Browsing 'pregnancy' News

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Earlier this year, Filipina journalist Ana P. Santos visited Qatar to report on how laws that criminalize sexual activity affect the country’s workforce. Here, she examines how expat men are using dating apps to approach women for casual sex, and the price many women pay for accepting their advances.

It was a hot Friday evening in Doha when I downloaded the MeetMe app and created a profile.

One of the men I had interviewed in a labor camp told me that this is where “his colleagues” met women.

On MeetMe, I pretended to be a 26-year-old Filipina who had just moved to Doha and was looking to make new friends.

Immediately, messages from men living in the city flooded my feed. Some were perfunctory greetings with a smiley emoji, but others were more direct.

A lot more direct.

Paying for sex

Instead of asking how I was doing, I was asked, “How much?”

I attempted to “flirt” with one man who was aggressive and persistent.

I coyly asked him what kind of women he liked, did he do this often, and did he always pay. I threw in a line about how I wanted to be the only one.

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He said I was asking too many questions. “I only want sex. Not asking 4 marriage,” he replied.

Others were more subtle with their overtures, with one inviting me to join him for “dinner and music in his accommodation.”

His invitation came with a promise. For the pleasure of my company, he would “gift” me QR2,000 since it would be my first time visiting him.

‘Zina’ laws

It had been a while since I had been on a dating app, but I was taken aback by the blatant offers of money for sex.

Unmarried sex may be a crime in Qatar, but that certainly does not stop people from finding it, having it and paying for it, if needed.

Ana P. Santos

Screenshot from conversation on MeetMe

Prostitution is illegal in Qatar and punishable through jail time.

The country also has “zina” laws – the Arabic term for laws that criminalize sex outside of marriage – punish pregnancy out of wedlock, unmarried sex and adultery with imprisonment of up to one year.

However, it has become difficult to monitor how often people in Qatar are tried under these laws because media reporting on the subject has dwindled.

This does not surprise one lawyer in Doha who I spoke to on condition of anonymity.

The lawyer said that he had noticed deliberate efforts within the court system not to call attention to Qatar’s human rights violations – including so-called “love cases” – since being awarded hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup.

In his experience, the courts want to sentence zina offenders and deport them as quickly as possible.

“Qatar does not want to be seen as the country that sends pregnant women to jail,” he told me.

Poor and vulnerable

But the truth is that Qatar does send pregnant women to jail.

Specifically, low-skilled migrant women.

Though they certainly don’t have the monopoly on unmarried sex, they are pretty much the only ones being jailed for it in Qatar because they are easiest to catch.

Many of these women are the target of the men using MeetMe and similar apps.

Often, they are both lonely and make a very low income. This is a dangerous combination when zina laws are applied.

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These women are often persuaded to get a “boyfriend” to help supplement their salaries and provide comfort and friendship.

But if they discover they are pregnant as a result, these woman are often trapped.

While the more wealthy women can afford a trip abroad for an abortion, those on lower incomes cannot, and they can pay a heavy personal price.

Jail visits

In May, I visited two jails, one women’s shelter and one deportation center in Qatar.

Almost all of the women I spoke to who were jailed or being deported for “love cases” were low-skilled migrant women.

This includes Wazilfa, who I first met in Capital Security in Najma. She came out carrying her baby in her arms, wrapped in a blanket and the folds of her sari.

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She eyed us with suspicion, but as soon as my translator explained that we were looking for pregnant women in jail who needed some kind of assistance, her story came tumbling out in a rush of broken Arabic.

Wazilfa, a divorced mother, had met a Bangladeshi man online and he became her boyfriend. They carried on a relationship for almost one year.

Many steamy Friday afternoons ensued, and she got pregnant.

“He told me he loved me,” she said. But he disappeared when she told him she was pregnant.

When Wazilfa began to show, her employer turned her over to the authorities.

She held up a hand and told us to wait while she found a piece of paper and a pen.

When she came back, she held up the paper to the glass wall the separated us. It had a phone number scribbled on it.

“Please call him. Tell him that I will marry him. Just please get me and my baby out of jail,” she begged.

There were many other women like Wazilfa.

Marriage the only way out

Jo, for example, had been dressed in an abaya and taken out of jail for a wedding ceremony that involved nothing more than signing papers.

She did not even speak or look at the man who was the father of her child.

“The trip to the Egyptian Embassy was longer than the wedding ceremony,” she said.

The father had denied paternity, but he could not deny the results of a court-mandated DNA test.

Jo had agreed to marry him to get out of jail.

Then there was Ann, who gave birth in the bathroom of her employer’s home. And a woman who asked to be called V, who was turned in by hospital staff for allegedly trying to have an abortion.

Most men avoid detention

There was a common thread among these women.

They were all domestic workers, they all met their boyfriends online and all of the men had abandoned them once they were told they were going to be fathers.

These men usually avoid detention.

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Jo is unsure, but she thinks her husband was able to avoid jail by marrying her. She no longer speaks to him.

Ann’s boyfriend, meanwhile, had apparently given her a fake name. With the help of her sponsor, she was able to avoid jail. The police traced his real identity through his phone number.

He was in jail for a few days and avoided longer detention time when he married her.

Birth control options

While it seems that sex is easy enough to find in Doha, birth control and other interventions are not, if you are a female domestic worker.

Birth control pills are obtainable over the counter at pharmacies in Qatar,  but these are both relatively expensive and hard to hide from a sponsor.

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Domestic workers would also need permission from their employer to go shopping in a mall alone to buy them – which not all are granted.

Additionally, many of the women I spoke to generally knew little about contraception.

Those who did know about contraceptive pills, for example, did not know where to get them from or which ones to ask for.

Condoms, meanwhile, are bought easily from local stores, but women were iffy about using them and were also worried about these being found by their employers.

As a labor rights advocate I spoke to wryly said, “I’d be amused to find even the most liberal of madames not alarmed by the sight of condoms in her nanny’s drawer.”

Illegal abortions

Because prevention is difficult, many women must instead focus on trying to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Abortions are illegal in Qatar, but this doesn’t stop people from seeking them out.

On my behalf, my interpreter asked her obstetrician where she would direct a woman who had encountered “a delicate situation” like this.

“Lebanon, for a short ‘holiday,’ ” replied her doctor.

This option is however out of reach for most domestic workers for reasons of cost, and also because they would need to obtain an exit permit from their sponsor.

Ana P. Santos

A Whatsapp chat between Ana and a provider of “abortion pills” to Qatar residents

However, pills that induce medical abortion are sold online specifically to residents of the Gulf.

For $240 paid through Western Union, companies promise to deliver the pills directly to you. The seller promises to walk you through the procedure.

However, that’s more than half the average monthly salary of a domestic worker. Additionally, there is no medical guarantee that the pills are safe to use.

‘Invisible women’

It’s clear that low-paid domestic workers are the real victims of zina laws.

However, calls for their repeal have always been ignored by the Qatari government.

That’s not entirely surprising considering that until recently, domestic workers were not even protected in the Labor Law.

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They are, in many ways, invisible.

Sadly, their invisibility seems to be ingrained in the women themselves, too.

Many seemed resigned to their fate. The idea of questioning the injustice of the zina law and demanding better treatment for themselves seemed like an alien concept.

I asked Ann, the woman who gave birth in her employer’s bathroom, whether she wished something could change about the Qatari system.

I posed the same question to Jo, the woman who wore black for a wedding that took a few minutes and a few signatures.

She said she planned to take her baby back to the Philippines and then hoped to leave and work somewhere in the Gulf.

I prodded a little bit more and asked, “But what about changing this law that makes it a crime to be pregnant and not married?”

Jo didn’t answer.

And Ann simply shrugged her shoulders. “What can we do? That’s just the way things are.”

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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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