Loving Children by Leaving Them: The Sri Lankan Mother’s Dilemma

By Elizabeth H. Shlala

One of the primary reasons that Sri Lankan women migrate is motherhood. 1.2 million Sri Lankans work abroad; 300,000 of them migrate as domestic workers to Saudi Arabia alone. In 2012 86% of all female migrant workers went abroad to be domestic workers or “housemaids.” 97% of Sri Lankan domestic workers migrated to the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar,  Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), plus Jordan and Lebanon. Not surprisingly, remittances from these countries represent the majority of private remittances to Sri Lanka.(8.5% of GDP according to the World Bank and $7.2 billion USD in 2015 and top 5 globally, according to a recent report). Although public education is free and a right in Sri Lanka, families must finance what their children need to access that education, including transportation, uniforms, tuition/tutoring, and books. Remittances allow time for children to study instead of contributing to the family income. Remittances also indirectly contribute to the welfare of children by paying for housing and specialized medical care, along with improving the family’s finances by settling debts and creating savings.

The International Migration Initiative of the Open Society Foundations recently funded a study on Sri Lankan domestic workers (all quotations here are from that study, with codes indicating particular anonymous respondents). Our study team interviewed 60 pre-departure and returning Sri Lankan domestic workers. The majority of Sri Lankan domestic workers interviewed were married mothers who had been in low-skilled, insecure employment before choosing to migrate. A Sri Lankan domestic worker who had worked in Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for eight years stated, “I wanted to save some money to build a house. When I left Sri Lanka on my last migration I had a lot of experience, I wanted to educate my youngest daughter. I was frightened to fall ill…I was sad to leave my daughters too. Even though I thought of all these things, to solve the problems at home, I felt that I had to go abroad.” (RKUR07) Despite having to work far away from their children in unfamiliar countries, working abroad represents a rational economic choice for these mothers given the poverty at home.

There are two important findings from this small survey in the context of the larger history and policy background of the region. First, there is a disconnect between domestic work and healthcare structures. Second, there is a disconnect between legal discourse and recourse when violations occur. Much of the discrepancy may be attributed to the exploitative labor sponsorship scheme known as kafala that dominates the region. By tying the migrant worker’s immigration status to an individual employer-sponsor, the kafala creates a fundamentally hierarchical relationship between citizen and migrant to regulate and control the massive migrant flow. Resident non-citizens, such as the migrant domestic workers interviewed, operate under two separate regulatory regimes. One set of laws regulates the migrant’s territorial boundaries (for example, permission to be in the country), and the second set of laws regulates the migrant’s access to rights and benefits (for example, healthcare), which are only freely available to citizens despite the physical presence of the migrant. Migrant domestic workers are generally excluded from GCC state labor laws. Because a worker serves one family and often lives with them within the private household, ambivalence permeates the relationship between the employer-sponsor and the migrant domestic worker, which leads to a lack of enforcement throughout the region.

Nevertheless, Sri Lankan women, particularly in their role as mothers, continue to migrate as domestic workers to the GCC. The women from the study experienced stress, anxiety, and depression surrounding their children’s health and well-being. They almost all had a tangible fear of falling ill or dying while abroad. They had a strong sense of isolation. One mother of three children who had worked in both Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi noted about the family she had left behind, “We are very united. I fear that if something happens to me, my children will suffer a lot.” (RKUR12) Mothers had concerns about leaving their children home without them and managing the work abroad without their families. In the GCC countries, the Sri Lankan women lacked the family network or familiarity with the system that they had back home. Another mother of two children explained,

I had not been to Jordan before. This was the first time that I went there. I kept my son at the house we had rented in Katukurunda [in Sri Lanka]. He was alone. I was scared to leave him alone. I left my daughter with a relative. When I was about to leave, she cried asking me not to go. None of us slept those days. I was thinking what if they hit me, what if I fall sick, what if I get into trouble. So I was miserable and anguished when I went to Jordan. While there I was frightened that they would sexually abuse my daughter. It was so very difficult to leave, especially my daughter.” (RKAL03)

Sri Lankan mothers must weigh many physical and emotional concerns when determining whether to migrate. They face a very difficult decision. The women interviewed suggested that the Sri Lankan government should provide boarding schools for the children of mothers who go abroad. They also requested pensions from the Sri Lankan state so that they could retire and benefit themselves from the critical remittances that they provide to the Sri Lankan economy. The irony is that many of these women would not make the choice to migrate if they were not mothers trying to provide the best possible future for their children—children from whom they are forced to be separated—in their most formative years.

Elizabeth H. Shlala is an FXB Fellow who works on the historical roots and contemporary impact of modern migration in the Middle East.

Read the study report, Access to Healthcare, Insurance Provision and Health Status of  Sri Lankan Migrant Domestic Workers.

Read Shlala’s 2016 article in the Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, “The Right to Health: Sri Lankan Migrant Domestic Workers in the GCC.”

Photo: Mawannalla Hospital, Pre-Natal and Post-Natal Care Units, Sri Lanka. Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank