HIV Threat to Migrant Women

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Apr 5 2009

Female migrant workers are increasingly vulnerable to contracting the HIV virus, according to a recent report by the UNDP, 'HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women: From Asia to the Arab States'

Not only are many migrant women working as domestic maids sexually abused by their employers, but many go into prostitution or relationships with local men who give them badly-needed money to send back home to their families.

This recent article from IRIN tells the story of Rina, a young Filipina woman who left home at 17 to take up employment in Qatar, where she was forced to work for up to 20 hours a day with only one meal. After 7 years in Qatar, she was transfered to Dubai, where she was forced one more to endure inhuman working conditions - and was sexually abused by her employer:

"My employer in Dubai sometimes ordered me to give massages and he would touch my private parts. I could do nothing to stop him as I have to endure the hardship for the sake of my family back home," she said.

"That employer later on repeatedly raped me. I was helpless. When I mustered enough courage, I told his wife, who, surprisingly, believed me. With her help we told police, who were surprised that a wife of an Arab man would believe such a tale from a domestic helper."

After unsuccessfully attempting to bring a rape case before court, the wife helped Rina to return to the Philippines.

With few job prospects in her home country, Rina decided to try her luck working as a housemaid in Malaysia. However, medical tests revealed that she was infected with HIV

'I was crushed. I didn't know what HIV was, and I thought I was going to die quickly. I couldn't accept it. I wanted to be alone. I was angry and kept asking, 'What did I do wrong to get this disease?'"

Rina now works for a local NGO promoting aids awareness.

Many countries in the Gulf and beyond either deny entry to, or deport, foreigners who are found to HIV positive. According to the European AIDS Treatment Group:

15 countries have been identified that currently deport HIV-positive foreigners: Armenia, Bahrain, Brunei, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, North and South Korea, Kuwait, Libya,
Malaysia, Oman, Russian Federation, and Taiwan.

12 countries have been identified that totally forbid PLHIV access and residence: Armenia, Brunei, China, Iraq, Qatar, South Korea, Libya, Moldova, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the United States.

HIV-positive migrant women often face discrimination and social isolation once they return to their home countries, and there are few rehabilitation programmes for women who end up in this predicament.

According to the IRIN article, the current financial crisis could lead to many more migrant women being put at risk of contracting AIDS:

"The combination of excessive recruitment fees and poor wages often push migrant workers into debt traps, which in turn can lead to sexual exploitation," the UNDP country director in the Philippines, Renaud Meyer, told IRIN/PlusNews.

With many of these women now in danger of losing their jobs, pushing them to the brink of desperation, working and living conditions were expected to become "harsher and harsher", he said.

"As the demand for labour goes down, those in the weakest bargaining position, usually temporary migrant workers, and particularly the undocumented, are likely to accept almost any circumstances to hold on to their job," Meyer said.

"In the middle of this turmoil, desperation may lead to migration under unsafe conditions, sexual exploitation, and increased vulnerability to HIV infection."

The UNDP report has called on Middle Eastern countries to ratify International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 181, which states that recruitment agencies should not burden the staff that they place overseas with migration fees. This move would at least take some of the financial pressure off migrant women who may end up involved in prostitution in order to deal the dual pressures of sending money back home to their families, and paying off large debts to recruitment brokers.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East