Safe World for Women Logo


Will Rizana Fathima Nafeek return to this poverty-ridden coastal village in Sri Lanka alive and in one piece? Or will the beheading sentence passed on her by a Saudi Arabian court in 2007 be finally carried out?

Either way Rizana is a heroine. She is one of many young women who risk abuse and torture to work as domestic help in the Middle East and send in the remittances that support their families, and also keep the Sri Lankan economy going.

Senior minister Sarath Amunugama believes that if Sri Lanka doubles the number of people working overseas to around three million, it could quickly decrease national poverty levels in this island nation with an economy recovering from decades of ethnic conflict.

"One of the shortest ways to grow and to get out of poverty is to encourage migration from 1.6 million now to three million," said Amunugama at the launch of the U.N. Population Fund's annual report on Oct. 31.

Economists estimate that domestic workers contribute at least 30 percent of the over four billion dollars repatriated annually to this country and provide a vital lifeline to the economy.

There is, however, a price to be paid. Many of the women are known to suffer severe abuse at the hands of their employers – two of them returned to the island from the Middle East last year with nails hammered into their bodies.

According to Sri Lanka’s foreign employment bureau, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait account for 75 percent of the 12,000-odd complaints of abuse that it receives annually.

A good many of those complaints come from domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, young women from impoverished villages like Shafinagar, a coastal hamlet 330 km from the capital of Colombo.

It was grinding poverty that compelled Mohamed Nafeek and his wife Ranzeena to send their schoolgirl daughter, Rizana, to work as a domestic maid in Saudi Arabia in mid-2005.

But, a little more than a fortnight after landing in the kingdom, Rizana was in jail, facing charges of infanticide - the boy she was bottle-feeding had accidently choked to death.

Rizana had no training in looking after infants when she arrived at the al-Qtaibi household in Dawadamissa, about 300 km from Riyadh. To her family's horror she was convicted and sentenced to death in 2007.

If the sentence has not yet been carried out it is due to national and international campaigns on her behalf. As news of the conviction filtered in the villagers got together to sign a petition that was sent to the Saudi authorities. It set off a campaign joined, among others, by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In Shafinagar, Rizana is a heroine. "She is a truly courageous woman. How she has held up all these years, how she cares for her sisters and her family," Mohammed Naqueeb, the principal at the Imam Sherfi School, where Rizana once studied, told IPS.

The village school did not have classes beyond the ninth grade and when she passed that Rizana decided not pursue her education further. "She wanted to help her family," Naqueeb said.

By then Sri Lanka’s civil war had intensified and her father found it difficult to go into the woods to collect firewood to sell in the village. When a recruiting agent said Rizana, then 17 according to her birth certificate, could get a job in the Middle East, he did not hesitate. Naqueeb told IPS that Rizana is someone who is admired as a poor girl who tried to get her family out of poverty.

"Most of the villagers are poor and uneducated and don't see the dangers. Rizana's case has not deterred women in this area from seeking work without training or proper documents," Naqueeb said.

Lawyers say that Rizana was a victim of unscrupulous recruitment agencies that send Sri Lankan women as domestic workers to Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia - which hosts some 500,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers.

"We are doing everything we can to make sure that those seeking employment as maids are properly trained and travel through registered agencies," Kingsley Ranawaka, director-general of Sri Lanka’s foreign employment bureau said. "But there are people who still abuse the system."

Only last month, a young girl was detained at the airport trying to fly to the Middle East on forged documents, suggesting that the illegal recruitment system was still functional.

In October, when news reached Sri Lanka that Rizana’s sentence had been confirmed and would be carried out any day, there was renewed focus on the issue of migrant workers getting a fair deal in a foreign justice system.

President Rajapaksa has written to Saudi Arabia's King Abdul Aziz seeking a pardon for Rizana as also have leading rights organisations like Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

There has been criticism that no legal aid was extended to Rizana during her trial and that the Sri Lankan embassy in Riyadh contacted a lawyer only after she was convicted.

When the embassy stuck to rules that disallow hiring of legal services in criminal cases, the AHRC moved in with the funds. It has so far spent 30,000 dollars in legal fees to appeal against Rizana's death sentence.

"Saudi Arabia has an infamous record of having one of the highest executions rates in the world, with at least 69 executions carried out in 2009, 102 in 2008 and 158 in 2007, an average of almost two persons a week," the AHRC said in a statement.