Justice for househelps in Saudi torture grinds to a standstill

Ms Fatuma Athuman, 25, after she arrived in the country earlier this year from Saudi Arabia with both hands broken by her former employer.

What you need to know:

  • Matatu driver whose daughter was murdered told by ministry official to hire a lawyer and seek legal representation in oil-rich country

For some minutes she just sat there… contemplating. Save for the blinking of her eyes, Nina Mishi was stock-still. Whatever subtle movements she made were no more than reflex reactions, born of years of habit and drawn from the deep recesses of her subconscious.

She would tag at her hijab time and again. These fitful attempts at arranging and re-arranging her headdress were in keeping with the tenets of her Islamic faith requiring a woman to be modest where her honour is concerned.

“I am feeling hungry,” came the soft but firm protest from her four-year old son, Mohammad.

He was getting impatient at his mother’s apparent lack of concern for him. Try as he would, though, his remonstrance went unheeded.

Perhaps it was the hurtling traffic on the busy Msanifu Kombo Road a couple of yards away in the Kizingo area of Mombasa that made her speak.

“I was to be paid 800 riyal…a month…” she kept on repeating. The money is the equivalent of Sh16,000.

By now, tears were rolling down her cheeks, displacing the black mascara she was wearing, tainting her caramel complexion in the process. She didn’t want her photograph taken.

Tom Mboya Street

The first-born in a family of nine siblings, the 27-year old Nina had gone to Saudi Arabia in 2008 to work as a househelp. A recruiting agency with offices on Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi facilitated her move to the oil-rich country.

But barely two weeks into employment her dreams came tumbling down. The sheer amount of work was, in her own words, back-breaking. “You could clean the chicken until you got dizzy,” she recalls.

The two-storey house, comprising five bedrooms and two living rooms, was simply too much for Nina to handle.

She had to clean the rooms and the king-size furniture daily, not to mention numerous other chores and errands for the extended family of 12.

Clearly, this was not in the job description. “My employer would not allow me to hold lengthy prayers,” she says. Long suras (verses) wasted too much time. Tongue-lashing, peppered with insults was punctuated by body blows.

Her sustained objections however, landed her in Tahir Centre in Riyadh, a three-hour flight from Jeddah.

Before her family sent an air ticket back to Mombasa, Nina spent 15 days at the centre, with girls from such countries as Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia.

But Nina was the lucky one. She even got paid part of her salary — Sh9,400 for the few days she had worked there.

Fatuma Athman was not so lucky. Her tragic story early in the year shocked many.

A resident of Kisauni in Mombasa, she was pushed by her employer from the third floor building over pay. She broke both hands.

There is also the story of Josephine Njeri Kuria. She left Kenya for Saudi Arabia in 2008 but was reportedly murdered by her employer in February this year. She was 27 years old.

Njeri was a single mother of three daughters aged between nine and three years, now in the custody of her parents, Simon Kuria and Margaret Waithera.

The parents also take care of five of their children in Ndenderu village of Ruaka Location, Kihara Division in Kiambu.

Prof Egara Kabaji, at the time the communication officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said investigations had been instituted by the Kenyan embassy in Saudi Arabia.

However, nothing has been heard since. If anything, the victims and their families are yearning for answers.

After visiting the ministry several times, an official known only by the name Wamunyu, advised Mr Kuria to seek justice in Saudi Arabia.

“He advised me to hire a lawyer. A matatu driver cannot afford an air ticket, leave alone legal representation in a foreign land,” says Mr Kuria who can be found behind the wheel of a Kileleshwa-city-centre matatu.

A communication official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Agabio Mutegi, however, says these cases are being dealt with on a case by case basis. Still, he could not state what steps, if any, the ministry was going to take.

Despite the now well-documented harsh environment for foreign workers, Kenyan women consistently find their way to Saudi Arabia. These women do not seek counsel before leaving.

“Unfortunately these young women do not inform our office about their intentions to leave,” explains Mr Francis Auma of the Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI). Victims of human rights violations in Mombasa often turn to MUHURI for free legal education and other forms of help.

Mr Geoffrey Omondi, the deputy labour commissioner in the Ministry of Labour says that indeed, protection of Kenyan workers is enshrined in the Employment Act of 2007 under the provision of Foreign Contract of Service.

“Kenyans seeking employment abroad should at all time liaise with the Ministry of Labour. They must fill a Foreign Contract of Service form, attended to by a labour officer as a witness,” he says. But this never happens, says Omondi, making it difficult to hold a recruiting agency accountable.

At the height of media reports highlighting human rights injustices against Kenyan women in Saudi Arabia, a manager of a recruiting agency known as Ibrahim disappeared. His firm recruited Njeri.

A report by Jeddah health authorities, department of the postmortem examination, dated February 2, 2010 and addressed to the head of Jeddah North Police reads in part: “Some injuries which seem to be very recent… were observed on the head and we suspect them to be from hitting on a hard thing. Also the X-Ray result has revealed some fractures on the arms which indicate falling down from a high distance.’”

However, according to the death certificate issued by the Ministry of Interior in Jeddah dated February 23, 2010, Njeri “died due to cardiac arrest...”

The agency that employed Njeri continues to recruit. No steps are yet to be taken against it.

Mr Kuria’s quest for justice in Kenya appears to have come to nothing. Even so, resorting to international law is not without pitfalls, according to Esther Waweru, an official at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC).

Ms Waweru says that it will be difficult to evoke international law, when neither country has ratified relevant conventions.

“International laws only bind states that have ratified the relevant conventions. In this case the relevant international conventions would be the ones that Saudi Arabia has ratified,” she explains.

She, however, adds that bilateral agreement between countries would be sufficient, in the absence of any binding conventions on Saudi Arabia.

Njeri’s family continues to hope against hope that they will find justice. Nina on the other hand has vowed never to look for work in Saudi Arabia.


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