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Sri Lanka

Nun fights for rights of women migrant workers

Good Shepherd nun helps migrant workers who face physical and mental harassment as well as exploitation

Nun fights for rights of women migrant workers

Sister Mary Angela Fernando (right) at a demonstration in Colombo protesting violence against women and children, in this file photo. (ucanews.com photo) 

Good Shepherd Sister Mary Angela Fernando in 2006 traveled to Lebanon amid a war conducted mainly between militant Hezbollah paramilitary forces and Israel.

There were more than a thousand deaths and massive dislocations of civilians.

As well as potentially being caught up in the conflict, many Sri Lankan migrant workers faced physical and mental harassment as well as exploitation such as over-work and non-payment of wages.

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Rather than waiting for them to come to her, Sister Fernando would venture out alone to witness their problems at first hand.

Many of the Sri Lankans, who worked in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East as cleaners and maids, lacked legal status.

Some died far from home or suffered serious injuries.

In Lebanon, many used a Catholic Church address to receive letters from home.

The majority were not Catholics, Sister Fernando told ucanews.com.

Upon returning to Sri Lanka, Sister Fernando continued to offer support to women still working in Lebanon as well as those who had also traveled home.

Some of the returnees shared their problems when visiting the "Christ Center," said the 82-year-old Good Shepherd nun.

Women were offered cash assistance to gain a livelihood through self-employment as well as an opportunity to join training and awareness programs.

Such measures gave women courage to tackle the difficulties they faced.

According to statistics of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, approximately 1.7 million of the country's citizens work abroad. The majority of them are women employed as domestic workers and care givers. According to the country's central bank, their earnings exceeded US$7.5 billion in 2016.

Juliet Scolastica Silva now works with Sister Fernando in a team dealing with returnees at a grassroots level.

Some were pregnant or had mental problems after suffering brutal treatment, but Sister Fernando and her colleagues have cared for them.

Some employers in Lebanon had denied Sri Lankan women proper food or failed to provide adequate clothing in extremely cold weather.

"We still meet three times every year to discuss challenges in their lives and the group is called Lebanon Community," she said.

Rights activist Titus Fernando said Sister Fernando was one of the 1989 pioneering members of Mothers and Daughters of Lanka.

She had also worked with victims of Sri Lanka's long-running civil war that only ended in 2009 with military defeat of Tamil Tiger insurgents.

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