- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2001

Slavery, sanity and death penalty issues swirl around a troubled 20-year-old Ethiopian woman who faces execution in the Persian Gulf emirate of Bahrain. A Bahraini court condemned Yeshiwork Desta Zewdu to death last November for the murder of her employer's wife in a manner brutal enough to justify her attorney's appeal on the ground of insanity.
On April 24 the Bahraini court accepted the concept of a defense based on insanity. Further appeals now pend on the choice of psychiatrists and translator.
Miss Yeshiwork was 16 when she went to work as a domestic in Bahrain, and 18 when she hacked to death Sandia Baltar, a Philippina married to a Bahraini. According to the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), the case reflects "the brutal conditions Ethiopian women immigrants are subjected to."
Yeshiwork was treated as a slave, denied her salary for two years while forced to work around the clock. According to Tadelech Haile Michael, head of women's affairs Section in the office of the Ethiopian prime minister, Yeshiwork "was a victim of brutal treatment which she could not accept as a human being … She was physically tortured and psychologically tormented." The EWLA contends the widespread exploitation of Ethiopian women in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Gulf State Emirates amounts to slavery.
"The mental and physical tortures these ladies are subjected to," says the EWLA, "ranges from starvation, beating, service payment refusal, forced sex by employers, burning with boiling oil and hot irons by jealous wives" and other forms of abuse. Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest nations, plagued by famine and warfare, suffers from growing unemployment. As a result, thousands of young Ethiopian women respond to organizations operating as travel agencies that recruit them as domestics. Aysanew Kassa of EWLA says he has dealt with more than 40 cases of girls abused by employers in the Middle East. Agencies operating in Ethiopia entice the girls by promising them a better life in the Arab states with high salaries and good conditions. The agencies take up to 7,000 bier ($875) from each girl.
The Ethiopian government has acknowledged that thousands of young Ethiopian women working in the Middle East are abused by their employers. An estimated 15,000 Ethiopian girls work as maids in Beirut alone. Yet, apart from some reporting by BBC Africa News, news media outside Ethiopia have given scant coverage to this form of modern-day slavery. On Oct. 8 last year, BBC's Nita Bhallah reported from Addis Ababa on the case of another Ethiopian, identified only as Yemisrach, who went to Lebanon in 1996 when she was 23. "She worked there for three years, seven days a week from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. She was locked in the house at all times and never given any freedom." Yemisrach says she suffered "mental torture." Even though she is now back home in Ethiopia, she still finds it difficult to leave the house. Other horror stories have emerged about girls who have been raped and sexually abused, "although many are reluctant to talk about it owing to cultural taboos," BBC reported.
Apart from the immediate life-and-death plight of Yeshiwork Desta Zewdu, the problem of the potential enslavement of other young Ethiopian women remains. The Ethiopian government issues licenses for a fee of $30,000 to agencies that export workers to the Middle East while other agencies operate underground.
But the problem is not limited to the enslavement of Ethiopian women in the Middle East. Newsweek magazine, in its Dec. 18 issue, reported on the extent of slavery. According to Laura J. Ledger, director of the Protection Project, an anti-slave traffic program at Johns Hopkins University, an estimated 1 million undocumented immigrants are trapped in the United States in slave-like conditions.
Many female Asian slaves are forced into prostitution. Latin American slaves mostly work in agricultural fields, while many of those from Africa slave away as domestics, according to Ms. Lederer. Like Miss Yeshiwork, all share two defining traits of slavery: They are not paid; and they cannot leave.
Such stories tell us where the slaves are, but not where the abolitionists of the 21st century can be found. Without a broadly based anti-slavery movement, the plague of slavery, so dominant in the first two millennia of recorded history, promises to continue well into the third.

Edmund P. Murray is an author based in Weehawken, N.J. His books include "Kulubi," a novel set in Ethiopia, where he lived for seven years.

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