The hugely popular messaging service provides an unlikely lifeline for migrant women working as live-in maids and nannies.
When Behati left Ethiopia for Lebanon, her contract said she was going to work eight hours a day cleaning the home of a nice family. She was to be paid $250 a month. Instead, a Lebanese woman and her daughter paid her nearly half as much to work twice as long in multiple homes. If she complained, she was beaten.
Behati’s story is not unique. The Lebanese government says there are currently over 200,000 domestic workers registered in the country, although the real number is likely much higher since many work irregularly. Most come from Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. They are underpaid and often abused by their employers. But after decades of mistreatment, migrant women are finding a new way to connect with their peers and reclaim their dignity: messaging apps.
Mobile platforms like Whatsapp, Facebook, and Viber have become the go-to source of support for women like Behati. (The names of all domestic workers in the piece have been changed as they fear that their activism will make them a target for deportation by Lebanese law enforcement.) The 26-year-old says she had been sleeping on her employer’s balcony for over a year when she decided to escape. Lack of food and exposure had made her sick so she asked her boss to take her to a hospital. The Lebanese woman refused her plea and instead threatened to deport her. So Behati fled.
Being alone in the streets of Beirut was terrifying, says Behati. “I had never spoken to anyone outside the house so I didn’t know anything,” she recalls, “I didn’t know a community existed.” Some Ethiopian women found her wandering around and helped her get the basics—a room, a phone and WhatsApp. Through the app, she was soon able to access groups full of other migrant women keen to answer all her burning questions.