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Raped, Impregnated and Imprisoned: Qatar's Forgotten Workers

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Sexual violence and imprisonment are facts of life for many of Qatar's women workers. Largely women from Nepal, India and the Philippines, Qatar's domestic workers face isolation and exploitation in the world's richest country. Disenfranchised and vulnerable, the most marginalised workers have been neglected from the labour debate, which has recently enveloped Qatar. Human rights organisations have been given a rare platform to put pressure on the powerful state of Qatar in relation to treatment of workers, but silence resounds on the subject of women workers. Ex-pat domestic workers in Qatar are isolated from the community and their movements are heavily restricted, living on their employers' premises, depriving them of the communal voice found in the male labour force which has enabled the recent exposure of their devastating working conditions. Further to this, domestic workers are explicitly excluded from the region's labour and domestic violence laws.

The treatment of women workers is reflected in Qatar's unusual prison population. Qatar has one of the highest female prison populations in the world at around 13%, which is more than double the global average and exists in spite of Qatar having one of the most distinct ratios of men to women in the world at 3:1. The majority of the women in prison are low paid ex-pats, tried in an unknown language, without representation and often without access to consulate assistance. It is estimated that around five Nepalese women a month are arrested for pregnancy out of marriage in Qatar. These arrests often take place in hospital, following dangerous attempts to abort pregnancies using home remedies, which result in the women being rushed to hospital. Such situations are exacerbated by the lack of access to contraceptives and abortions, in a country where women have to pay for the contraceptive pill and are accosted for purchasing condoms in supermarkets and diaphragms are unavailable. If the women survive the effects of the self-induced abortions then they are taken from hospital to prison and sometimes flogged. If the women give birth, the babies join them in prison for up to two years.

Whilst voluntarily migrating to Qatar on the promise of relatively well paid work, women are often mislead as to the nature of, and the pay for the domestic work they will undertake in Qatar, commonly including unbearable living conditions, very low payment and withholding of payment, emotional and physical violence and sexual assault. Women raped by their employers who then fall pregnant may then be imprisoned for having sex outside of marriage. The persecution of rape victims in the Gulf was recently highlighted in the case of Marte Dalelv, the Norwegian woman who reported being raped to the police in UAE and was subsequently charged with having sex outside of marriage. Similar cases concerning higher paid ex-pats have been reported frequently, despite the increased risk of sexual violence faced by lower paid workers.

Many women working in Qatar are trafficked into the country and are subjected to involuntary servitude and prostitution, invited to the rich country on the understanding that they will be given jobs as au pairs or domestic help. Although information as to the extent of prostitution in Qatar is difficult to ascertain, it is thought that many domestic workers who illegally flee abusive working conditions are then forced into prostitution, exploited on account of their illegal status as 'abscondees'. With their previous employers holding their passports and fearing arrest for absconding, domestic workers who flee abusive situations are left with little choice or hope of return to their home countries, leaving them vulnerable to operators of the sex trade. If the women fall pregnant as a result of being prostituted, they are then imprisoned. For other women who escape domestic servitude, only to then be exploited in the sex trade, an even worse fate awaits. The number of absconded or trafficked women who are killed in Qatar is not known, but a 2006 case, which concerned the murder of an Indonesian domestic worker who was forced into prostitution highlighted the issue. Her murderers were from South East Asia and received the death penalty, in a likely unfair trial. Unlike the couple who starved their Filipino maid for six months before beating her to death - deemed by the courts as not constituting premeditated murder, the couple were required to pay compensation.

Whilst the working conditions of labourers have been highlighted as the footballing world experiences a pang of collective responsibility for their plight in relation to construction facilitating the World Cup in Qatar, there has been no mention of the women who will inevitably be forced to facilitate the demand for prostitution during the sporting event. Many rights groups are critical of the sudden focus on workers' rights related solely to the World Cup, when the reality of the problem is far greater in scale. Similar criticism regarding the link between sex work and sporting events has been voiced in the past by rights groups in relation to the Olympics and the Super Bowl. In both cases, rights groups complain that the focus suggests an increase in unfair treatment of labourers and sex workers which is unfounded and can lead to unsustainable, knee-jerk reactions which do not always have the workers' welfare at heart. Such dubious solutions are not applied consistently to the wider situation outside of sporting events and often target sex workers, rather than the clients, focusing on 'cleaning up' the appearance of the sporting venue, rather than tackling the exploitation itself. However, the World Cup coverage has at least exposed a degree of the conditions faced by male labourers and will hopefully force Qatar to address the issue. At the same time, it has roused the activist community into action on the topic and may cause people to think twice about migrating to Qatar. Women workers have benefited from no such exposure.

Although progress has been noted in Qatar in relation to women's rights, such progress has seemingly eluded low paid non-nationals. Although anti-trafficking groups have been formed in Qatar in an attempt to tackle the issue, the societal normalcy of gender, race and class related disparity is evident throughout the country, from signs in five star Ritz Carlton hotels reading 'no maids in the pool' to the self-immolation of young women prohibited by their employers from meeting with their loved ones. Yet, Qatari women are rapidly realising their human rights, entering the workforce and completing higher education, marrying and bearing fewer children increasingly later in life. Gender based violence is being addressed in Qatar's universities in classes taken by men and women, and governmental efforts to reduce gender based violence and human trafficking through education and legislation are encouraging. However, during the drafting procedure of a recent bill intended to protect women from domestic violence, it was suggested that domestic workers be included in the legislation, but this was rejected wholesale by the drafters, despite the relatively progressive nature of the bill. Such attitudes are reflected in the extreme disparity which exists in the richest country in the world, where young men die of heart attacks whilst building stadiums for young millionaires to play football in, and women living in poverty are raped, impregnated and imprisoned by the wealthiest men on earth.

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