Rape is one of the many risks Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers face as a consequence of the power imbalances created by the sponsorship (kafala) system. The system renders workers overly dependent on both recruitment agencies and employers, neither of whom are adequately regulated by government agencies. This legal framework of bondage is compounded by gender, racial, and economic stratifications that render workers even more vulnerable to abuse. These overlapping constraints furthermore limit workers ability to report misconduct, as migrants who leave abusive employers may jeopardize their visa status and because authorities are often apathetic to their distress. Workers often chose not to report abuse because receiving a positive, enforced verdict is unlikely and rarely worth the risk.
Consequently, the abuses domestic workers face are purposefully invisibilised; grass-roots organizations such as KAFA and the Anti-Racism Movement work to elevate these narratives into popular and government consciousness. As a result of their efforts, Lebanese media has increased coverage of exploitation, suicide, sexual abuse, and other migration issues over recent years. But last week Beiruti’s al-Akhbar published a uniquely in-depth report on a rape crime committed against an Ethiopian domestic worker in the Northern Lebanese village of Kousha. The detailed coverage was possible because the victim, Betty, lodged a complaint with the local police station, and received rare support from her new employers. Betty narrates her story in the following video, which also features a short interview with her lawyer.
Betty had previously worked in Lebanon, but she was only one week into a new job when the crime occurred in December 2013. Her elderly female sponsor ‘returned’ her to the recruitment agency following a disagreement, a common practice by which dissatisfied employers are able to recuperate their financial investments. Employers can receive another worker, while the workers are typically forced to stay in the agency building until another employer is located for them or until they are (often forcibly) returned home. This ‘exchange’ service poignantly illustrates the commodification and dehumanization of migrant domestic labor, which further estranges workers from their rights.
Upon arrival, the recruitment agency’s young secretary called Betty an "animal" and promised "to teach her a lesson." She then summoned in a 40-year-old Lebanese man, whose job description entails "disciplining domestic workers." He proceed to slap Betty and ordered her to strip. When she refused, he told her she has been accused of thievery and that he must search her. Following the search, he tells the secretary that "she is clean" only to start beating Betty with his belt. He then rapes Betty, the sound of her screams reaching the secretary who does nothing to intervene, and threatens her to keep quiet about the incident. Medical reports later evidenced the abuse to Betty's body, including to her genitalia.
Betty revealed her harrowing experience to her new sponsors, who immediately sought to seek redress. They pursued several lawyers, but only Mohamed Abu Shahin was willing to take the case. In a report for LBC News, the Abu Shahin states "we cannot be sure that the accused has not raped other victims before." The secretary and the accused rapist are currently in custody as the trial proceeds, while the agency owner – a female Lebanese lawyer herself – has refused to comment on the case.
Betty’s experiences represent an untold number of incidents, but her public discussion of the crime does more than bring attention to chronic and structural exploitation; her courageous decision furthermore reinforces her agency, a humanizing characteristic often obscured in media representations. By reclaiming control over her own narrative, she counters facile depictions of domestic workers as passive victims requiring rescue by the dominant society; instead, she and other workers become compatriots contesting social and legal disenfranchisement.
Betty’s case also reflects the spectrum of experiences migrant domestic workers face in Lebanon; physical and sexual abuse on one end, her employers’ eager commitment to ensuring her justice on the other, and her prior experiences likely falling somewhere in between. This variability is due to the under-regulation of the sponsorship system and recruitment agencies, as well as the obstacles to legal redress. Though Lebanese authorities have repeatedly pledged reforms to these heavily entwined spheres, lack of political will and under-enforcement have failed to correct the structural disempowerment of migrant domestic workers.
Lebanon’s civil society has worked diligently to push reform of the sponsorship system. One year ago, five Lebanese NGOs (Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, KAFA (Enough) Violence & Exploitation, Insan Association, Amel Association International, and the Anti-Racism Movement), in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs, launched the “Fi Shi Ghalat” (Something Is Wrong) campaign to abolish the sponsorship system. The groups highlighted essential rights comprised by the system, including:
the right to be paid on time
the right to quit job
the right to keep her passport and belongings
the right to a system that protects her well-being, humanity and labor right
the right to a set hours of rest, including a day off outside the house
The alliance continues to raise awareness through TV and radio campaigns, as well as its website. KAFA has proposed a thoroughly researched alternative to the sponsorship system, which includes measures to improve the entire trajectory of the migration process - from recruitment regulations to access to social protections sand legal recourse.
The legal outcome of Betty’s case is uncertain, and enforcement of any ruling is even less assured. But the circulation of her story reflects as well as contributes to the growing social awareness of migrant domestic worker issues in Lebanon.