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Profusion of domestic worker suicides - in just one week

On February 6, 2012

The first month of the new year has concluded with a number of tragic incidents involving migrant domestic workers. Suicide is often the last resort for migrants subjected to abusive conditions, often the only mechanism of change migrants feel is within their reach. Frequently, they are right; the foreign domestic sector remains largely unregulated throughout much of the Middle East, and there are few channels to redress employer abuse without risking further mistreatment, loss of sponsorship, or even legal penalties. For some marginalized migrant workers, despondency is difficult to avoid, rendering suicide a welcomed means of escape.

Lebanon witnessed two cases of suicide last week alone. The blog Ethiopian Suicides catalogs many Ethiopian deaths in Lebanon as the country possesses a large Ethiopian population, as well as a dismal record of migrant rights. Both cases involved a Lebanese domestic worker hanging herself in an employer’s home - almost certainly the source of their misery.

Another Ethiopian woman hung herself in her sponsor’s home in Saudi Arabia, where paltry workers rights and neglected conditions also have a history of pushing maids to commit suicide. Police are investigating the incident according to routine procedure, though the causes of suicide are generally standard themselves - as are the effectively nonexistent punishment for abusive employers.

In Kuwait, where disregard for the plight of domestic workers appears normalized, a woman unsuccessfully attempted to overdose with items from employer’s house. Police investigations have again commenced to determine the woman’s motivation - as if the reasons for her agony could be separated from the life that sponsors almost entirely dictate and create. Another domestic worker attempted to commit suicide in her sponsor’s home as well, but was ‘thwarted’ by police, who then proceeded to interrogate her.

These suicides and suicide attempts come amidst promises for substantive legal change made by many countries; Kuwait agreed to increase the minimum wage for domestic workers, Saudi has promised more protections for its workers, and Lebanon's minister announced the Kafala system’s forthcoming abolishment. Whether these agreements affect the lives of domestic workers and mitigate the conditions that preempt suicide - or whether they are lost into abyss of broken treaties and pacts - will, at least tangentially, be measured by this year’s suicide rate.