” said Ali, the gang member, while showing off his rifle from the corner of his bedroom. “She won’t resist—I promise.”