On July 1, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was released from house arrest and without bail after investigators admitted to doubts about the credibility of the housekeeper whom he was accused to have sexually attacked. Apparently, Nafissatou Diallo is not as poor, pious and hard-working as her lawyer portrayed her back in May. Indeed, she might have used the incident to make money.
A week earlier another drama involving a housekeeper reached its sad conclusion, this time in Saudi Arabia. Ruyati binti Sapubi was an Indonesian 54-year old woman, one of 1.5 million working in Saudi Arabia as domestic servants. She was beheaded for killing her employer. Little is known about the circumstances of her crime, but it is likely it was committed in self-defense or following an extended period of exploitation. Saudi Arabia offers little protections to its women, and even less to foreign women working in private households.
Nafissatou Diallo and Ruyati binti Sapubi are two of more than 100 million female migrant workers, the majority from Asia and Africa. According to the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, women make up to 70 per cent of the migrant population of some countries. The majority works in the domestic and tourism sectors as housekeepers.
Ironically, the emancipation of women in the West, in conjunction with aging populations and the decline of home care for the elderly, have contributed to the feminization of both migration and poverty. At the same time, the salaries of female workers make up a significant share of the remittances to their countries of origin, and constitute the main source of income for several millions of families. Without this source of income, the number of children in developing countries who are unable to attend school would have been much higher.
Domestic workers earn little and suffer from discrimination—and not only in Saudi Arabia. The situation is better but still sub-optimal in developed countries as has been documented both for the EU and the United States, and even progressive governments seem little concerned with the rights of these workers. Sexual abuse is as much part of the repertoire of discriminatory practices as verbal and physical maltreatment.
Some, like Sapubi or Diallo, fight back—and lose anyway.