Suicidal circumstances

From the moment she arrived in Lebanon, Martha*, an Ethiopian woman in her twenties, was subjected to abuse by her employer and her three children – a 9-year-old and two teenagers. They beat her ceaselessly, verbally abused her, locked her in the house, and bolted the fridge door. “Imagine a 9-year-old child beating you. I cried,” said Martha. Two months into her ‘contract’, she escaped to the Ethiopian consulate where she was followed by her employer, with children in tow, who tried to publically beat her. The consulate protected her and let her leave with an apparently apologetic member of the employment agency that had brought Martha to Lebanon. 

Surprisingly, Martha was sent back to the same family and the brutal regime from which she had fled. “I tried to kill myself by drinking some cleaning liquid, but only my mouth burned. I did not try again,” Martha smiled sadly. In fact, Martha lasted a year and escaped when her employer asked her to go out and buy a broom. “As soon as I was outside, I started to run.”

Martha survived, but many other women who come to this country as maids, only find themselves hostages to brutality that ends up taking their lives. In the past two weeks, four Ethiopian women have died in Lebanon as a result of either suspected or confirmed suicide. Three – Matente Kebede Zeditu (26), Saneet Mariam (30), and Tezeta Yalmiya (26) – were reported in the media. Although Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) figure of more than one death out of around 200,000 domestic workers per week created waves when it was released in August 2008, the Lebanese government has taken no substantial action, and maids keep dying needlessly.

“These deaths are the tip of the iceberg,” says Nadim Houry, senior researcher at HRW. “It is only the most dramatic manifestation of a number of violations [of basic human rights] such as ill-treatment, and isolation of these workers.”

For example, it is standard practice for Lebanese employers to ‘retain’ the domestic worker’s passport, while many do not let them go out for years at a time. Verbal abuse is common as is the withholding of salaries.

Although most of these “standard practices” are illegal under the Lebanese constitution and the overwhelming majority of Lebanese, who employ domestic staff treat them fairly, the problem is that there is no law enforcement body to protect the most basic human rights of foreign maids and prosecute abusive employers.

As a result, many choose to end their lives. But even then, the suffering continues with the repatriation of the body. A Nepali woman who died at the end of August is still in the morgue.  “There are some cases where a body is left in the fridge for a long time, and neither the insurance nor the employer wants to pay for the trip home,” says Houry. The best way to stop these deaths, he says, is to hold the Lebanese government accountable. “What would be required are concrete measures by the government that would reduce the isolation that these workers feel.” 

Official police sources said that the Ethiopian woman who committed suicide by jumping from the seventh floor in Gemmayze, did so because of a soured relationship with her sister. Nevertheless, Broukti*, an Ethiopian domestic worker, who has worked for more than a decade in Lebanon and is also a local community organizer, is skeptical. “I don’t believe it. If it was in Ethiopia, nobody would kill herself because she fought with her sister.”

In fact, according to the deaths recorded by HRW, much more than half of all deaths are those of Ethiopian women who make up less than a quarter of the workforce. Broukti has two explanations. Firstly, the problem is that many of the women from her country come from rural areas and pay hundreds of dollars to smugglers believing they will work in white-collar jobs abroad. When they arrive in Lebanon, they find their situation unbearable. The Ethiopian government’s ban on Ethiopians coming to Lebanon since last year has only exacerbated the problem.

Furthermore, for many of these women, the treatment as second-class human beings without family, friends, culture and humanity is insufferable.  “We are Ethiopians with a history. We have never been colonized. We colonized until the border of Saudi Arabia. We’re a very proud nation,” Broukti says. 

*Not their real names.

Related articles:

African men in Lebanon
The smuggling game

Foreign brides in Lebanon

  • lola

    people , stop saing BS , do you know how some women are treated in the west ? no because you dont hear as much as from the arab side , some people are shit and some are not . stop putting labels on people for Gods sake . I really feel bad for this woman but come on this is just being used as propoganda . instead of thinking how we can help women around the world we stigmatize a whole population . Shame on you for genaralizing , fix your own problems first okay

    April 5, 2012

  • mamo

    After reading this I don't feel like listening to Arab complaints about Israel treating them bad. The Arabs are full of s**t and should stop beating and raping Ethiopian women, who work as their maids. So religious??????? Arab hypocrisy is so bad its funny.

    May 19, 2010

  • Aline Bourgy

    I enmploy a nepalese girl. it is her third year. her positive side is that she showers everyday. while the ethiopians i had did nt like to shower, so they did nt bother if they smelled bad. and i could not shower them myself! they r not kids! this nepalese girl is illiterate and first sounded a bit slow thiniking, but soon she turned out smart and asked for salary raise every year.she always asks to send salaries in advance because she always has some sibling in need of an urgent operation... i allow her a day out to go see her nepalese friends in dawra. she quickly learned how to move arround alone in lebanon and return back home. she has a mobile, and talks all day long and works very little now. I found out she makes long international calls while im away, so i put a lock on int. calls.she uses my personal things, while im away(cosmetiics). i'm keeping her just because i payed for her papers until sept. but i might lose patience and get her back to her country before sept

    February 12, 2010

  • Aline Bourgy

    do not generalise, some employers r good some r not. some workers r good some r not. just like everrybody... true, some workers comitted sucide, but also others workers r well treated and steal, get their boyfriend in the houses, or kill their employers.friends of mine had their baby killed by an etiopian who wanted to practice black magic. I had a cameroun girl for 3 years, she thanked me for learning through our lives not to beleive in black magic and scorcerers. it was encrusted in their culture. she used to steal big amounts of money from us, i did not punish her , but asked her to return it, telling her i understand she got tempted., she always denied and ran away to spend it on international calls so i could nt find the money on her.(though she was allowed a call per month).i always dealt with her hate by compassion and understanding. when she finished, I drove her to airport, she was thanking me for everything. but when i returned home, i found that some things were stolen...

    February 12, 2010

  • Africa

    There is something strange about Lebanese. On one hand they try to think of themselves as Europeans, hence the liberal lifestyle and appearance minus the liberal approach to humanity. On the other their own inferiority complex and ignorance get the better of them. The average silly madam likes to see herself as some sort of Hollywood diva therefore people who work for her are considered subhuman. What ever your religion Lebanese, why do you allow such cruelty to take place? These girls are mothers, daughters, sisters -most of all humans. What gives you the right to mistreat them like slaves because they have the misfortune of coming to your cruel continent out of desperation? People in the middle east need to do some serious soul searching. Before you accuse me of generalisation, let me tell you I know you all so well. I know what I am talking about. Remember, We are all children of god. Some fortunate, some not, but he must be very disappointed indeed.

    January 6, 2010

  • Lila

    la loi du travail des travailleurs étrangers est mal faite à la base. lorsque l'employeur est responsable de tout ce que fait l'employer depuis le moment où ce dernier arrive au Liban, il y a de ce fait possibilité d'abus de pouvoir, comme dans n'importe quel système. si la loi permettait à ces pauvres gens de venir travailler en gardant un statut humain, comme par exemple, garder leur dignité en gardant au moins ce qui leur appartient comme leur passeport, leur identité, se loger et aller travailler chez la personne de leur choix puis rentrer tous les soir au foyer par exemple où ils sont hébergés avec des gens dans la même situation qu'eux, on n'aurait pas eu ce genre de problèmes... il faut donc changer la loi.

    November 17, 2009

  • TUTU

    Well, a maid from her country due to economic pressure comes to Lebanon looking for greener pastures, upon arrival madam treats her as a tool working from as early as 0500hrs to 0000hrs depending on the nature of the day while the father and his two sons have found a woman to practise their incestuous sexual desires. The girl goes to report the matter to the nearest police, she is put behind bars accused of stealing or any other sort of crime implicable by the members of the house and the next day she is at GENSEC awaiting repatriation. This is just a tip of the iceberg and is one of the many incidences that take place on a daily basis. The reputation of mistreating, degrading and suppressing domestic workers does not only implicate Lebanon or Saudi-Arabia, but is considered a very big concern in the entire Middle East. While in Lebanon, I've witnessed the worst forms of contemporary human slavery, from forced labour, working for less or without payment, sexual harrassment and abuse by

    November 5, 2009

  • Julie Anne Zein

    "Name and shame"! Name the families that have had maids driven to such desperate measures. The Lebanese exploit their maids - I have seen it - even in the best households many maids don't even get one day off a week, let alone an 8 hour day. Some are confined to sleeping in small alcoves off the kitchen, like animals. Many don't even have their own personal space. If you can't afford to treat them like a human being you aren't wealthy enough to afford a maid.

    November 4, 2009

  • Zeina Masri

    I am not justifying violence but I think most households are violent and have this class and inferiority complex because of all the tibulations people had endured during the civil war and are still enduring in post-Lebanese Civil War. Also, sometimes families and individuals are good to domestic workers, but the domestic workers themselves are not good.I had a maid who brought her boyfriend and had sex with him in my house and stole the house keys. She also pulled a knife threatening to kill us only because we told her we are staying at our grandmother's house over the week-end. Some maids are thieves. With all my my respect to Human Rights Watch but it is not always the case that the maids are the victinms there could be maids who sexually harrass chidren. Why does the HRW gloss over conttrasting cases and say the government should only enforce laws protecting maids and why should it likewise not enforce laws on some maids who are evil and thieves.

    November 4, 2009

  • mk

    vahe I don't at all condone the way these women are treated, but hiring lebanese is not really a solution - try finding a local lebanese willing to work as a housekeeper or made, its near immpossible.

    November 4, 2009

  • vahe

    in this case you dont' fight fire with fire. BEst thing for the Lebanese to do is not hire maids from abroad. If you are so unhappy with them coz they put sleeping pills in your tea or use drugs then maybe you should hire a local Lebanese to wash your dirty underwear. Shame on you M. There shoudl be a law in Lebanon that the local women shoudl do the chores maybe and not hire Ethiopian, Eritrea, Philipino, Nepali women to do their dirty work and eventually kill them. It's disgusting

    November 2, 2009

  • Mag

    I agree that some people are cruel and mistreat them but on the other hand some of these girls are crazy and involved in organized crime, the last one we had was not mistreated or anything, she had everything she needed, and she managed to drug everybody in the house by putting a whole bunch of medicine in the tea and stole money, credit cards, jewlery etc.. and ran away leaving an apology letter that she liked the stuff we had and she's in love with another worker. The one before her she was not better, she used to use drugs to in our the old lady's beverage not thinking about the possibility that she could killl her just so she can smuggle her boyfriend into the house while everybody was gone and use our beds! So as much as there are sad stories about them, there are also stories that makes you wanna be aware of them too.

    November 2, 2009

  • Ali NAS

    Fred, when you threat a human worst than you would do with a animal, you don't need to be educated, you need to go to jail. Shame on those families, for the first time in my life I'm really ashamed of being Lebanese. Anyway congratulation not to have followed your parents.

    November 2, 2009

  • Fred

    The underlying issue behind this sad story is that we Lebanese are racists. I've known quite a few families who have employed these women and they all view "black" as slave and dirty. We need to educate people (maybe with TV ads) that these women are poor human beings that need to be treated fairly. I've jump started the process with my own parents.

    November 1, 2009

  • jenna

    I can't imagine workers being treated this way in Lebanon,it's such a shame ,I can't believe there are families who beat the housemaids who work for them,so much of a civilized nation

    November 1, 2009

  • old kataebeh

    I think it should be some law to protect them and put a lot of Madames in the jail than somebody will learn. How dare to take away the passport and hold the documents. Some made is working since 2 years and never been out of the house...sad stories for an higly underdeveloped people "us lebanese" ... I can't imagine if here in the US they do the same...It could go first news on CNN.

    November 1, 2009