Sri Lankan house maid L.T. Ariyawathi, who returned from Saudi Arabia with 24 nails inside her body, talks to a nurse while receiving treatment at a hospital in Batticoloa. The maid, L.T. Ariyawathi, 49, alleged that her Saudi employer had tortured her and drove nails into her body as punishment.
On March 25, 2010, Ariyawathi had gone to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid for a large Saudi family. After five months in the country, the mother of three returned home deeply traumatized after what, she said, was months of beatings and physical abuse. She was unable to tell anyone what had happened to her there. Her family had no idea she had been tortured, until they took her to see a doctor when she complained of severe pain.
A Sri Lankan Foreign Employment Bureau official said of her torture: "The landlord and his wife hammered 24 nails into her when she complained of the heavy workload."
At first, her employers mocked the basic Arabic she had learnt during a 15-day training course before she left for the Gulf. Then, slowly, these events took a more sinister turn. “The torture started when she broke a plate by accident. (My employer) asked me whether I was blind and tried to prick something in my right eye,” the 49-year-old maid said. “When I covered it with my hand, they pricked a needle on my forehead above the eye.” She said her male employer stuck heated nails into her, heated by his wife; because, they were angry that she couldn't understand their language and that she told them she felt overworked, she said.
X-rays showed one to two-inch nails in her hands and legs, and even one over her eyes. The doctor, who treated the 49-year-old maid said, there appeared to be no damage to her internal organs. "She is in good condition, she's pain-free now and she's very happy," she said.
Before the surgery, Ariyawathi met with reporters from Lankan capital, Colombo, and displayed open wounds on her hands, feet and forehead, where the nails had been hammered into, according to one report by Al-Jazeera. "The told me they would slit my throat if I screamed, so I had to keep silent and bear it," she said, adding: "What else could I do?"
One of Ariyawathi's surgeons told the media today that inserting nails into someone is more than just torture; it can also lead to life-threatening complications. "The nervous system and internal organs can be damaged by having nails like this," Dr. Prabath Gajadeera said. "It can also lead to germs entering and spreading in the body, so we are trying to remove as many nails as possible."
Ariyawathi told doctors and Sri Lankan officials that she somehow persuaded her employers to let her leave after five months, but that she had to pay her own plane ticket home and she was not given all her salary. She did not tell anyone about gruesome torture she suffered in Saudi Arabia, for fear of reprisals. She flew back to Sri Lanka on Aug. 21. Next Sunday, her children took her to the hospital, where X-rays revealed the 24 nails stuck in her body.
A doctor shows a nail extracted from the body of a
Sri Lankan housemaid who underwent surgery to
remove 24 nails allegedly embedded in her body
by her Saudi Arabian employer.
Surgeons had to operate to remove some 16 nails, which were hammered into the legs, hands and forehead when she complained her employers were working her too hard.
Eight smaller, needle-like nails were left in place because their removal risked causing nerve damage.
Sri Lanka's external affairs ministry has said, it is taking up the matter with the Saudi government. Around 1.8 million Sri Lankans are employed abroad, of whom 70% are women. Most work as housemaids in the Middle East, while smaller numbers work in Singapore and Hong Kong.
The Saudi authorities have questioned the mother-of-three's account. The case has, however, brought into focus of how some foreign employers, particularly in Islamic countries of the Middle East, treat the thousands of poor women from South Asia and beyond, who work there, lured by the promise of better wages to help support their families back home.
Human Rights Watch have raised concerns about the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, where cruelty and ill-treatment of overseas workers — from withholding wages and travel documents to overwork and sexual abuses — are the worst.
A recent Channel 4 television documentary said many of the more than 15,000 domestic workers, who come to Saudi Arabia each year, endure a modern form of slavery, with a charity claiming one in five people they see reports abuse. Joynal Abedin Joy, a charity worker in Bangladesh, said rapes, beatings and brandings were “routine” in Lebanon and Egypt, although the government in Dhaka said it was unaware of any pattern of abuse. “Last week a girl came back from Lebanon,” Abedin told AFP. “She was bald. Her employer had shorn her hair because she refused to have sex with him."
In 2009 alone, dead bodies of 11 Bangladeshi girls came from Lebanon. “Most had torture marks on their bodies. I know of a girl, who called her home for help. Two days later, her Lebanese employers informed her family that the girl had died due to a heart attack,” said Abedin.
Nargis Begum, a 26-year-old Bangladeshi, said her employers in Beirut gave her electric shocks, beat her with chains and leather belts and burnt her with hot irons for five months, during which she was also raped.
“Ninety-five percent of the Bangladeshi girls I met there told me that they were raped at their work place. They don't tell their families out of fear. They endure it and accept their fate,” said the mother-of-two.
Maya Gurung, 35, left Nepal in 2004 for a job as a cleaner in Kuwait. She said she was forced to work up to 20 hours a day and was often made to survive on scraps of leftover food from her employers. Her attempts to leave were dashed, because the recruitment agency had taken away her passport. She became pregnant after a man she met at a local mosque offered to get the documents back in exchange for sex and had to quit her job. When she appealed to the police for help, she was jailed on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant. Gurung managed to return to Nepal last year but her family shunned her and she now lives in a shelter in Kathmandu.
The wages earned by domestic workers form a significant part of the billions of dollars in remittances sent home to developing countries every year. Unions, activists and human rights campaigners say migrant workers need greater protection, as individual Arab governments are failing to include them in labour laws or where they are, their rights are still limited.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is working towards new guidelines for such employees, including written contracts and complaint mechanisms, as well as guarantees on minimum wages and working hours. In the meantime, lawmakers, like Sri Lanka's Ranjan Ramanayake, have called for government action, describing the plight of the country's female migrant workers as a “social issue” and suggesting Saudi Arabia should be blacklisted.
“I'm ashamed to say this, but the truth is we have become international pimps... by sending or rather selling our mothers, sisters and daughters to be enslaved or abused,” he said.
Campaigners in Bangladesh, Nepal and India also want their governments to do more. “Migrant workers have simply not been on the political agenda in Nepal,” said Sharu Joshi Shrestha, from the UN Development Fund for Women. Returning workers share experiences while women are warned about some unscrupulous agents who charge exorbitant sums to arrange placements, travel and visas, plunging already poor families into crippling debts.
"The Sri Lankan maid is not an isolated case," said Sister Sally Michael, the movement's regional coordinator in the southern state of Kerala. "There are so many cases like it. It's a serious issue."