Sri Lankan women being ordered by recruiters to take birth control before working in Middle East
Six recruiters licensed by the government said they could provide an employer with a ‘three-month guarantee’ that a maid would not become pregnant
Sri Lankan women who take up domestic work in the Middle East to support families devastated by conflict are being targeted by recruitment agents who order them to take contraceptives before leaving.
Six recruiters licensed by the Sri Lankan government said they could provide an employer with a “three-month guarantee” that a maid would not become pregnant.
An agent from Gulf Jobs in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, said: “Before we can send a maid, there is a medical check-up by the government and no one can influence that. But once the medical test is done … there is a device we can give in them. If you want it, we can arrange it.”
While no women were prepared to speak openly about being forced to take contraceptives, The Guardian found that many recruitment agencies make migrant workers take Depo-Provera, an injectable contraceptive that lasts for three months.
Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of husbands, fathers and brothers, and took a severe physical or mental toll on countless other combatants, has left many Tamil women as the sole breadwinners for their families.
Some women think it’s necessary to have sex with the agents to go abroad. The agents coax and then abuse women, according to Rahini Bhaskaran, coordinator of Migrants Network, a migrant rights organisation. Bhaskaran said women were so desperate for work that they complied unquestioningly with the stipulations of recruiters.
“Most women don’t know what the injections are for,” she said. “They are not told anything about it,” she said.
Bhaskaran believes the contraceptive serves a double purpose: covering up potential sexual assaults by recruitment agents and serving as a guarantee to prospective employers in the Gulf that workers will not get pregnant.
“Some women think it’s necessary … to have sex with the agents to go abroad. The agents coax women, even promising marriage in some cases, and then abuse them,” said Bhaskaran.
Typically single, divorced or widowed, or married to men who are no longer able to work, the women are victims of a growing pattern of abuse and coercion by agents and employers.
The experience of Saroja is indicative of the abusive behaviour that many endure. In 2016, a man turned up at her home in a small village in northern Sri Lanka with the offer of a job in the Middle East.
“They came looking for me,” she said. “They told me I could earn well if I went abroad and that they could help me to look after my family.”
Saroja’s son was ill and the civil war had left her husband disabled and her five sisters widowed. Struggling to shoulder the burden of caring for her extended family single-handedly, she accepted the offer. She sold her jewellery to pay the agency the equivalent of US$280 for training, and left her village on the outskirts of Jaffna to take up employment as a household maid in Saudi Arabia.
But Saroja found it impossible to keep up with the cooking and cleaning required for the family of 12. She could not send any money home to her family because she was never paid. Then her demanding boss turned abusive.
“My employer, he started beating me. I complained and he ripped off my clothes and I was just left in my underwear,” she said.
Tamil women who endure such ordeals abroad are often stigmatised, as the need to work counters cultural tradition. Nonetheless, there are 1.5 million domestic workers in Saudi Arabia alone, and recruitment agencies fly in 40,000 foreign women a month to keep up with demand.
“People are forced to do these things because of economic problems,” said S Senthurajah, executive director of Sond, an organisation that raises awareness of migration issues. “Women have far less opportunities here for employment. If she is poor or a widow, she is excluded from the community. We do our best, but it’s not enough.”
According to Senthurajah, the dangers have become accepted to the point where it is almost expected that women who migrate to work in the Middle East will face abuse or assault at the hands of their employers.
“When a woman goes abroad it’s implicit she is going to be sexually active,” he says. “The chance is high for abuse.”
Swairee Rupasinghe, coordinator for labour migration at the International Labour Organisation in Sri Lanka, said there was an economic imperative for recruiters to make women take contraceptives.
“I see why the recruitment agencies organise it – because if found pregnant they would have to bare the cost of repatriation of the worker, so it’s in their interest to enforce it,” said Rupasinghe.
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Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “Migrant domestic workers in the Gulf are treated as commodities by agencies and employers to the extent that their bodies and their choices are no longer theirs at the point of migration. When they go into employment, it’s this power dynamic that allows exploitation and abuse to flourish.”
After eight months in Saudi Arabia, Saroja eventually arrived home with less than a dollar in her pocket.
“The agency keeps coming back telling me how poor we are and that I should go back for my children,” she said. “But I’ll never go back to Saudi Arabia again. I got nothing from it except pain. I’m holding on to life just because of my children.”