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 Sunday 29 March 2009
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ASIA-MIDDLE EAST: Asian women increasingly under threat of HIV infection

Photo: Newsbreak
Asian women migrants work under difficult conditions
MANILA, 16 March 2009 (PlusNews) - Rina was only 17 years old when she left her village in the central Philippines to work as a domestic helper in Qatar, joining tens of thousands of other migrant workers hoping to escape extreme poverty and find greater prosperity in the Middle East.

She soon found that her Qatari employer was a "monster" who expected her to work more than 20 hours a day on only one meal. She was also sent to work for the employer's extended relatives, where she sometimes "went without eating for days" and was paid considerably less than what was in her contract.

Seven years later she transferred to Dubai, where she endured more suffering. "There were times I got sick, but I still had to work. My employers never gave me medicine and I was only allowed one day off for the entire year," she said.

"I know of other domestic helpers who engaged in part-time work as sex workers, while others sought relationships with Arab men who can give them money to send back home," Rina told IRIN/PlusNews.

"My employer in Dubai sometimes ordered me to give massages and he would touch my private parts. I could do nothing to stop him as I have to endure the hardship for the sake of my family back home," she said.

"That employer later on repeatedly raped me. I was helpless. When I mustered enough courage, I told his wife, who, surprisingly, believed me. With her help we told police, who were surprised that a wife of an Arab man would believe such a tale from a domestic helper."

The wife persisted and also helped Rina return home to the Philippines, ending her seven-month ordeal, but starting a chain of events that would change her life forever. The rape case never went anywhere; with no education and no job prospects at home, she decided to seek work as a domestic helper in Malaysia the following year.

"I went through medical tests and there I found out that I was infected with HIV. Now, I can no longer leave and work abroad. I was crushed. I didn't know what HIV was, and I thought I was going to die quickly. I couldn't accept it. I wanted to be alone. I was angry and kept asking, 'What did I do wrong to get this disease?'" said Rina, now 34 and working as a volunteer for a local non-government organization promoting HIV/AIDS awareness.

Her story is becoming common among Asian women migrants working in the Middle East, according to a groundbreaking study, HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women: From Asia to the Arab States, by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The study found that in the global financial crisis, Asian women migrants are under even greater pressure to tolerate working conditions that make them "highly vulnerable" to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Exploited and vulnerable to HIV infection

These women contribute significantly to local economies at home, but "they often migrate under unsafe conditions, are targets of sexual exploitation and violence, and are highly vulnerable to factors that lead to HIV infections," said the study, which was released this week in the Philippine capital, Manila.

More than 600 interviews were conducted with women migrant workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, who make up the bulk of domestic workers in Arab states. The host countries included in the study were Bahrain, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, where most of the women work.

The report noted that 70 percent to 80 percent of migrants from Sri Lanka and the Philippines to Arab states were women, while about 60 percent of migrants who left Bangladesh to find work in the Middle East between 1991 and 2007 were also women. Most work in the domestic help sector.

In many cases, these women are heavily indebted even before leaving because of the high fees imposed by recruitment agencies, while the level of information about HIV/AIDS is low.

Over 50 percent of Sri Lankan women in the study still believed HIV could be transmitted by mosquitoes, while 25 percent were not aware that condoms could help prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections; 88 percent of Pakistani women did not have access to information about HIV.

"The combination of excessive recruitment fees and poor wages often push migrant workers into debt traps, which in turn can lead to sexual exploitation," the UNDP country director in the Philippines, Renaud Meyer, told IRIN/PlusNews.

With many of these women now in danger of losing their jobs, pushing them to the brink of desperation, working and living conditions were expected to become "harsher and harsher", he said.

"As the demand for labour goes down, those in the weakest bargaining position, usually temporary migrant workers, and particularly the undocumented, are likely to accept almost any circumstances to hold on to their job," Meyer said.

"In the middle of this turmoil, desperation may lead to migration under unsafe conditions, sexual exploitation, and increased vulnerability to HIV infection."

''My employer in Dubai sometimes ordered me to give massages and he would touch my private parts ... That employer later on repeatedly raped me''
Rina said migrant workers were often desperate for "human connection", and she knew former fellow maids who would consort with Arab men for pocket money, which would form part of the savings sent home to their families. "Others are just lonely who crave for human contact and engage in unsafe sex," she said.

Ajjay Chibber, the UNDP regional director for Asia, said the migrants, who suffered discrimination from the time they arrived, would become more marginalized once they contracted HIV.

"If they are found to be HIV positive, they risk deportation. Once returned to their home countries, they are unable to find work and face discrimination and social isolation," he said.

In the absence of reintegration programmes, the deportation of HIV positive workers "can be devastating for the health, well-being and livelihoods of migrants and their families," the report said. The prospect of never again being able to work abroad "puts them at substantial risk of being trafficked."

The study called on Middle Eastern countries to ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 181, which seeks to monitor and regulate private recruitment agencies, while clearly indicating that no labour migration fees can be transferred to the worker.

These countries should also harmonize their laws covering recruitment agencies, while putting in place "urgent reforms" in their labour laws to recognize domestic help as a formal profession.

Simultaneously, Asian countries should step up HIV awareness and prevention programmes during pre-departure orientation programmes for prospective migrants.

Initiatives should also be undertaken to also promote "safe and informed migration", while embassy staff and those responsible for labour relations should be taught to be more sensitive to the plight of women, especially those who test positive for HIV.

"I have already come to believe that HIV is not a death sentence," says Rina, who is now a mother of two and married to an HIV-positive husband. "But how many more are now suffering what I had gone through in the Middle East? I know of some who are probably unaware that they are living with HIV, and we must reach them before it's too late."


Theme(s): (PLUSNEWS) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews)


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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