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Bangladeshi domestic workers face abuse in Saudi Arabia

Zobaer Ahmed
September 7, 2018

Hundreds of Bangladeshi women working as domestic helps in Saudi households have accused their employers of committing severe physical, mental and sexual abuses. DW spoke to some of the women about their plight.

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Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Sharma

"Once I returned to my country, I had to get admitted into a hospital for 20 days. I could not even walk," said 25-year-old Shefali Begum, a Bangladeshi domestic worker who spoke with DW about the terrible suffering at the hands of her employer in Saudi Arabia.

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She is just one of the thousands of Bangladeshi domestic workers who have migrated to the Middle Eastern nation over the past several years in search of higher wages and a better life.  

"They used to beat me with wires and canes. My thighs are full of marks of torture," Shefali said. Her employers also provided her food only once a day, she complained. "Whenever I asked for food, they beat me."

Shefali hails from a small village in Manikganj district, located in central Bangladesh. Her travel to Saudi Arabia was arranged by a middleman back in her village. After arriving in the country, however, it was not long before her hopes of a better life were shattered. She said she managed to endure her employer's torture for just three months.

"The day before the recruiting agency sent me back to Bangladesh, my Saudi employer severely beat me. The daughter of the house's owner even broke my finger. I was sick," Shefali said.

"My employer's family threatened to cut out my tongue and kill me if I exposed their wrongdoings to anyone. They did not allow me to even talk to my family on phone," she said, adding that the family did not pay her full wages.

An insidious issue

Shefali is one of the at least 6,500 Bangladeshi domestic workers who have returned from Saudi Arabia since 2015, said BRAC, an NGO supporting women like Shefali. According to BRAC, between 1991 and 2015, only 32,317 female workers from Bangladesh relocated to Saudi Arabia for work.

But that figure has risen exponentially since the governments of the two nations signed a memorandum of understanding in 2015. About 218,131 Bangladeshi women have left for Saudi Arabia over the past three and a half years. 

Shariful Hasan, an expert on migration at BRAC, told DW that Bangladeshi domestic workers face an array of problems in Saudi Arabia. They face food and wage deprivation, physical torture and sexual exploitation, among other abuses, he said.

"We know cases where these girls came back pregnant after suffering serious sexual abuse at the hands of their male employers. Others have faced severe physical torture, including broken hands and other body parts. Some report of not receiving wages for months or even proper food," Hasan said.

Activists say many of these girls and women are kept isolated from the outside world by their Saudi employers. "Many of them have no means of communication with outsiders. The only way out is to flee and surrender to the police or seek help from fellow Bangladeshi workers," Hasan said.

The expert pointed out that their suffering doesn't even end there. "At times, these people are again placed in other homes via middlemen. There they again face torture and abuse, until they flee or are put in safe shelters in either Riyadh or Jeddah. Then with the help of the Bangladeshi embassy, they return home," he underlined.

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Women don't receive support

Local media outlets in Bangladesh report that even after their terrible experiences, these women don't usually receive much support form the government.

Officials working for the Wage Earners' Welfare Board, a government body responsible for the welfare of expatriate workers, told local newspaper New Age that although the numbers of returnees are increasing, they have yet to put in place a program to ensure support for the returning women.

Still, government officials deny the accusation that they aren't addressing the problem.

Nomita Halder, secretary of Bangladesh's Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, told DW that they have had several meetings with their Saudi counterparts to tackle the issue.

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"Because of Saudi Arabian regulations, our embassy or the recruiting agencies have no access to the houses where our women are working. Only the recruiting agency from their side has that access. So they have to take more responsibility. We have told them several times," Halder told DW.

She also blamed the language barrier as one of the reasons behind the woes of these women. Halder said, "We are now focusing more on language and other training before sending these women so that they can at least communicate properly." 

While some say the percentage of women workers abused in Saudi Arabia is not that high when compared to the total number of women migrants to the country, Hasan disagrees. "Even if one woman is beaten, sexually abused or tortured, it is shameful for us," he said.

Despite returning to safety in Bangladesh, Shefali is looking at an uncertain and difficult future.

"My son has a brain tumor and my husband's shop was burned to the ground, leaving us penniless. It prompted me to move to Saudi Arabia to find a way for my family's livelihood. But it ended up as a disaster for my family," Shefali regretted.

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