July 14, 2008

VII. Psychological, Physical, and Sexual Abuse

She beat me until my whole body burned. She beat me almost every day.... She would beat my head against the stove until it was swollen. She threw a knife at me but I dodged it. I had a big black bruise on my arm where she had beaten my arm with a cooking spoon, she beat me until the spoon broke into two pieces. This behavior began from the first week I arrived. It was the lady employer, the man was good. She would scream, "I hope you die! I hope your family dies! I hope you become deformed!" She never paid me for 10 months. I thought if I don't escape, I will die.
-Wati S., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006

In many cases, domestic workers experienced a combination of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse. Many domestic workers also reported that their employers deprived them of adequate food. The Indonesian and Sri Lankan embassies reported that physical abuse and mistreatment comprised approximately 10-19 percent of the complaints they receive, while sexual harassment and abuse comprised 6-8 percent.[136] Human Rights Watch is aware of at least six cases in 2007 in which domestic workers in Saudi Arabia died from their injuries.

Domestic workers' isolation in private homes and the imbalance of power between employers and workers heightens the risk of such abuse. Migrants may endure abuse for months or years given confinement in the workplace, lack of information about where to seek help, barriers to approaching authorities, and intense financial pressures that make them reluctant to lose their employment.

Media in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines regularly carry stories about egregious cases of abuse, most notoriously the case of Nour Miyati (featured in Chapter V, above), whose employers starved her, beat her, and locked her up until she developed gangrene. While some cases attract international attention, innumerable cases remain unreported or unnoticed.

Psychological and Verbal Abuse

She always said bad things, like "you're a dog, you're poor, you're only a servant here." I said, "Yes, I'm a servant." She was angry everyday. She was jealous of me. She told me, "Don't talk to your Baba, if you do, I will kill you." I said I treated him like my father. She said, "Don't say that, you're not a baby." I heard all bad things from her, she told me, "You're crazy, you're garbage." I was hurt. I said, "I'm human." She said, "No, you are not human, you are an animal."
-Adelina Y., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006

The vast majority of domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported some form of psychological or verbal abuse, including shouting, insults, belittlement, threats, and humiliation. Employers often combined psychological, verbal, and physical abuse of domestic workers. Leilani P. said, "My madam hit me, she kicked me. When she got angry, she would pull my hair and slap my face. She always told me that I'm shit. She used a lot of bad words. She said, 'You're a liar, you're shit.'"[137] In other cases, employers attempted to exert complete control over domestic workers' every move. Mina S. said, "I had to ask permission for offering my prayer, to pee, to go to the bathroom."[138]

Sometimes employers intensified their humiliation of workers if they tried to assert their rights. Shanika R., a gaunt woman with a recently shaved head at the time of her interview with Human Rights Watch said, "I told [my employer], 'I have a small child, please give me my salary.' I asked for my salary, and they shaved my head completely bald. Whenever I asked for my salary, they would cut my hair, but the last time they shaved my head."[139] Some domestic workers chose to fight back, despite risking additional abuse. Eni M. said, "Everyday they were shouting or hitting me. The male employer would take a chair and throw it at me. They would call me an animal. When they were shouting I felt strong and I fought back."[140]

A common pattern involved employers insulting domestic workers in the course of excessive and repeated criticism of their job performance, often requiring them to redo their work several times. Lucy T. told us, "If she didn't like the food she would throw the tray of food, always shouting."[141] Mina S. said,

My employer would ask me, "What time did you wake up?" If I told her the truth I was wrong and if I didn't tell the truth I was also wrong. If I did some work she would ask, "Why did you do that without my knowledge, do you think that you are the owner of this house?" If I did not do anything, she would say that I don't have a brain. What should I do then?[142]

Many domestic workers reported that they were treated like animals, or even worse than household pets. Other employers treated domestic workers as if they were dirty and as if any contact was polluting. An Indonesian migrant, Nur A., told us, "They treated me like a dog, not like a human being. The whole family treated me like this. Everything [had to be] separate for me. I was not allowed to be with them. Even my clothes couldn't be put in the washing machine. I had to hand wash them separately. I had to use separate forks and spoons."[143]

Racism and discrimination against non-Muslims also factored into some employers' treatment of migrants as less than human. Dammayanthi K., a Sri Lankan worker, told Human Rights Watch, "They treat non-Muslims very badly, and when they came to know that I am a non-Muslim they started to shout at me the word 'infidel' [frequently]. They did not like me at all for not being Muslim. They also shouted at me, 'dog,' and 'bull.'"[144]

Employers also intimidated workers through threats of physical violence, murder, and disposing of their bodies as garbage. For example, one Sri Lankan domestic worker said, "They beat me, they told me they would heat the iron and burn me. She slapped me and said she was going to iron my face. I got scared and ran away."[145]

Physical Abuse

I was ironing some clothes and the lady [employer] wanted me to make tea for her. I told her I am ironing, let me finish and switch off the iron because there are children and I was afraid they would pull the iron. She got angry, came and took the iron and put the hot iron on my hand.
-Sithy M., returned domestic worker, Habaraduwa, Sri Lanka, November 14, 2006

Many migrant domestic workers bore either fresh wounds or scars from physical abuse. In several cases, the physical abuse was so severe that migrant women required hospitalization or died from their injuries. For example, in August 2007 a Saudi family accused four Indonesian domestic workers of performing witchcraft on their son and beat them so badly that two died from their injuries, and the other two were placed in a hospital's Intensive Care Unit.[146] Shanika R., whose employers shaved her head when she asked for her salary, was missing a tooth and showed multiple scars on her arms, shoulders, and head to a Human Rights Watch interviewer. She said,

[My female employer] also cut my finger. She also cut both of my ears. She gave me Clorox to drink. It was scary! She threatened to kill me. She said after Ramadan, she will kill me. I got scared and ran away. I was not supposed to say anything when she yelled at me. I had to keep my hands down. I was not supposed to raise my hand until she was done beating me. [My employers] got scared that I will run away and locked me in the bathroom for three days. They removed my fingernails.[147]

Abusive employers often prohibited domestic workers from receiving medical attention after beatings. Lilis H., a 25-year-old Indonesian woman with a scar below her eye, said, "My employer beat me with a cable. She beat me with a wooden stick on my head. It was very thick and a few feet long. She beat me everyday. She beat me on my eyes and on my back. My head swelled and I have some scars. I never went to the hospital."[148] Sisi R. said, "My employer heated a knife and put it on my cheek. He ordered me to stick out my tongue and put the hot knife on my tongue. A week after that I ran away. When I got injured from their beatings, they did not take me to the hospital."[149]

Many women said physical violence worsened if they demanded their salaries, asked to return to their home countries, or tried to assert other rights. Miming the action of her employer taking a knife and holding it to her head, Ponnamma S., a 52-year-old domestic worker, said,

For one year and five months, [I received] no salary at all. I asked for money and they would beat me, or cut me with a knife, or burn me. They beat my head also. In one arm, they burned me. And this arm they cut me with a knife. There are markings on my back. My body ached all over. I was beaten all over. They would take my head and bang it against the wall. Whenever I requested my salary, there would be a fight.[150]

We interviewed Sevandhi R. on the day she returned from Saudi Arabia to Sri Lanka. She had several burn marks on her arms and said, "When I asked to call Sri Lanka, [my employers] beat me up. The lady employer used the iron [to burn me]. When she started beating me up on my head as well, I started having headaches frequently. When I asked for my salary, she beat me."[151] Padma S., whom we also met in Sri Lanka, had been scalded on her arms when she had tried to defend herself: "[My employer] beat me on the head with a broomstick and I still have the pain. The second time she tried to do it I removed my slipper and hit her back. The lady got ready to beat me. The lady put hot water and was getting ready to put it on my face when I put my arms up to protect my face."[152]

Several domestic workers told Human Rights Watch that physical abuse occurred routinely. For example, Winarti N. said, "My employer beat me often. She hit me on the cheek. She pulled my hair. She picked up anything she could and threw it at me. She did this everyday, or at least every other day."[153]

Food Deprivation

The employers locked the refrigerator and would count the items inside.
-Marisa G., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 8, 2006

A common form of mistreatment that serves to reinforce the inferiority of domestic workers' status in the household is to deny them adequate food. Out of 86 domestic workers interviewed for this report by Human Rights Watch, 32 reported that they had been given inadequate quantities or spoiled food. Domestic workers may lose significant weight or experience health problems as a result. Nour Miyati, discussed earlier, told Human Rights Watch, "When I first came to Saudi Arabia, I was 60 kilos. By the end, I was about 45 kilos."[154]

Many domestic workers complained that their employers did not provide them enough time to eat or berated them for requesting more food. Malini S. said, "They gave me very little food. At the very time that I was eating, they would call me a hundred times, so finally I would get fed up and throw the food out. They always scolded me while I was eating, with bad words."[155]

Some employers threatened domestic workers with beatings if they tried to eat more food, or they used food deprivation as a punishment for "mistakes" in the housework. Mina S. told us,

My employer was mean. At first she gave me food but later on she did not give me any food, and once I was not given food for two days so I only drank tap water. Once I was very hungry so at 2 a.m. I took the rubbish and ate it, sneakingly, and I had to watch whether she saw me or not, because otherwise she would whip me with an electric cable.[156]

Teresa O., visibly upset, said, "There was not too much food. Sometimes I got it twice a day, nothing was regular. I was starving for food, there was not enough time to eat. I was so tired. I was hungry during that time. they didn't allow me to buy food it really hurt me."[157]

Sexual Harassment and Abuse

My employer was always trying to rape me. I refused because I have a husband and children. [Starts crying] I tried to work for eight months because I have to pay a loan at home. I have a debt to my neighbors for my children's treatment in the hospital. My husband doesn't work.
On the night of Eid al-Fitr, everybody had gone out, the employer told me to clean the ground floor where my male employer lives. When I was on that floor, there was nobody else there, and he was there naked. My employer raped me. He pushed me, I tried to resist, but I couldn't push him off. He raped me on the sofa.
He said, "I have not taken advantage of you, because I paid a lot of money for you." I said, "You have taken advantage of me because you raped me."
-Isdiah B., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006

Twenty-eight of the 86 domestic workers we interviewed reported sexual harassment or assault by their employers or agents. Embassy officials corroborated that sexual violence is a major complaint among women seeking help. Typically, male employers or relatives, including teenage or adult sons, were the perpetrators of such abuse, involving a range of actions, from inappropriate touching, hugging, and kissing, to repeated rape. For example, Chamali W. described the sexual harassment she experienced from her employer's two sons: "The first six or seven months they were nice to me, then they started to misbehave. They removed their trousers. They have pictures of naked girls on their mobile phone and they showed them to me."[158]

In some cases, employers harassed women by offering money for sex or threatening to withhold their salaries unless they submitted to rape. Nining W. said, "My employer was sexually harassing me. When I asked for my salary, he asked me to have sex with him. When the lady employer was sleeping, he would come and hug me, and try to kiss me. He said to me, 'Do me up and down.' When I asked, 'What's that?' he said, 'You are a woman, you should know.'"[159] In another case, Lina B. escaped from her employer's house because, "I was afraid of his 25-year-old son. There was one instance where the guy told me to sit down, he told me that he liked me, and he asked if I wanted money. I said no, and I showed a picture of my husband and child. He looked at it and laughed."[160] Sutiati S. told us, "When I was alone, my employer tried to seduce me, but I said I only want halal (permissible under Islamic law) money, I won't do such things. I was angry, I just wanted to work well and cleanly, that is all."[161]

The women Human Rights Watch interviewed had varying experiences when they tried to resist or complain about incidents of sexual harassment and violence. Kamala K.'s employer sexually harassed her, and beat his wife when she reprimanded him about his behavior. Kamala K. escaped after two months of harassment. As for her options now, she commented, "What can we do? He has not harmed me. He has paid my salary. I cannot complain."[162] In some cases, domestic workers were trapped in abusive situations and in others they were able to terminate their employment or escape. The accessibility of shelters is key. When the 20-year-old son of her employer raped her, Dian W. said, "I wanted to get out and went to the embassy shelter."[163]

In other cases, domestic workers feared retaliation for seeking help or were dismissed as liars if they complained. Amihan F. said, "There was only one time that [my employer] fucked me. From November 22, I bled for three days. I wanted to call my madam, but I was afraid. I could not go near my boss, I locked myself in the bathroom until he left the house [each morning]. That time that he finished fucking me, he said, 'Don't tell madam. I didn't tell her because I was afraid he would catch me.'"[164] Nur A. said,

The [employer's] wife said, 'You are a liar' when I complained about what the [employer's] brother had done. Sometimes the [employer's] mother went out of the house, and that is when the brother raped me. He is a big guy, I couldn't do anything. It happened three times. The first time when I was in the bathroom, he held my hair and dragged me around the door to the bedroom. It was useless for me to complain, because nobody believed me.[165]

Some domestic workers related the intense pressure they were under to earn money to send home and their feeling they had to endure abuse in order to resolve family problems. Isdiah B., described above, started crying when she told Human Rights Watch, "I got a loan for 2 million rupiah from my neighbor and now I will have to pay 5 million. The rest is now 10 million. If we can't pay the money, they will take our house and land. The house is a small thing, but the important thing is our land."[166]

Employers may threaten the domestic worker with retaliation, including additional violence, if they report the abuse. Kumari G. said, "For three days, my employer came to me, trying to seduce me. I said, 'I'll tell your wife!' He said, 'If you tell her, I will kill you.'"[167] Chamali W. said,

The [employer's adult son] asked for his mobile, all of a sudden he hugged me. I beat him with the iron, he threw the iron and grabbed my arm and dragged me to a separate room. My arm hit the wall, my arm had a bruise. He pushed me to the floor and removed all of my clothes. He raped me. I felt lifeless, I couldn't get up, I felt so weak. I reported to Mama, "I can't work here anymore, please send me home." Mama said, "You can't leave halfway, finish your two years. Even if you are pregnant, I'll take care of you." They put me in my room and locked me there for four days. For four days I was locked in from the outside, I didn't work. There was no way to get out, so I had to lie to them, I said, "I'll work for you," and then they allowed me out.[168]

As will be discussed in greater detail in Chapters IX and X, below, domestic workers also face additional barriers in bringing such complaints to the authorities due to the risk of counter-accusations of adultery or fornication, lack of evidence, and stigmatization. Restrictions on movement and imprisonment of migrant women inside the home mean that collection of critical forensic evidence may be impossible. Sri H. told Human Rights Watch,

My own employer raped me once. But he touched me all the time, he did not only touch me, he also took off all my clothes. After raping me, the employer kept me in the bedroom. I had problems directly afterward. If I had gone to the hospital, they would have seen it, but they kept me locked in the house for two weeks.[169]

Some domestic workers experienced social stigmatization and rejection from their families for suffering sexual violence while abroad. A recently returned domestic worker in Kandy, Sri Lanka, explained her husband's reaction upon finding out she had been raped and impregnated by her Saudi employer: "My husband beat me when I told him what happened. He threatened to kill me by choking me and pressing my neck and he kicked me on the back while I was sleeping. He told me to leave. I did not even want to come to my village to give birth to the baby. Because in my village people come to know it is a shame it's a shameful thing and we are not accepted."[170]

[136] "Record of Placement and Protection: Indonesian Migrant Workers (TKI) in Saudi Arabia, 2007," data provided by Embassy of Indonesia, March 10, 2008; and Human Rights Watch interview with a Sri Lankan embassy official who requested anonymity, Riyadh, March 2008.

[137] Human Rights Watch interview with Leilani P., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.

[138] Human Rights Watch interview with Mina S., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, March 12, 2008.

[139] Human Rights Watch interview with Shanika R., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.

[140] Human Rights Watch interview with Eni M., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 8, 2006.

[141] Human Rights Watch interview with Lucy T., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 8, 2006.

[142] Human Rights Watch interview with Mina S., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, March 12, 2008.

[143] Human Rights Watch interview with Nur A., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.

[144] Human Rights Watch interview with Dammayanthi K., returned domestic worker, Kandy, Sri Lanka, November 10, 2006.

[145] Human Rights Watch interview with Indrani P., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.

[146] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Nasser Al-Dandani, lawyer for the Indonesian embassy, Riyadh, August 14, 2007; Ridwan Max Sijabat, "Two RI workers dead, two others hospitalized in Saudi Arabia," The Jakarta Post, August 13, 2007; "Saudi Arabia: Migrant Domestics Killed by Employers," Human Rights Watch news release, August 17, 2007,

http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/08/17/saudia16699.htm.

[147] Human Rights Watch interview with Shanika R., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.

[148] Human Rights Watch interview with Lilis H., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.

[149] Human Rights Watch interview with Sisi R., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, March 11, 2008.

[150] Human Rights Watch interview with Ponnamma S., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.

[151] Human Rights Watch interview with Sevandhi R., returned domestic worker, Katunayake, Sri Lanka, November 1, 2006.

[152] Human Rights Watch interview with Padma S., returned domestic worker, Katunayake, Sri Lanka, November 1, 2006.

[153] Human Rights Watch interview with Winarti N., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.

[154] Human Rights Watch interview with Nour Miyati, Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006.

[155] Human Rights Watch interview with Malini S., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.

[156] Human Rights Watch interview with Mina S., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, March 12, 2008.

[157] Human Rights Watch interview with Teresa O., Filipina domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.

[158] Human Rights Watch interview with Chamali W., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.

[159] Human Rights Watch interview with Nining W., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 6, 2006.

[160] Human Rights Watch interview with Lina B., Filipina domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.

[161] Human Rights Watch interview with Sutiati S., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.

[162] Human Rights Watch interview with Kamala K., Nepalese domestic worker, Riyadh, March 10, 2008.

[163] Human Rights Watch interview with Dian W., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, March 10, 2008.

[164] Human Rights Watch interview with Amihan F., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 10, 2006.

[165] Human Rights Watch interview with Nur A., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.

[166] Human Rights Watch interview with Isdiah B., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.

[167] Human Rights Watch interview with Kumari G., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 6, 2006.

[168] Human Rights Watch interview with Chamali W., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.

[169]Human Rights Watch interview with Sri H., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006.

[170] Human Rights Watch interview with Jayanadani A., returned domestic worker, Kandy, Sri Lanka, November 10, 2006.