Torture: A woman facing sexual harassment. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Sexual harassment, unwanted pregnancies and abuse of domestic workers are the top three concerns facing Filipinas in the UAE, according to a survey by a Dubai-based Filipino society magazine Illustrado.

"Sexual harassment doesn't only refer to verbal abuse," says Lalaine Chu-Benitez, the magazine's Editor in Chief. "It involves intimidation, bullying or coercion of a sexual nature. It includes a range of behaviour from mild transgressions and annoyances to actual sexual abuse or assault. When people say they've been sexually abused, it doesn't only mean rape, although that is one extreme of abuse. Eve-teasing, inappropriate touching, molestation, leering…. It all boils down to the same thing: a violation of a woman's dignity," she says.

"Abuse is abuse, and there is no age limit. Women should be able to identify the difference between friendliness and harassment. Ignorance is never an excuse," says Jhasmine Cipriano, Chairperson of Gabriella, a non-government group for Filipinas in the UAE. Cipriano urges Pinays to observe the behaviour of women of other nationalities and speak up for themselves.

"Pinays often keep quiet when something happens to them. They cry in silence. People will treat Filipinas differently only if they react differently to abuse and harassment," she says.

"In our culture, it's normal for a woman to make friends easily, smile a lot and refer to people as ‘my friend'," says Chu-Benitez. "In this part of the world, that is often misconstrued as a come-on. So many of our women don't understand the impact of cultural differences and that lack of awareness often lands them in trouble."

Another sensitive issue both Chu-Benitez and Cipriano encounter is of unwanted pregnancies among Filipinas. "Sadly, we hear of more and more cases of out-of-wedlock pregnancies among the Pinay community in the UAE and want to make our women understand that what happens to them is their own responsibility, not anyone else's," says Chu-Benitez.

It is this lack of awareness that progressively leads to the top three problems Filipina women in the UAE encounter: sexual harassment, unwanted pregnancies and abuse of domestic workers.

"Domestic help such as maids, nannies, drivers often face labour issues, are not paid, treated badly and abused by their employers," Chu-Benitez says, adding that the most powerful tool a woman has is self-respect. "If a woman learns to love and respect herself, she won't allow a man to abuse her, an employer to mistreat her, or put herself into a situation which may land her in legal trouble. Self-respect and awareness is all that's needed for change to occur."