Friday, July 13, 2007

Abused Indonesian maids face long wait for justice in Malaysia (AP)

Abused Indonesian maids face long wait for justice in Malaysia
Fri, Jul 13, 2007
AP (Associated Press)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- When Indonesian maid Ceriyati Dapin could no longer bear the alleged abuse, she took the shortest route to freedom: The 33-year-old woman secretly made a rope of towels, sheets and clothes and climbed out the window of her employer's 15th floor apartment.

Dapin's dramatic escape - firefighters rescued her after she got stuck outside the 12th floor - focused public attention on the mistreatment faced by many Indonesian maids in Malaysian homes.

Indonesian diplomats say at least 1,500 maids seek help at their offices across Malaysia each year. Most complain of unpaid wages, but many also claim they were physically or emotionally abused or, in rare cases, even raped.

In response, Malaysian authorities have stepped up efforts to deter the abuse. The government set up a 24-hour hot line for maids to call with complaints and temporarily suspended the licenses of nearly 20 maid recruitment agencies until they settled unpaid salaries.

But Indonesian officials in Malaysia and human rights activists say more is needed to protect some 300,000 Indonesian maids who live here in search of a better life.

Indonesian maids can earn about 450 ringgit (US$130; ?95) a month, a small fortune for the women, who typically come from impoverished backgrounds.

Mariana Bulu, one of 70 maids who live in a shelter for former maids at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, said her employers punished her regularly for minor mistakes, breaking her left arm and hitting her so hard with a wooden plank that she lost hearing in her left ear.

"I wanted to come to Malaysia ... now I just want to go home," said Bulu, whose neighbors eventually called the police to rescue her.

Victims who turn to the courts often face an agonizing wait in Malaysia's notoriously slow criminal court system.

Some former maids such as Nirmala Bonat, who said her employer scalded her with a hot iron and poured boiling water over her in 2004, remain at the embassy shelter for years waiting for their cases to be heard.

Bonat, a shy 23-year-old, said she does nothing most of the time, except think about her family back home and work at the embassy cafeteria. For security reasons, the maids are not allowed to leave the embassy. Bonat said she is determined to stay in Malaysia until the court rules on her case.

Her former employer has been charged with causing grievous hurt to Bonat and faces prison if convicted. Hearings have been repeatedly postponed. This case seems to be "not a priority," said Tatang Razak, an Indonesian embassy official.

"It's as if Nirmala has been in prison for three years," said Razak, who has urged Malaysia's courts to speed up proceedings in abuse cases. "We hope to see an improvement."

Eka Suripto, another Indonesian embassy official, said that more than a dozen cases are currently under police investigation or pending in court. No one has been found guilty of abusing a maid in the past three years, he said.

"It's very difficult to convict the employers," Suripto said. "Most of the cases will end up with insufficient evidence. If the employer would be convicted, at least it would serve as a deterrent."

Malaysian authorities, as well as some Indonesian officials, maintain that the problem is not widespread. Malaysian officials add that some maids have been known to neglect their tasks or run away with lovers.

"Sometimes maids also contribute to the situation," Labor Department Director General Ismail Abdul Rahim said. "Abuse is one thing, but their welfare is well protected by the law."

Irene Fernandez, director of Tenaganita, a Malaysian assistance group, said maids need better legal protection because they have scant negotiating power in their employment terms and work in isolation.

"There is no protection mechanism at all," she said. "It shows how low our attitude is."

Dapin, who claims her former employer beat and starved her, has returned to Indonesia to be with her children and husband. She is expected to return to Malaysia to testify if criminal charges are filed.

Police held the employer, a 35-year-old woman who has not been named, for questioning for a week and are still investigating Dapin's claims.

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