There is an invisible lining of gender-based sexual violence that is under the rim of our hands. It is hidden in the homes of rich families, in the walls of factories, and in horrid conditions in far off places, where a woman’s voice is nowhere to be heard. Coming from an immigrant background, I have heard the stories of my grandmother who slaved in factories for days at a time with little pay and wrongful working conditions. However, one thinks of these conditions as a past problem which causes many to wonder why domestic workers have strayed far from the spotlight. Why stories have rarely hit the mainstream news about conditions in South America, Asia, the Middle East, and even right here in the United States. The streak may have changed.
For the past three months, news headlines have rocketed with stories surrounding domestic workers. “Domestic workers abused in Indonesia”, “Death of a maid in Malaysia”, and “protests in Hong Kong over abuse of female workers” are just a few to name. And before that we heard headlines surrounding the abuse of Somalian migrant girls being abused in Dubai and over 200, 000 foreign domestic workers, mostly women, in countries like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Now the question that comes up to mind, is whether this is a struggle of a certain ethnic group or class level? The news headlines have given us all the same image of the foreign, domestic worker. She is poor, coming from a family who can barely take care of her, and sometimes she is even sold across borders. Many of these women and young girls, unable to return or leave their work environments, face everything from sexual abuse, rape, starvation, sex trafficking, and violence. When it comes to an ethnic majority, it seems most of the women come from an Asian or African background, but it predominately comes from the background of the country. For instance, Somalia and Malaysia are developing countries that fall far in the spectrum from areas like Dubai or Lebanon. It’s a matter of power over the lesser people.
The past news stories that hit the mainstream wave about domestic worker abuse was that of the death of a maid in Malaysia. According to Irene Fernandez, the director of Malaysian NGO Tenaganita, a non-profit organization focusing on migrant advocacy, 45 Indonesian workers have died in Malaysia just this year from several causes including torture by abusive employers. And the NGO organization has recorded over 1,050 human rights violations from rape to physical abuse in the last two years. The death of the 24-year-old maid named Kunarsih is just one of many Indonesian women who have been silenced victims of gender and sexual violence. Her body was found in the home of her employer. Many of these women have only two options. And both are bad news. The women can stay in their situation and continue with the physical, sexual, emotional abuse or attempt to flee. However, the majority of foreign workers who attempt to flee from their abusive employers are often prosecuted under the Malaysian immigration laws and jailed. Most employers keep their workers passports which allow a power over the victim. A domestic foreign worker cannot legitimately prove that they’re in the country legally. Other cases, like a 23-year old Ethiopian girl, have the same predicament. Upon arriving to Dubai as a domestic worker, her passport was taken immediately from her. You are a slave to your work. And what starts as an escape from poverty to aid families back home, eventually leads to a jail cell within a factory or home walls.
Countries like Malaysia and Dubai have been urged to stand up and protect their domestic workers within the country. Just this December, Malaysian immigration officers rescued over 105 Indonesian women who were forced to work without pay or food. A step up from the silence that lingered behind countless of women who wonder if this movement is a reality. As news media, continues to expand on this issue, there are still thousands of women across the globe that are silenced by the shackles of their domestic work. And there’s even some here in our backyard of the United States.