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A Ugandan 'runaway' maid who died in a Dubai prison

On September 7, 2015

KAMPALA: In the remote Ugandan village of Mawogolla, Masaka, a ten year-old girl, collapses in grief as the coffin of her mother Flora Ritah Zawedde Nanteza, 33, is lowered into a grave. Nanteza, who moved to Dubai in 2013 in search of a better life, died in prison.

However, Nanteza was not a criminal. She had worked as a maid for a year but when she found life at her sponsor’s Dubai home had become unsustainably difficult, she decided to go out on her own and look for a job elsewhere. The sponsor lodged a complaint and she was registered as a runway, thus becoming wanted by authorities. She was found and arrested on July 17, 2015, and two weeks later she suffered a heart attack arising from high blood pressure. She was hospitalized and put on life support. Three days later, on August 2, she was dead


A portrait of Nanteza’s picture on her coffin in Masaka, a few minutes before it was laid to rest. Photo by Yasin Kakande


After her death, Ugandan workers in Dubai began the all-too-familiar fundraising ritual in order to cover the expenses of repatriating the body to Uganda. Nanteza’s remains were returned home two weeks later.

It is convenient to treat Nanteza’s death as a routine incident due to underlying health problems, but critical questions remain: Why should hard-working migrant workers looking to make a better life for themselves and their families face the constant threat of imprisonment and deportation?

In Dubai and throughout the United Arab Emirates, the restrictive sponsorship system – Kafala – gives employers disproportionate power that allows them to keep their workers in bondage and indentured servitude. For workers like Nanteza, they must seek their employer’s permission to quit or change jobs and in countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, a worker needs an employer’s permission to leave the country (exit permits). While the UAE does not have an exit permit policy, workers still find it difficult to leave the country, especially when they are involved in disputes about their working conditions, as most employers immediately confiscate their workers’ passports when they are hired. Domestic workers including housemaids have also reported that their employers restrict their access to mobile phones and the Internet, often the only means many low-income migrant workers have to stay in contact with families in their homelands.

Foreign employees have no guarantees in laws that purport to protect them from abusive supervisors. Gulf governments say they cannot logistically monitor working conditions, especially for domestic workers in private home settings. The governments pay little to no attention to issues of domestic workers coming from struggling or developing countries. In order for any legislative reform of the Kafala to take hold would require a wholesale change in employer’s attitudes and behaviors.

Nanteza’s fate is not the exception. There are many cases, mostly of domestic workers, who have returned to their countries if not deceased then mutilated and heavily bruised.

Last year, the body of another maid was returned to Uganda; an autopsy disputed an earlier medical report released by Dubai authorities that suggested the maid succumbed to a heart attack. Instead the report released in Mulago hospital, Uganda found torture marks on the deceased and ruled out the possibility of a heart attack. I was among the journalists hosted on a radio panel organized by the country’s Central Broadcasting Services (CBS Radio) to discuss the contradictory reports, along with a member of the Ugandan parliament and a recruiting agent.

Listeners who called into the show were dismayed at the voices that persisted in promising the heavens to desperate, unemployed Ugandans to go and work in Dubai while ignoring the critical need for rules, laws and relief in dealing with cases where racial discrimination, physical abuse and even death were recurrent nightmares in the Dubai homes where immigrants worked. The recruiting agent accused me of trying to pull down the ladder of mobility that had granted me prosperity, as I cautioned Ugandans about seeking jobs in Dubai. I responded, explaining the trafficking in Dubai was no different than slavery, and the work of recruiting agents was no different than the middlemen of slavery in past history.

Ritah Nanteza

Nanteza’s picture as she looked during her life, provided by the family


The human impact is frequently felt in Uganda. When I attended Nanteza’s burial, I queried her father (David Kigozi) if the family was able to arrange an independent autopsy to determine the true cause of Nanteza’s death. His response was, “No, but we were overwhelmed by the generosity of the people who helped us return the remains of my daughter and for that we are very grateful.”

Not only Ugandan maids are dying under the Kafala system’s hostile working conditions. In Abu Dhabi, an Emirati sponsor confessed to police that she beat her maid to death with a wooden cane because she was lazy. The maid’s body was found in a bathtub and forensic investigators found fractures to her head along with broken teeth and bruises on her arms and legs. In another case, an Arab family murdered an Ethiopian maid and burned her body before throwing it in the Ajban desert of Abu Dhabi. Another instance of shocking abuse that I reported on during my tenure as a reporter in the UAE involved a 23-year-old Ethiopian who was burned with cooking oil by her Arab employer in Dubai.

The lists of these abuses seem endless not only in the UAE but in the surrounding Gulf countries, making them the most dangerous places to work as a housemaid. In Saudi Arabia, Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, 23, was taken to a Saudi hospital with broken bones and burns over her body, and her employer was arrested after allegedly putting a hot iron to her head, and stabbing her with scissors. The woman was sentenced to three years in jail but was acquitted soon after. Another Sri Lankan housemaid, L. P. Ariyawathie, 49, was found with nails embedded in her body. X-rays showed there were 24 nails and a needle in her remains. Some have been beheaded, including Ruyati bin Sapubi, 54, from Indonesia, and Rizana Nafeek from Sri Lanka. Trials are rushed and hushed affairs and often the murderers are acquitted, many relying on the impenetrable cover of Kafala privileges and claims of self-defense.

The news of Nanteza’s death in prison has awakened a strong debate in Uganda about the fate of migrants who go to the Gulf in hopes of improving their economic lot. The media typically have been averse to covering stories of Ugandans returning from the Arab countries humiliated, bruised and traumatised but that is gradually changing.

Authorities also have become more vocal in cautioning workers who are thinking about working abroad, especially in countries with Kafala sponsorship. Ronald Muwenda Mutebi, the king of Buganda – the largest tribe in Uganda – responded to Nanteza’s death by ordering his cabinet to develop programs which will train and prepare citizens to work in Uganda and discourage them from migrating to potentially abusive and risky working conditions in countries that continue to condone policies and practices that are no different than slavery.