“We do not want other women to suffer through what we have experienced”
Ethiopian migrant domestic workers are one of the largest migrant communities in Lebanon, with an estimated 100,000 Ethiopian women in domestic work. Over the last ten years, many initiatives to support migrant domestic workers and improve their work conditions have emerged in the country, the most recent of which is EngnaLegna, with the support of RootsLab.
The activists who started EngnaLegna are themselves Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon, and part of the Migrant Community Centre (MCC) in Beirut – a project by the Anti-Racism Movement, a feminist collective currently hosting the initiative. EngnaLegna Besdet, which means “from us to us [in a strange country]” in Amharic, aims to support Ethiopian women domestic workers in Lebanon by forming a community group led by women. “There are many Ethiopian community groups in the country, such as social or church groups. However, most of them are led by men or the Ethiopian Embassy, and only work on service provision, such as providing medical services. None of those groups work on raising awareness or building solidarity. We therefore felt the need to create a group for women, led by women. We are going to be the first feminist group in the Ethiopian community in Lebanon. While it may not be easily accepted, we are, of course, very determined and enthusiastic,” the founders say.
Over the past fifteen years, many human rights reports have documented major violations endured by domestic workers, due to the sponsorship or kafala system that governs migrant domestic work in Lebanon. These violations include employers’ retention of workers’ passports, denial of a weekly rest day, restricting mobility, lack of adequate housing, sexual and psychological violence, and denial of wages. This reality has driven migrant workers, human rights and feminist groups, and other allies, to organize and protest in demand of the abolition of the sponsorship system and the protective inclusion of domestic workers in the Lebanese labour law. “The problems we faced in our work and in our daily lives in Lebanon are what led us to form the group. We do not want other women to suffer through what we have experienced,” says one EngnaLegna activist.
EngnaLegna’s work aims at raising awareness amongst Ethiopian women domestic workers about their rights, develop skills that could support them in their work and lives in Lebanon as well as in their home country if they decide to go back, and finally to build solidarity amongst the community, through facilitating discussions in Amharic. This allows women to share their experiences and expertise, and most importantly “to know that their experiences are shared and that they are not alone.”
The group has organized in the past year multiple discussions and workshops on topics such as financial management, legal rights, sexual harassment and violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as skill-based training. “We want women workers to know, for example, that they are entitled to save part of their monthly wages for themselves, instead of transferring all of their money to their families, which would force them to rely entirely on their kin when they return to their country. We would also like to raise the awareness of Ethiopian newcomers about the nature of the work here, so they are better informed and aware.” The activists are also collaborating with MCC’s coordinators to produce a series of videos in Amharic, which address key issues that are coming out from the discussions, and allow for those conversations and information to be disseminated to the wider community.
Among the successes that the activists have been witnessing, is the regular attendance maintained throughout their sessions by members of their community and their willingness to speak more comfortably and openly about topics that are considered taboo, such as sexual violence and contraception. While EngnaLegna has grown in its first year of existence, reaching Ethiopian women has been challenging. The Ethiopian government’s decision to ban its nationals from working in Lebanon since 2008 has led to an increase in the number of Ethiopians working without legal papers in Lebanon. This limits their mobility, due to fear of arrest or deportation. Against all odds, the group makes use of the networks and groups they belong to in order to reach other migrant domestic workers. They distribute informational material across Lebanon by going to churches and markets often frequented by Ethiopian workers.
RootsLab has provided key support to the group: “It is not only about the financial support, however important it may be, as it allows us to do more. It is also about us having a lot of ideas but lacking the knowledge on how to manage them. RootsLab allowed us to know more about how to manage things.” On another note, one of the activists says, “before RootsLab, we did not know we belonged to a larger feminist space. By participating in the project, we actually felt that we are part of a feminist movement in Lebanon.”
“Most of all,” they add, “this experience has enabled us to talk for ourselves, rather than other people talking on our behalf, and this is of utmost importance for us.”