Thirty-four-year-old Rina (not her real name) looks like any capable migrant worker who has endured her fair share of hardship while working overseas.
Rina started work as a domestic helper in Qatar in 1992. Since she was only 17 at the time, she had to change her surname and age on her passport to be allowed to work overseas.
In the Arab state, she said she was made to work from sunrise to sundown for her employer and for her employer’s extended family. Aside from the long hours, she said she was not given adequate food and would often be subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Her salary was often delayed and was lower than what was promised by her recruiter.
“I would get sick but I was never given any medicine. For one whole year, I was only given one day-off. One time, my employer told me to give him a massage while he started mashing my private parts,” she said in a forum at the Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati City.
Because of homesickness, she said some Filipinas in Qatar would get into relationships with other OFWs to find the love and compassion that they were yearning for. Some of the women migrants who felt pressured to send more money home to their loved ones would sell their bodies to earn extra income, she said.
When she moved to Dubai a few years later, Rina's situation turned from bad to worse as her new employer raped her repeatedly. Out of desperation, she informed her employer’s wife about the abuse and got sympathy and support.
“The wife confronted [my employer] about the rape and he got very angry. He started beating her. I escaped and sought help from the police, but they didn’t even bother to acknowledge my case,” she recounted.
Rina escaped to the Philippines in May 2000. Upon her arrival, she fell ill and had to rest for a month before applying for another job, this time in Malaysia.
A mandatory blood test, however, showed that she was already HIV positive -- a cruel reminder of her ordeal in Dubai.
Not the exception
Rina’s case is not unique. According to a study by the UN Development Programme and the Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) launched Tuesday, women migrant workers in Asia including Filipinas who work in the Arab states are targets of sexual exploitation and violence and are highly vulnerable to factors that lead to HIV infection.
Based on almost 600 interviews in four Asian states and three in the Arab states, the report “HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women: From Asia to the Arab states” reveals the social, economic and health toll that migration imposed on emigrating women, particularly low-skilled ones who are lured by job prospects.
The Arab states are the primary destination for many migrant workers from Asia, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines. The study estimates that 70 to 80 percent of migrants from Sri Lanka and the Philippines to the Arab states are women.
The study revealed that more women are vulnerable to HIV because of limited preparedness and poor access to information and services. It also showed female domestic workers are often only recognized as official employees when it comes to pre-employment HIV testing, but they are not protected by the basic labor rights of migrants as their jobs are not recognized by labor laws.
It also showed that there is little to no assistance for returning HIV positive migrants to reintegrate and to be able to access HIV services, counseling and alternative livelihoods.
In Rina's case, she had to approach a nongovernment organization to help her deal with her problem and finally inform her parents about the diagnosis. Now married with two children, Rina said she takes retroviral drugs for her illness while working as an advocate to inform others about HIV.
"I realized that HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence, that I can still function and work and be productive," she told reporters.
Migration not a risk factor
Renaud Meyer, UNDP Country Director for the Philippines, said that while migration itself is not a risk factor to HIV infection, the conditions under which some workers migrate and their living conditions in the host countries make them highly vulnerable to HIV.
“While there has been enormous progress in the Philippines with very progressive and effective initiatives developed by the government and NGOs, this work needs to be expanded further. Programs in the Philippines need to ensure that all migrants move in safe conditions that they know how to protect themselves in difficult circumstances,” he said.
The study showed that of the total number of HIV cases recorded in the Philippines since 1984, OFWs make up 34 percent (1,162) or about a third of the total. Over the years, the HIV Registry has tracked the growing number of HIV cases among OFWs.