Rizana: So what now?

Gaya Fernando

I remember transiting at the Abu Dhabi airport on Etihad Airlines in 2004 en route to Sri Lanka from Brussels. I was dozing in the departure area, which is hardly a lounge, in jeans, tee shirt and beloved camper shoes that I always wear when I travel.

Miss, Miss, Miss ge Agency eka mokakdha? (Miss, what’s your agency?)”

Forced back into reality, I made out a few curious girlish faces peering at me eager to make conversation with a new recruit.

Ah? Mokakdha? ( What?)” And I realised with a laugh that I had been mistaken for a housemaid by my countrymaid companions going home on vacation.

Giggles and social systemic failure

I tried to explain that I was in transit from Belgium and that I had gone to Brussels for studies …. what studies? what is Belgium ? :… As a lawyer I wanted to do a higher degree I had explained. Blank looks. It turned out that they had never really known Colombo folk nor Colombo at all. From their village they had been driven through to the Airport and onwards and upwards to Foreign Exchange earning countries in the Middle East. Who would want to go abroad if they were lawyers and had good jobs? They couldn’t make me out at all and so I made them tell me of their lives, villages and stuff to ease the boredom of transit.

The stories were told with giggles of debts that parents had run up mortgaging properties, houses in order to marry off other siblings, debts run up for other reasons resulting in the young girl being sent off with parental consent to find some extra cash to be a housemaid in the Middle East.

Forged passports were common. One girl on the flight sitting behind me had only her passport in her hand. No luggage. An escapee from a bad situation she had fled to the Embassy and was now going home with no money, no payment, nothing but her passport and the clothes on her body.

Oyaa kohomadha den gedera yanne? (How are you going home from the Airport?)” I persisted wondering if I could give her the bus fare or pay for a space in a van which she would share with others. Oh don’t worry Miss, she said with a big grin, “me aiyala akkala maawa bala gani bessama ( These brothers and sisters will look after me when I arrive at the airport…)” She was confident that they would see her home safely to her village.

These little naiiveties displayed by both sides makes me realise to what extent we are ignorant of the ways of our people who subscribe to diverse social norms. “Hmm…”I was not entirely convinced but she seemed quite relaxed and was snoring in minutes. I turned back with a feeling that this is all very unsatisfactory somehow, got home and told my story to my family though my mother was not amused that I had been mistaken for a housemaid. She was always a little snobbish, bless her !!

I would not have entrusted my baby to a Rizana

After the grim news of the beheading on 9 January, I thought back to that little encounter now 8 years ago. A forged passport sent a minor to a situation that she had no expertise nor training to handle. She was employed by those who did not care that she had no expertise.

I, having brought my own children up from the day they were born single-handedly overseas, have never let even a Ceylinco Babycare Nurse (who helped out on Sri Lankan vacations and research trips when I travelled alone with my children) venture beyond  preparing meals, laundry and babysitting to actually care for them under the age of 2. Many a fight and argument have I had with Ceylinco nannies on vacation that they need to be left to do the job and in this case they were trained to some extent but that minimal standard fell far below mine. I would have felt entirely to blame had my infant choked in their care regardless of the reason.

Rizana is alleged to have smothered a baby she was caring for, to death, following an argument with the mother. Later she retracted and said that the baby had died in a choking accident while bottle-fed. No doubt, the medical evidence can point to the cause of the death.  From then onwards she was a subject of the processes of that nation which we may criticise and condemn, but which after all are beyond our control.


Is it their problem or our failure ?

However, there are other atrocities happening in these countries as well as systemic flaws and rackets in Sri Lanka that send housemaids with no training and minors at that into nations where their lives are worth little. At the root of the social problem, parents and families of these girls too are not entirely blame-free. Given that there is an unemployment problem and the cost of living is rising alarmingly, the all too familiar phenomenon of low-income families borrowing money from money-lenders and paying exorbitant interest rates is one of the reasons that children are sent to work as housemaids and earn enough to pay off these debts and save the family. This may not be the case of Rizana’s family of course but it is the case of others, sadly.

Women and Media Collective have released a statement that points the finger at the Government’s lack of will to bring Rizana home. On the other hand, accounts say that the President had appealed just 2 days before the execution and has released a statement of condolence on the execution. Another writing Who failed Rizana? does point out that delegations who went to Saudi Arabia may have done her more harm as they had implied that a settlement was on the horizon which could have worsened her case by misleading the public and harming the negotiations with the family’s tribe. Malinda Aiya wrote a good piece in 2010 which asks if we should be judged by our peers and in it includes:

We must acknowledge that many employment agencies are not just run by racketeers but crooks enjoying political patronage and therefore protection.  We know that the system is full of loopholes where a crackdown on errant agencies just results in the same crooks setting up office elsewhere under a different name for a paltry sum of money so they can carry on from where they stopped.


An infant is dead due to the easy entrusting into the care of an unknown young girl of a precious vulnerable life and a young girl is dead due to her actions in a context in which she did not belong.

Inter-State diplomacy has not saved the life of Rizana Nafeek. However, what’s going on in our country is our problem, what can be done about it?

Is it time to take a different policy stance on whether we admit that we are exporting carers to other countries and enforce policies, standards, training and put in place good negotiation mechanisms and active co operation policies in the diplomatic delegations to these countries as the Philippines do?



  1. I received this private criticism which I welcome very much in my inbox and decided to insert the comment here where it belongs: Dear Gaya: I have been a reader of your blog for a while. I think that reading your article on the above subject made me to think that you are making a wrong judgement of the women folks from Sri Lanka going to Middle East. They are not necessarily naive, but strong and brave. I have been working in the Middle East on a different subject, but have been subjected to been questioned by Sri Lanka workers in many occasions. I admire them for being brave to be in a different country without contact, friends or knowing the language – I would not do that. Their sense of kinship is not being stupid, but trusting the humanity that the Western world have lost – we have lost that the moment we left our home countries. In this suggestion, I would like you to consider when you comment on the women folks who contribute to the Sri Lankan national income (on top level) with much more respect. Rizana was a sad story, but I would trust my 2 year old boy with her and honour her ability to leave her comfort to work in a different country.

    • Yes, thank you for this comment and pls do feel free to critique on the post. I will not be offended if the critique is not personal 😉 Thanks for reading this website and do keep contributing.

      Response as I think its an interesting critique and perspective: I agree with you that you cannot lump all housemaids together but the above article is not about housemaids in general it’s about my personal experience with young giggling girls and the article was such an underage young girl who may have ventured into a situation which she was not equipped to handle in many ways and the result: two deaths. I do think that older trained housemaids are different hence the appeal to ‘professionalise’ the industry with training and support and closing of loopholes to some extent reducing the risk of underage teens going out on fake docs. Second, entrusting a 2 yr old and entrusting a 6 month old are two entirely different matters. I may be especially aware of the dangers as I know it takes a split second of a maid on a cellphone conversation to let a child dart into danger but this is our personal experience and perspective. But that is not the point in the issue of Rizana. The issue – one of many – is that a 6 month old baby was entrusted into her care and the tragedy lies with all concerned who turn a blind eye to the enormity of risk she undertook. I would hope that there will be more attempts to professionalise the industry so that more brave young women equipped for the task venture out and are supported by our embassies on foreign soil when they need such assistance.

Speak Your Mind