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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 December 2005, 07:06 GMT
Perils of the migrant maids' daughters

By Dumeetha Luthra
BBC News, Colombo

House maids being trained in Sri Lanka
Preparing to go abroad, the maids pay little heed to dangers at home
Pasinthu Malintha, a Sri Lankan baby is crying in his cot. He is only two weeks old. His mother is 14, and his father is also his grandfather.

He is one of the many victims suffering the consequences of Sri Lanka's heavy reliance on sending maids to work abroad.

Nearly 600,000 Sri Lankan women work as domestic servants in other countries.

It is a huge money earner, bringing in millions of dollar in foreign exchange. But it can also fundamentally change the nature of the family unit.

'Satisfy needs'

Children left at home can be vulnerable to child abuse, incest and other exploitation.

"The mother leaves the children, sometimes with the father. Sometimes, when the father feels lonely, he will try and make use of the children to satisfy his needs," warns Neeta Ariayaratna.

She works for a local NGO Sarvodya, which runs a home for young unmarried mothers.

"When I see the other children going to school I feel very sad, as I will not be able to go to school ever.
Karani, a rape victim

Karani is a shy 19-year-old.

She was left with her uncle's family when her mother went overseas for work. She was just 13 when her uncle raped her and left her pregnant.

She cannot talk about the experience and says she just wants to forget what happened.

She says she is not angry but that it is hard to come to terms with her missed youth.

Teenage mums with their babies
Most of Sri Lanka's migrant workers are women

"When I see the other children going to school I feel very sad, as I will not be able to go to school ever."

She now lives at the Sarvodya home. She has a six-year-old son. When he was born, she could not bear to look at him.

Abortion was not an option. It is illegal in Sri Lanka, unless the mother's life is in danger.

Adoption would have caused too much emotional distress. Now she wants to raise him.

Mothers going to work abroad do get some warning of the dangers they may be leaving behind.

The bureau of foreign employment gives them training on some of the skills they will need abroad as maids, such as how to use a blender and an iron.

They are wide eyed and eager - it is with these skills that they can escape from poverty.

But sandwiched between these classes is a small session on what could happen to their children while they are away.

They dutifully recite the suggestions given to them. One is that their daughters should be left with their the mother-in-law, rather than with their husband.

But the students are searching for a dream, another way of life, and the teacher's words seem to have little impact.

'State's obligation'

The class here is a small acknowledgement from the government that there is a problem.

Teenage mothers in Sri Lanka being trained to sew
Migrant workers are the country's highest earners of foreign exchange.

But the government should do more for the women, given that migrant workers are Sri Lanka's highest earners of foreign exchange and most of the migrants are women, argues Hiranthi Wijemanne from the National Child Protection Agency.

"A lot can be done and I was advocating for a long time that we give one per cent of what they earn. That would be an enormous sum of money, because I think the state really has an obligation.

"I mean these women are really keeping the economy growing, so I think in return the least the state could do is to help these kids, make sure at least these children are not abused or exploited and given some opportunity to grow and develop like other children," he says.

Karani is now training to become a seamstress. She can't go back to her village, her uncle still lives there. Not only has she lost her innocence, but the family has lost their home.

Her mother Irangani is bereft - the case is still dragging through the court system here.

"It is more than six years now. The person who has done this crime is still free. The punishment should be given to him but we are the people facing the problems. Justice should be done."

However, for these children, the grim reality is not justice, but isolation. They are the legacy of economic necessity.

They are the hidden shame of Sri Lanka, outsiders in their village and outsiders in society. (The names of the mothers in this report have been changed.)

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