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By Gagani Weerakoon
Sri Lanka has been sending migrant workers to Middle East countries for more than two decades, and the issue of the majority of them, especially females being subjected to various forms of harassment, from not being paid to being gang-raped or being killed, has also prevailed ever since.
Though, there had been instances where they returned home with burn injuries or with permanent disabilities, it is for the first time that Sri Lanka experienced the bizarre story of a 50-year old housemaid returning to the country with 24 nails rooted into her body – a handy work by her employer in Saudi Arabia.
L P Ariyawathie was born in 1960 and was 50 years old when a sub-agent in down south Walasmulla helped her secure employment in Saudi Arabia as a housemaid through a registered foreign recruitment agency in Colombo.

Though the generally accepted regulation is not to send female migrant workers above 45 years of age, the agency informed her that she could, however, make it as she had an appearance of a 40-year-old, Ariyawathie’s husband, L. David told The Nation.
David is a regular visitor to the Kamburupitiya Base Hospital where his wife is receiving treatment since last Sunday (22).
When The Nation went to Kamburupitiya hospital, Ariyawathie, the victim of this most cruel act perpetrated on housemaids in the Middle East, was yet to undergo a surgery planned for three hours by surgeon, Dr Kamal Weeratunga.

“For years, we were living in a small clay house – rather a hut, and I wanted to earn some money to build a house where we all can live safely without the fear of the walls collapsing even in a small thunder shower. The odd jobs I and my husband did could not even support three meals a day. Then only, I met this other woman who had come from Middle East and doing well now in a neighbouring village. She told me that she will help me to find a job in a house in Middle East and introduced me to a sub agent in Walasmulla,” recalled Ariyawathie from her hospital bed.

She said she followed all the requirements and was not asked to forge any document.
A mother of three and a grandmother of two, Ariyawathi was recruited as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia in March this year and sent to work in a four storied house of nine occupants.

“There were seven children of various age groups apart from baba and his wife. The first week went without any problem. But from the second week the problem started. Whenever I say a word in Arabic- which I learnt in my 15-day training conducted by the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau, they started laughing. Every time they asked me to do a completely different thing from what I knew. They said the Arabic I speak was wrong,” Ariyawathie said.
She said she was not paid in the first three months and whenever she asked about the salary the employer threatened to cut her throat.

“After three months, I was taken to a medical institute- I don’t know for what- but they said I have to get a medical certificate after being there for three months and it is only after that I will be paid. Even though I was told that day that I’ll be paid that didn’t happen for the entire six months I stayed there,” she added.
Speaking about the harassment, she said “It started when a plate was broken by accident. baba (employer) asked me whether I am blind and tried to prick something in my right eye. When I covered it with my hand, they pricked a needle kind of thing on my forehead above the eye. Likewise, baba rooted nails, pins and needles into various parts of the body while his wife gagged me,” reminisced Ariyawathie.
She said she was simply scared to try and escape. She feared if she did so or protested against their harassments, they would kill her.

“When the wounds got worse, I tried to act in a disgusting way thinking they might despise me and send me home. I kept on begging baba to send me home but they didn’t take any notice. However, on August 19, they asked me to get dressed and gave my passport and baggage. Then they took me to a place to get tickets. I don’t know whether it was the embassy or the agency,” she said while noting there was a Muslim, who spoke in Sinhala.
“He asked me why I was limping but baba gestured me not to tell anything. So I said I fell and have a leg pain. He negotiated and asked baba to pay me three months salary but they gave me only two months’ salary,” Ariyawathi said.

Ariyawathie said she returned to Sri Lanka on Saturday (21) and got herself admitted to the hospital as she was suffering from pain.
Ariyawathie’s son and two daughters said, “We didn’t want our mother to go. But she was very adamant about it as it was the only option she found as a way out from the poor situation we are in”.
Ariyawathie’s dream to build a proper house where her family could live safely and happily, which is what any mother dreams of, is quite understandable. Her children say that as if an ill-omen, a few days before Ariyawathie returned home, a wall of their house had collapsed due to heavy rains.

The unsaid story
Though, physical harassments are common in the Middle Eastern countries, the horrifying treatment to which Arayawathie had been subjected to by her employer, baba, in driving various types of metal objects into her body, has raised serious concern in the minds of various parties in society. Many marvel that she survived this ordeal for days and weeks that she returned home.
According to the chief medical officer of the Kamburupitiya Base Hospital, Dr Prabath Gajadeera, Ariyawathie had not revealed the reason for her hospitalisation at the beginning.

“She was a bit confused at the beginning. She had told the doctors and the medical staff that she got a leg pain as she stepped on a nail the other day. It was only after getting an x-ray of her feet, we came across more than one nail inside. It was only after that she confessed that she was subjected to harassment and that there were several other nails inside her body,” Dr Gajadeera said.
Dr Gajadeera said the victim not suffering from any infection as a result was possibly because the nails being heated before being rooted.

“She said they heated the nails before rooting them inside. However, it could be coincidence that none of the nails or needles damaged her blood vessels or nerves. Also, she was lucky that the needle they rooted on her forehead didn’t damage or enter her skull in which case it would have been fatal,” the surgeon said while stressing that all the nails were rooted in a pattern that did not cause severe damage.
It is unlikely that any of us cover only one eye if someone was attempted to drive something to our eye, let alone attempting to root a needle. On impulse, we humans cover or hide our entire face-unlike what Ariyawathie did. As she said, maybe she could have done it through fear of being killed.

But various sections as well as authorities are of the opinion that Ariyawathie could have been used by her employer, who could be a member of an extremist Islamic group, as an experiment. However, this will remain a suspicion until and unless Ariyawathie comes out with any untold stories-if there are any.
These concerned groups also ask as to why Ariyawathie did not complain any form of harassments when she was taken to the Sahana Piyasa at Katunayake by Bureau officials. The excuse she gave for then also was tha ‘I thought ‘they’ will kill me if I complained to the authorities.’
Ariyawathie and her family believe that she was subjected to these harassments due to lapses in the training programme which has been made compulsory by the Bureau for all migrant workers who are been recruited as housemaids.

Ready to take-up the issue internationally - Ranawake

Commenting on the issue, SLBFE chairman Kingsley Ranawake told The Nation neither the Bureau nor the government was taking this incident lightly and will do the maximum to press charges against this inhuman act of the Saudi employer.
“In fact, we have already sought the Attorney-General’s opinion on possibilities of pressing charges against the employer. This is clearly a crime and we cannot be silent. If you commit a murder we know that maximum punishment would be death sentence. That would be done to send a message to the society to say if you commit this crime you’ll get this as the repercussion. But in this case, which is a new trend, even we also want to send a message that if you do such things you will get such punishment. In order to do that, we must bring the culprit to books,” he reasoned.
Ranawake also said that since there are beliefs that Ariyawathie had been subjected to an inhuman experiment by an extremist group or an individual, she would be sent for physiological counselling once she’s out of her pains of the surgery.
“In addition, we have already prepared files with all necessary documents translated in Arabic and also video clippings of Ariyawathie and medical officers dubbed in Arabic. One of these files will be handed over to our Foreign Ministry to take up the issue with the Saudi Foreign Ministry. One will be handed over to the Saudi Embassy here and the other taken to Saudi Arabia to be handed over to the Sri Lankan mission there to take up the issue,” he added.
Ranawake also said that since this is also a violation of human rights the bureau will also negotiate with international NGOs lobbying for human rights to create international pressure on the Saudi Arabian Government to take legal action against Ariyawathie’s employer.

Why not blacklist Saudi Arabia - Ranjan

Actor-turned politician, Ranjan Ramanayake is reputed for voicing concerns about the plight of migrant workers , especially those stranded in the Middle East countries. He is of the opinion that the reported and unreported number of cases over the past decade or two is ‘more than enough’ for the government to seriously think about blacklisting Saudi Arabia.

“According to my personal opinion and research for about 10 years of the countries we send workers to, Saudi Arabia is the worst. It is followed by Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Abu Dhabi. Our mothers, sisters and daughters undergo unspeakable harassment. I personally know these as there are many occasions where they cry over phones asking me to do something to get them back. They are subjected to inhuman abuse from being gang-raped to removing body parts by force and torture,” he said.
He said that the SLBFE, Foreign Ministry and the Labour Ministry, the present government and all past governments are well aware of this fact.

“My problem is, knowing all these, why do they keep on sending women to these countries-particularly Saudi without taking adequate safety measures. Of courses, the law of Saudi is funny so that not the SLBFE, even the president of this country will not be able to do anything. Let alone taking action against this stupid and inhuman employer, I challenge this government or even the Executive President of this country will not even be able to contact the Saudi King just to convey his dismay over the issue,” Ramanayake aired.
He also said that according to the law and attitude of Saudi Arabia, our mission in Saudi will not even be able to knock the door of the employer who rooted nails into Ariyawathie’s body.
“Our embassy, on one hand, is not bothered about taking up issues and on the other hand, does not have a backbone to take up issues with Saudi people. If this is the case, what is the point of having an embassy in Saudi Arabia?, ” he questioned.

He said he has no issue about Sri Lanka sending workers to European countries and Cyprus or even Dubai as these countries respected human rights.
“Saudi Arabia will never ill-treat people of an European country, America or even Asian developed country. They always ill-treat people from developing countries like ours. But India set an example for us by taking a decision to stop sending female workers to Saudi. Why cannot we do the same?” Ramanayake queried.
He also said that foreign countries “have taken Sri Lanka for granted and have left no space for lobbying or protesting when needed because of short-sighted and not so strong policies”
He added: “For instance, if the authorities here try to press charges against the employer, all Saudi Arabia got to do is issue a simple threat of banning Sri Lankan recruitments. The moment they issue such statement, our authorities will back-off,” he charged.
According to Ramanayake, it is a vicious circle where mothers, daughters and sisters of the country are subjected to harassments.

“For instance, a husband is willing to sell his wife to the sub-agent to influence the agent to take her to an agency. I’m not exaggerating, but these are facts gathered from being personally involved in conducting so much of research into this burning problem. Then, that particular woman will keep on being abused by the recruitment agency here, recruitment agency in that country, from her old employer, then from his friends, again by the grown up sons and their friends. The dilemma won’t end there. Supposed she somehow managed to escape to the embassy in these countries, she will be forced to sleep with the welfare officer there and even other officials and sometimes be sold out to customers and at the end without sending her back, they will force her into employment in another house. While she suffers there what will happen to her family here? It’s so dastardly. Her daughter here might get sexually abused by her own drunken father, brother or by a relative. That is why I say this has now become a social issue. Moreover, I’m ashamed to say this, but the truth is that we have become international pimps. Not only the government but without any age difference we all men who have become pimps by sending or rather selling our mothers, sisters and daughters to be enslaved and abused,” he said.