A prayer for Rizana

Two major events stole the show in Sri Lanka last week – the tamasha thrown to celebrate the military victory at Thoppigala and the signing of (another) MoU between the UNP and the SLFP Mahajana Wing. In the noise of the race to obtain the maximum political mileage with the two events which were staged on the same day, we wonder if the government or the opposition spared even a moment’s thought for a young Sri Lankan girl who is fighting the fight of her life in a strange land and her impoverished family that travelled there to try and help save her.

After much feet-dragging and hemming and hawing over this young girl’s fate, the Foreign Ministry finally decided to act and Deputy Minister Hussein Bhaila on Friday took wing to Saudi along with a sizeable delegation to lobby the authorities there for a more lenient sentence for Rizana. The girl stands convicted of murdering the four month old infant of her employer, but claims the baby was strangled because her employer was abusing her while she held the baby. The total cost of her appeal is a whopping Rs. 4.5 billion (US $ 40,000) – not a cent of which has been put up by the government thus far. In fact, it might be said that of all the stakeholders in the mix, lobbying for Rizana’s death sentence to be reversed, the Sri Lankan government would be by far the most lethargic advocate for its citizen.

Forget the fact that the government had to have spent a cool couple of million for Thursday’s little skit in Colombo which has been roundly criticized as a pointless exercise that paid little or no real tribute to the true heroes of the battle. Let us even gloss over the fact that Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister spends well over a million bucks every time he trots the globe with a bevy of supporters in toe and insists on staying in the most luxurious hotels. Let us forget the glaring hypocrisy in all that, especially when the government says it does not have the funds to pay for a 17-year old scared and helpless child trapped in a legal system that rarely shows mercy.
Let us instead, focus on numbers, brass tacks and the bottom line, for unlike unscrupulous political leaders, they cannot lie.

Politicians in the country are adept at paying lip service to one of our greatest economic resources – the migrant workers, the majority of whom are women. Sri Lanka exports a workforce of almost 2 million people abroad, and private remittances of these workers amount to approximately 20% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings annually. Last year alone, the migrant workforce contributed Rs. 443.3 billion in foreign currency to the Sri Lankan economy making the state vastly dependent on their earnings to improve national savings and have a positive effect on balance of payments. Exporting a workforce has also helped ease the employment burden on the state, with Sri Lankans being able to earn higher wages abroad and contribute towards the upward mobility of their families.

Rizana Nasik was one of these women. We might even say, she was one of the more resolute ones. Determined to lift her family out of their impoverished living conditions in the recently besieged town of Muttur, Rizana forged her birth certificate, making out that she was over 18 in order to be allowed to travel abroad for work.

The Sri Lankan government, apart from enjoying the spoils of their hard earned cash, does little else to ensure their safety and assist them to integrate better into an alien society. The details of Rizana’s crime and her confessions are hazy to say the least and the girl has changed her story after her initial police confession.

But all that is beside the point. How can we, rest on our laurels and proclaim loudly about the great service rendered by the migrant worker population if we can do next to nothing to ensure they find secure and stable employment in good conditions and free from abuse? How can we abide the several body bags that return from the Middle East every month, bearing some hapless woman who has failed in her life and death struggle for survival in a strange and often brutal land? How do we defend the fact that more than 1.5 million citizens of this land, who collectively contribute to 20% of our national foreign exchange earnings are not allowed to vote at our national elections?

We live in a digital age, postal voting is hardly rocket science and yet, if they are out of the country, these 1.5 million workers do not have a say when it comes to electing our national representatives. And when one of them is in the gravest trouble, their government stands by and watches while much maligned NGOs put up the funds to lodge her appeal. “We can’t be spending millions on everyone who goes and gets into trouble there” has been the attitude of several government officials and ministers. Something is certainly rotten here in paradise.

For these reasons and many others, Rizana deserves a place in our national consciousness. Securing clemency for Rizana ought to be one of this government’s top priorities. We hope the Foreign Ministry’s efforts, combined with the intense lobbying of human rights agencies and NGOs will serve to soften the judgment of the Saudi courts. We need to believe that this is still a world that will refrain from snuffing out the life of a child while there is still a more merciful path that could be tread to serve the cause of justice.