THE TIDY-LOOKING SIX-ROOM HOUSE stands in a prosperous neighborhood of Kuwait City. Inside, however, the stifling air reeks of body odor and cheap perfume. Almost every inch of floor space is occupied by bedraggled women, who must wait in line for a half hour to use one of the three toilets. Each night they dine on meager helpings of such things as rice and fried fish heads. All the same, for the 367 Philippine women who cram its corridors and rooms, house No. 363 on Police Station Road, which adjoins their country’s embassy in the Kuwaiti capital, is a blessed haven. Each has fled her job as a maid, bearing horror stories of psychological, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of her Kuwaiti employer. “I just want to go back home,” says Benilda C., 25 (PEOPLE has withheld last names). “Why do they do this to us?”
The runaway women are only the most conspicuous evidence of a growing human rights furor concerning Kuwait. In the past year, some 1,200 Filipinos working as servants in Kuwait have complained to their government of being subjected to almost slavelike conditions, frequent beatings and, in some cases, sexual assault. Allegations of abuse have put both Kuwaiti and Philippine officials, embarrassed by the controversy, on the defensive. After PEOPLE correspondent Terry Smith interviewed and photographed the accusing women, he was searched by a Filipino guard, who confiscated several rolls of film—though Smith was able to smuggle three rolls out of the embassy compound. Perhaps what most incenses Western officials is that the mistreatment is taking place in a country that only a year ago was liberated from Iraqi invaders at enormous cost to the United States and its allies. “Desert Storm,” says Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder, “has turned into Desert Scandal.”
The reason so many Filipino women come to Kuwait in the first place is not hard to grasp. At home in the Philippine province of Catabato, Benilda C. heard about the easy money that could be made in the oil-rich kingdom. Though she already earned a respectable $130 a month as a social worker, she was told she could triple her pay in Kuwait. As a result she paid a local recruiter $200 to put her in touch with an agency in Manila that, for an additional $400, would arrange the necessary paperwork and visas. Officially, since 1990, the Philippine government has prohibited its citizens from working in Kuwait as domestics because of earlier charges of abuses. Thus the women are told to apply for visas in other fields, such as salesclerk or beautician.
Like other would-be maids, Benilda discovered that once in Kuwait she was completely at the mercy of her “sponsor,” the family that employed her. The women are required to sign a contract, often written in Arabic, that sets their wages. The sum is usually around $130 a month, far less than they had been led to believe but far more than a maid’s salary in Manila. Furthermore the women are generally required to work the first six months of the standard two-year contract for nothing, ostensibly so the sponsors can recoup the money spent on airfare and local agency fees to bring them to Kuwait. For the duration of the contract, the women must surrender their passports to the sponsors, who in turn effectively have the right to sell their servants by “transferring” their contracts to another employer. Under Kuwaiti law, the only way the women can get out of the contracts is by reimbursing the sponsor for his full investment, usually about $1,000. As a result, nearly all the women who have shown up at the embassy are still there, with some in residence for as long as a year.
Given the one-sided terms and the fact that servants are often regarded as beneath contempt in Kuwait, it is scarcely surprising that abuses have been rampant. Benilda says she was often forced to work 20 hours a day. cleaning, cooking and looking after the children. On March 20 she decided to escape after her madam, as the wife of the house is called, tried to smash a plastic tray over her head. “I may be poor, but I’m not stupid,” Benilda says. “No one has to lake treatment like that.”
Unfortunately, many women do, at least until they gather the courage to flee. Another runaway, Lorena P., 24, says her employers routinely slapped her around and locked her in her room when they went out of the house. At one point she tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a third-floor window, breaking a leg and three ribs. Aida E., 28, has been in the shelter for five months, ever since her sponsor’s brother allegedly raped her. When she tried to tell her Kuwaiti family, she says, she was beaten for making such an accusation. “Every word I tell you is true,” says Aida. “God knows it’s true. I’m afraid.”
One of the most notorious cases of abuse involves a Filipino named Lorna Laraquel, who worked as a maid to Sheikha Latifa Abdullah Jaber al-Sabah, a Princess in the Kuwaiti royal family. The Sheikha reportedly forced Laraquel, 44, to eat her meals off the floor; she also once threatened to have her hands and tongue cut off and an eye gouged out. In February, while traveling in Egypt with the Sheikha, Laraquel says she could stand it no longer. She stabbed her mistress to death with a kitchen knife. Having confessed to Egyptian police, she now faces the gallows.
Kuwaiti officials deny any widespread mistreatment of maids, and the women get little help from Kuwaiti police when they do manage to lodge a complaint. “Their tactic is to drag out the investigation,” says one Philippine diplomat in Kuwait City, “even when they investigate at all.” Lately the stream of runaways to the Philippine Embassy appears to be increasing. On April 2, a record 27 women showed up looking for help. Some diplomats speculate that the abuses have gotten worse as a result of the Iraqi invasion and subsequent liberation, which left the country with a deep sense of helplessness. In their frustration and rage, the theory goes, Kuwaiti men and women are lashing out at the easiest targets available.
Whatever the case, the Philippine Embassy contends that it can do little to help the women other than to provide minimal food and shelter, since the cost of buying out their contracts would be prohibitive. But to other diplomats that sounds like a cop-out. “The truth is the Philippine government doesn’t give a damn about these people,” says one U.S. official in Kuwait City. “The country has an appalling record of its own on human rights and is hardly likely to extend itself over what it sees as the problems of a few hundred peasants.” (In addition to the Filipinos, more than 100 domestics from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have also run away.)
And so, for the time being, the runaways seem condemned to languish in their pitiful refuge. “I came to Kuwait out of curiosity,” Benilda says. “There’s a saying that curiosity killed the cat, and satisfaction brought it back. But look at me now: no money, no satisfaction.”
TERRY SMITH in Kuwait City