Domestic Workers In Lebanon Are Killing Themselves To Escape Abuse

A migrant domestic worker holds a placard during a march demanding basic labor rights as Lebanese workers in Beirut, Lebanon, May 3, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BILAL HUSSEIN
A migrant domestic worker holds a placard during a march demanding basic labor rights as Lebanese workers in Beirut, Lebanon, May 3, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BILAL HUSSEIN

BEIRUT, LEBANON — One domestic worker on average commits suicide each month in Lebanon, according to a leading NGO that deals with domestic violence and human rights. There are no available statistics on domestic worker suicides in Lebanon since police do not keep categorized records, but KAFA, a feminist, secular non-profit organization in Lebanon, used media records to estimate that an average of one domestic worker kills herself each month.

Records kept by KAFA show that at least 7–10 recorded cases of suicide by domestic workers have occurred since 2010, but the numbers are likely much higher.

“Actually it is happening at least once a month and those are just the reported cases,” Maya Ammar, the Communications Coordinator at KAFA told ThinkProgress. “When stuck in a situation with no form of support, suicide becomes an option.

One of the last cases that received media coverage was that of G. Joudy, an Ethiopian maid who worked in northern Lebanon and committed suicide in late June by drinking a poisonous substance.

Around 250,000 women are currently registered in Lebanon as domestic workers — though there are many unregistered as well.

When these women arrive, their passports are usually confiscated and their rights are suspended under the kafala (sponsorship) system. Their livelihood and well-being depends entirely on the family they are placed with. If the family is generous, their lives can be decent, and they can send some money home to their families or save for a modest future. If the family isn’t, women can face 24 hours a day of physical, verbal, and even sexual abuse with few options of escaping. Some have referred to the kafala system, which exists in other countries in the Middle East in varying forms, as modern day slavery.

Most of the domestic workers come from Ethiopia, though there are many from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and countries in the African continent like Kenya and Togo. Suicides by domestic workers became so prevalent at one point that a blog named Ethiopian Suicides emerged and became widely cited by international media. The blog’s last post was published in 2015.

Ammar points to the kafala system as the main driving force behind mistreatment of domestic workers and suicides.

“[Domestic workers] are already vulnerable. Life here is much harder when they lose their freedom,” Ammar said, adding that many are promised certain salaries and living conditions only to find a different reality upon arrival. “All these conditions can lead to trying to escape or suicide.”

Ammar doesn’t see the suicide rate decreasing anytime soon, at least until the current system is eradicated or altered to increase the rights of domestic workers. “Otherwise,” she said, “why would [people who come here to work] commit suicide at that rate?”