An interview with Sarah Chreif of KAFA
AMMAN – “We started KAFA in 2005 to support women and prevent violence against them. In 2010, we established a unit on trafficking and exploitation of women, in order to better serve these vulnerable groups.
KAFA works on several levels. First, we do education and awareness-raising. Second, we have a listening and counseling center where we provide psychosocial services for women. We serve women from a variety of backgrounds at the center, from migrant workers to Lebanese women who are subjected to physical or sexual abuse. We also advocate for policy change. We work on policies – like Lebanon’s current sponsorship regulations, for example – to make sure they are just and fair for migrant workers.
Challenges for women
The discrimination Lebanese women suffer is not much different from the problems women suffer all over the world. All through life, Arab women suffer from discrimination. We experience economic discrimination and gender-based discrimination that begins during childhood.
Women who come to Lebanon as migrant workers are especially vulnerable. They often come from remote villages, and suffer discrimination because of the nature of their work, the color of their skin, and because they are from poor countries.
This discrimination takes place on different levels. For example, two people – a man and a woman – apply for similar jobs and they both get them. The man gets paid more. The man finds it easier to get promoted to a higher position in his job. It takes a longer time for the woman to get promoted. In Lebanon, you hardly see women represented in trade unions. You hardly see women assuming leadership positions. Out of 128 members of our Parliament, only three are women.
Specific challenges for migrant workers
Women who come to Lebanon as migrant workers are especially vulnerable. They often come from remote villages, and suffer discrimination because of the nature of their work, the color of their skin, and because they are from poor countries. Most migrant workers in Lebanon come from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Madagascar, the Philippines, Kenya and Nepal.
Many of the migrant domestic workers we work with come to Lebanon totally clueless about their rights. They don’t receive any kind of training before they arrive. When they reach Lebanon, the contract they receive is of course in Arabic, which makes it impossible for them to understand the rights given to them within. They don’t know that they should not be working more than ten hours per day, for example, or that they are entitled to six days of annual holiday. Often they don’t know any of the terms of the contract.
One of the most serious problems for migrant domestic workers is that they can’t really communicate with anyone, so it is almost impossible for them to find ways of accessing even the simplest of their rights. Sometimes they don’t eat enough because their employer does not provide enough food. They are often denied their resting day. They aren’t allowed to leave the house to simply be on their own for a while.
We at KAFA were the first to call for a change in Lebanon’s sponsorship regulations. What happens is that employers have to pay dearly for the sponsorship and so they feel like the domestic workers are their property. They lock the woman up, take her passport, and hold any identification documents that she has on her, because they want to keep and maintain her. They are always afraid of losing their property. These regulations are the cause of so many of the problems we deal with, especially trafficking and abuse of domestic workers.
Legislative efforts to protect women in Lebanon
Even though our efforts expanded in 2010 to include migrant workers, we still focus much of our attention on women from Lebanon. Every year we receive around 500 cases from Lebanese women who have been subjected to different kinds of abuse and violence. KAFA organization was the first to suggest that Parliament adopt legislation to protect women. We proposed a draft law against domestic violence and it passed.
Employers have to pay dearly for the sponsorship and so they feel like the domestic workers are their property. They lock the woman up, take her passport, and hold any identification documents that she has on her, because they want to keep and maintain her. They are afraid of losing their property.
In reality, there are main three things that hinder women’s ability to access justice. The first is lack of knowledge about legal rights. Second, women often don’t realize that what they are experiencing is exploitation and injustice. They are conditioned to the example of their mothers and grandmothers and are used to the idea that a woman should be beaten by her husband, that women don’t actually have any rights. The third factor is that women are intimidated by society. It is socially unacceptable for a woman to go and file a complaint against her husband and so many women simply do not.
If a woman can’t overcome these three impediments, then she can come to us. We cannot reach out to these women otherwise. We cannot go into a woman’s home, unless, of course, she calls us on the hotline. We have a hotline that is operational 24-7 and allows us to receive complaints. When a woman calls in, we follow up through our lawyers. When a domestic worker calls us, we take basic information like her name and her sponsor’s name and address. Then we follow up with the lawyer, who takes over from there, sometimes pursuing the case through court. If the woman’s life is at risk, whether she is a migrant or a Lebanese woman, we place her in a shelter. We don’t have our own, but we are connected to othes.
Sometimes it’s not necessary for the domestic worker herself to file the complaint. Sometimes a neighbor will hear a woman being beaten and call in to tell us that this domestic worker is being subjected to violence, or that she might be being exploited.
We had one case where a woman, a migrant worker, called us complaining that her employer had not paid her for eight months. We called him and asked him if he was going to pay her. Unfortunately, because of the lengthy, problematic litigation system that we have, our success stories are quite few. The court process takes too long, which makes it likely that a domestic worker will have trouble back home before she gets her money. Sometimes these cases end in repatriation. Sometimes, when the employer refuses to cooperate, then we provide the women with the money for the ticket.
There was an incident a couple of months ago – a woman, a migrant worker, called us and told us she had been run over by a car. The man hit her and then ran away. She was severely injured. Her back was damaged, she had to have braces installed in her legs to support the bones, and so on. She was in bed and could not move.
She called us to ask for help. You see, her insurance would only cover up to a 23,000-dollar threshold, but her injuries were so severe that her treatment was going to cost 50,000 dollars. KAFA does not provide grants, we don’t give money – all of our work is advocacy and legal empowerment. So when she called us, we put our heads together and decided to try and use the media. The LBC, which is the strongest channel in Lebanon, mentioned her case at the beginning of their news broadcast. Then the next day the Ministry of Health called and said that they were going to treat her at one of the hospitals.
The problem is that it’s not only about having a law passed and ratified: the real challenge is to ensure that the law is actually enforced. The laws that exist now do provide for some rights. But I repeat, they are not enough. Currently there are no adequate enforcement mechanisms and no consequences for failures of enforcement.
Our organization is known for the work we do in law. It was KAFA who submitted to Parliament the draft law to protect women against domestic violence. We are currently calling for the repeal of the legislation on sponsorship. But our legal work is not only about laws. We also work to build legal awareness. We develop and prepare brochures and things to help educate women –migrants and Lebanese women alike – about their rights.
When you undertake this legal approach you need to bear in mind that it’s not something that will change quickly. You need to be persistent and you need to persevere. If you compare Lebanon now to what it was ten years ago, you will see that much has changed. Take, for example, uniform contracts for domestic workers. Even though today we think of the contracts as not being enough, it wasn’t long ago that even that basic protection wasn’t in place.
Nowadays, if a domestic worker is exposed to exploitation or abuse, people talk about it, they recognize that it is wrong. The media talks about it. On Labor Day, we organized a parade where thousands of workers demonstrated on the streets, calling for their rights, calling for repeal of bad sponsorship legislation. This is not something you would have seen before. So we can see some change. In general, people are now talking about how such abuses are wrong and how important it is to give migrant and domestic workers their rights.
The problem is that it’s not only about having a law passed and ratified. The real challenge is to put mechanisms in place to ensure that the law is actually enforced. The laws that exist now do provide for some rights. But I repeat, they are not enough. Currently there are no adequate enforcement mechanisms and no consequences for failures of enforcement.
The question is, even if we manage get laws that are fair and just, then how do we make sure that we actually get them implemented? How do we ensure that they are being enforced?”