For seven years, Banchi Yimer was one of the estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers from African and Asian countries, employed under the Kafala system in Lebanon. Today, the Ethiopian woman is the founder of Egna Legna Besidet, a community based feminist group founded in 2017, campaigning to bring an end to the sponsorship system – #AbolishKafala. “[The] majority of women are oppressed, controlled and treated as property,” Banchi tells me on a WhatsApp call from Beirut.
The Kafala is an employment sponsorship system used in Jordan, Lebanon and most Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. It can be traced back to the 1950s oil boom, a period where several Arab countries hired foreign workers to support rapid economic development. Up until the Lebanese civil war in 1975, the demographic of the workforce consisted of Arab maids from rural areas, refugee camps and surrounding countries. Black African and Asian women were later sought to replace Arab maids who fled during the war, and viewed as cheaper and “more submissive” than Arab women, they became the preferred demographic of workers.