"I could have been Mary Jane Veloso"

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Indonesia
(First published in The Jakarta Post, 20th May 2015) 
Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso was spared from execution at the last minute. She got a temporary reprieve but still faces execution. Veloso is a migrant Filipino domestic worker just like me. Like me, Veloso was forced to become a migrant domestic worker because of poverty, because of a commitment to support her family, because she had no other choice.

Like me, she suffered abuse. Like me, she almost died. While working as a domestic worker in Dubai, Veloso was attacked by her employer and hospitalized. After a month in the hospital and the trial of the perpetrator on rape charges, she went back to Philippines — her home country. But she could not earn money at home to support her children and had no choice but to sell her few possessions and become indebted to an informal agent who professed to be her friend and helped her migrate again. She was told she would be given work in Malaysia, like so many Indonesian domestic workers, but instead she was given new clothes and a suitcase and told to go to Indonesia until other work could be found for her.

Like me, Veloso was in no position to question the agent who made her migration possible. Like me, she was in debt. Like me, she trusted people who promised to help. Like me, she could not speak the local language. Like me, she needed to navigate a foreign legal system that she did not understand.

But unlike me, Veloso was a defendant in a legal case. And unlike me, Veloso had no support. Veloso was charged with drug trafficking. But, in fact, it was Veloso who was trafficked. Like hundreds of thousands of women around the world, Veloso was controlled and made to travel as human cargo for the profit of others.

The National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) has said that Veloso should have been dealt with as a victim of trafficking and not as a criminal. Wrongly charged, she then had to sit through a trial that she did not understand.

She was given a lawyer whom she saw only during the trial. She was given an interpreter, a student who was studying English. But Veloso did not speak English, she spoke Tagalog. When asked whether she regretted what had happened, she said “No”, thinking they were asking if she had committed a crime.

Veloso is just like the 3 million Filipino women who have migrated for work. We migrate because we have to. We do not have power and money and we are put into the most vulnerable positions — physically, legally and economically.

Currently, there are 278 Indonesians on death row around the world. Many of them are just like Veloso and I — desperate people in desperate circumstances. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said he was here to govern for us, for the least powerful. He said he no longer wanted to force Indonesian women to migrate into vulnerability. But if he really wants to support us women, he should give Veloso a fair trial because she is just like us. If he eventually executes her, he will be harming us all.

We will no longer be able to call for justice for Indonesian migrant workers. Today I want to ask the President — will you kill a woman just like me? Or will you prove to us that you are listening to the people and give her a fair trial.

Saving Veloso could help save the 278 Indonesians on death row. But it can do even more. Her case should force our government to rethink the justice systems that fail migrant workers. The Philippine government intervened so late it was almost fatal. Our government must provide full legal assistance to migrant workers and prosecute the real traffickers, some of whom work as migration agents. We know that could save lives and reunite families.

But our government needs to do more. Our government should commit to real action to stop people like me and Veloso from having to migrate in the first place. If our government ensured decent work at home and stopped land-grabbing we would not need to migrate, we would not face exploitation, become victims of trafficking and we would not risk death sentences — from legal systems or at the hands of employers.

With the support of people’s movements I have obtained justice. My employer, who attacked and tortured me is behind bars, not me. Veloso is just like me, except that I live. I am free. And I will not rest until Veloso and all women are free.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 20th May 2015)  

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Citizen News Service - CNS
20 May 2015
(The writer is a former Indonesian migrant worker who was included by Time magazine on its 2014 list of 100 Most Influential Persons. In February she won a court case in Hong Kong against her employer, who was sentenced to six years for abusing her)

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