In 2002, 29-year-old Jakatia Pawa left her two children in the Philippines to travel to Kuwait in search of a better paying job. Despite having a university degree, she could not find a job to support her family in the Philippines and thought that, like millions of her compatriots, her best chances lay overseas. Through the controversial kafala (sponsorship) system, her employment was legally tied to a local family whom she served for five years. However, Jakatia’s visa had just been renewed when she found herself arrested for the murder of her employers’ 22-year-old daughter. Jakatia was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death, despite the fact that the DNA found on the murder weapon was not hers.

Jakatia’s case is just one example of the dynamics affecting female domestic workers facing the death penalty in the Middle East. In the Gulf region in particular, the vast majority of households have at least one domestic worker, almost all of whom are women from Asia or Africa. Many come to the region having been promised a well-paying job in a comfortable family home, but the reality is very different. Many domestic workers are consistently denied pay, forced to work long hours in terrible conditions, and subjected to prolonged abuse. There is a serious lack of safeguards for domestic workers, who are often excluded from legal employment protections. Under the kafala system, their work permits are generally contingent upon remaining with the same employer. Domestic workers are therefore incredibly dependent on their sponsors, and have little to no agency. Most have their passports confiscated on arrival and they cannot change employer or leave the country without their employer’s express permission.

Employers have been known to regularly abuse the domestic workers in their households, who are near powerless to prevent it. The asymmetric power balance between the employing families and their foreign workers, coupled with the fact that domestic workers are largely confined to the private sphere of the home, makes these women especially vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual abuse. It is generally when these abuses go unchecked and women feel they have no viable alternatives that the situation escalates to the point of murder, often occurring during the worker's attempt to flee the home. 

Other times, domestic workers are seen as the expendable scapegoats for murders which others commit, such as in the case of Jakatia Pawa. As well as the lack of any DNA evidence linking Jakatia to the crime, there was evidence that her employer’s daughter had in fact been killed by her own family, who believed she had been having an affair with a neighbour. When Jakatia tried to testify to this in court, the judge refused to allow her to finish her testimony. Although people in the Philippines managed to raise blood money for the victim’s family, which could have allowed her to be freed under the diya system, the family refused to accept the payment. After ten years in prison, Jakatia was executed in 2017. Jakatia, an innocent bystander, a convenient scapegoat, had been silenced.

The silhouette of a woman standing in front of a window

Photo credit: Sean Kong via Unsplash.

Domestic workers who are sentenced to death, therefore, simultaneously occupy the categories of offender and victim. The dual space these women occupy — in tandem with intersecting factors of gender, class, ethnicity and nationality — causes them to be seen as less worthy victims, and this can impact on clemency applications. This makes it more difficult to mobilise support around preventing death sentences and executions and, ultimately, renders them even more obscure.

Due to the secrecy and authoritarianism of many Middle Eastern regimes, reliable data on the exact number of domestic workers charged and sentenced for capital offences is hard to come by. This only adds to the difficulties in effectively advocating for those caught in this situation. The Death Penalty Research Unit at the University of Oxford has been working with local partners to gather data on foreign nationals sentenced to death in the Middle East over the past five years. Of the 29 migrant workers who we know have been executed or remain on death row in the region in that period (and there are likely to be many more), 19 of these were domestic workers, aged between 18 and 34. Eight were from Southeast Asia and 11 from East Africa.

25-year-old Jennifer Dalquez, also from the Philippines, was employed by a man in the United Arab Emirates as a domestic worker. In 2014, on her account, Jennifer’s employer tried to rape her, threatening to kill her if she resisted. She defended herself, killing him in the process. Jennifer was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Her embassy heard of the conviction and managed to raise an appeal in time. Her death sentence was commuted to a five-year sentence in 2017 and Jennifer was able to return home in 2018.

However, outcomes like this are rare. In general, these women rarely have legal representation or consular support. In many cases their embassies are not even informed of their case until after their execution, denying them the right to consular assistance under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. NGOs have also stated that they are denied access to prisons to support detainees or offer legal representation.

Given the difficulties in effectively advocating for women on death row in this region, there is a desperate need for more data on women who are at risk of the death penalty, in order for timely and effective interventions to be made. Accurate information on the women at risk would enable increased access to the relevant embassies, translators and legal representatives in order to mitigate some of the many barriers to justice that domestic workers face. It would also pave the way for improved communication and cross-national knowledge of planned trials, appeals and executions in order to allow for cases to be properly heard and advocated for. Anyone with access to data on women who are at risk of capital punishment across the Middle East is invited to contact the Death Penalty Research Unit, which is building a database on people affected across Asia and the Middle East. It is our hope that this will prove a valuable resource to effect change for this vulnerable and disadvantaged population.

Jocelyn Hutton is ESRC Research Officer in the Death Penalty Research Unit. Emma Rice was a Death Penalty Project-Oxford Criminology Research Intern 2020-21, and is a graduate of the Oxford MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice.

The World Day Against the Death Penalty 2021, held on 10 October, focused on the theme 'Women and the death penalty: An invisible reality'. For further details about the World Day, see the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty website here.