Facing jail, unmarried pregnant women in Qatar left with hard choices

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Anne (not her real name) is almost out of options. The 40-year-old Filipina has been laying low in Doha after giving birth to her daughter at home in Qatar last winter.

In doing so, she broke two of Qatar’s laws – delivering a baby at home, and giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Sharing her story with Doha News, the former domestic worker said that despite her best efforts, she knows all roads will eventually lead to jail.

When Anne turns herself in, she will become one of the nearly 100 expat women a year who are arrested and jailed in Qatar for giving birth to a baby out of wedlock.

Anne’s story

When we meet, Anne is cradling her fourth child, an eight-month-old girl with an engaging smile who is wearing a black headband and a black and white summer dress.

Anne has three grown-up children who live in the Philippines with her husband, from whom she is estranged. She’s worked as a domestic helper in Qatar for three years, and it was here she met her boyfriend, her daughter’s father.

Although Anne is separated from her husband, they are still married because divorce is not legal for Catholics in the Philippines. The only option would be an annulment, which is both too expensive, and would render her other three children illegitimate, she said.

Anne’s Catholic faith and Qatar’s strict abortion laws made seeking an illegal termination impossible. “To me, it would have been a double sin,” she said.

Though Anne could have tried to leave Qatar when she learned she was pregnant, she said her initial reaction was denial. Later, when she began showing, she feared asking her sponsor for an exit permit.

When she moved here, she paid a Qatari for her visa, an illegal transaction known colloquially in the Filipino community as a “freelance visa.” By paying for a sponsor, she essentially bought the right to work illegally as an un-sponsored maid, on her own terms.

“I didn’t think he’d have let me go,” she said about not asking for an exit permit. “And also, I wanted to stay and work. I wanted to help my youngest daughter to finish her studies.”

Difficult decision

Extra-marital sex and adultery are illegal under Qatari law, and giving birth to an illegitimate baby results in a 12-month jail sentence on average, embassy officials have said.

While it’s understood that many unmarried women who find themselves in a predicament like Anne’s leave the country to avoid prosecution, some stay hoping that they will not get in trouble with the authorities. Others are unable to leave because their sponsor will not give them an exit permit.

Doha News was contacted by another woman in a similar position last year, who was desperate for information about the fate that awaited her. She too had difficulty obtaining an exit permit and also wanted to remain in Qatar to continue earning money.

Here is part of her email:

I want to know if you have any idea about the laws here in Qatar regarding giving birth without a marriage certificate and single? All I want is for my baby to be safe and not be taken away from me. I’m worried and I’m scared of that. I’m alone here and I don’t have relatives…

Please let me know if you know of anything about cases same as mine. I just want to know what to do and where to go to protect my baby.

According to her embassy, she is now serving a one-year jail term with her baby.

Many women whose sponsors refuse to let them leave Qatar run away and seek help from their embassy – but most still land in jail, as the deportation center which they are required to pass through carries out regular pregnancy tests, an embassy source told us.  

Others are excused from jail time if the father of the baby agrees to marry the mother, said Dr. Najeeb al-Nuaimi, a criminal lawyer and former justice minister of Qatar. All that’s really needed is the promise to marry – the couple can always leave the country and not say ‘I do,’ he told Doha News.

Finally, a further group of women remain in Qatar because they believe that staying here – and the resulting punishment they face – is a better option than the poverty they might face back home. 

Some of these women choose not to tell their families that they are in jail, Almonguera said.

 ”These women ask us not to notify their families, so we don’t, unless their families ring up inquiring about them, and we don’t know what else to tell them.”

Giving birth alone

It is unclear whether Anne told anyone back home of her predicament. Anne’s boyfriend returned to the Philippines shortly after she found out she was pregnant, leaving her to manage alone.

She was also alone when the time came for her to deliver, in her bedroom in the home where she was being paid to provide childcare.

“I remained in my room when I went into labor, because I knew I’d get in trouble if I gave birth in the hospital,” Anne said.

“I’d done two years’ training as a midwife, so I knew about childbirth – but of course this was the first time I’d used my skills on myself. I didn’t feel scared. I felt the whole time that I would deliver her safely.”

Anne took her baby to a private medical clinic for a check-up afterwards, and, suspicions aroused, the clinic questioned her about the circumstances of the birth.

When she admitted the truth, the doctor suggested she call her relatives, a couple, in Qatar to ask if they’d consider pretending to be the parents of her daughter.

“I did call them, but they refused,” she said.

Presenting her marriage certificate to a hospital so that she could obtain a proper birth certificate for her child was also not an option.

The authorities check the immigration records of unaccompanied mothers to find out whether they visited their home countries around the time of conception, or whether their husband visited them in Qatar around the same time, an embassy source has told us.

Soon after giving birth, Anne’s residence permit expired, and, running out of options, she sought help from her embassy, which advised her to surrender herself to the police. 

Despite this advice, Anne has chosen to continue to work illegally in Qatar to save some money, ahead of the jail term which she knows is inevitable. She won’t disclose when she intends to turn herself in.

“I feel very nervous about going to prison – very stressed. And my poor baby – what will it be like for her, living in jail? My poor baby.”

Seeking help

To get an idea of how common pregnancy out of wedlock is in Qatar, Doha News contacted three embassies which together represent a large percentage of the expat community in Qatar – the embassies of the Philippines, Nepal and India.

On average, three Filipina women a month visit their embassy for help after becoming pregnant by a man who is not their husband, Almonguera, the embassy’s Vice Consul, said.

“Here at the embassy, we just give them options. We tell them they will face jail. Some want to delay, but we tell them it will definitely happen in the end, so it’s best to face it now.

If they choose not to surrender to the police immediately, the embassy requires them to sign an affidavit to say that it’s their decision to leave, and that they were advised against it.”

Harihar Kant Poudel, Second Secretary of the Nepal embassy, told us that an average of five Nepalese women here are arrested for illegitimate birth each month.

He added that many Nepalese women in Qatar take drastic action when they discover they have unintentionally become pregnant:

“They purchase medicines from our country for an illegal abortion. They have the abortion here, but if it doesn’t work, or they have serious complications, they go to hospital, where they are then arrested.”

Meanwhile, the Indian Embassy has confirmed that there are currently two Indian women serving jail sentences in Qatar for illegal birth, a tally which Second Secretary Sasi Kumar described as “low.”

When asked why this was the case, given Qatar’s large Indian expat population, Kumar offered no explanation.

Jail conditions

Mothers jailed for illegitimate birth in Qatar are able to keep their babies with them in the prison.

The babies sleep beside them in their beds in shared rooms, and they are provided with baby milk, clothing and blankets by the prison and by visiting embassy officials.

The women have access to a television and newspapers, and are visited monthly by embassy staff. If they have savings, they are able to buy telephone cards, in addition to a monthly phone call to their families. 

They are also able to buy extra food and snacks, to supplement the food provided free by the prison. Medical facilities are provided for the mothers and their children, Almonguera says. 

The law governing how Qatar’s jails are run, Law No 3 of 2009 on the Regulation of Penal and Correctional Institutions, provides further insight into life in Qatar’s prisons.

It states that prisoners are allowed to shower with water and soap at least once each week, but that female prisoners’ hair must not be cut, unless for medical reasons. It also says that they should have an hour of physical activity a day.

Despite the law requiring “programmes of educational seminars and lectures as well as other entertainment programmes,” officials at the Philippines embassy were unable to confirm whether their nationals have access to these options.

The law also discusses the rules governing births in prison, and adds that women can keep their children with them up until the age of two.

If they choose not to keep their baby with them, the government will either give the child to the father or anyone else with custody rights, or place the child in a foster home and arrange regular visits with the mother, according to the law.

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo for illustrative purposes by Angela Randall