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Malawi women held for ransom in Middle East

Chimwemwe Padatha in Lilongwe | Okeri Ngutjinazo
March 6, 2023

A civil rights group in Malawi has launched a crowdfunding campaign for women and girls stranded in Oman who had traveled to the country for job opportunities.

Malawian woman seen preparing food on an outdoors stove
Malawi has witnessed a proliferation of human trafficking in recent years as unemployment continues to plague the African nationImage: Joseph Mizere/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

A rescue campaign was started by the Malawian NGO Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives (CDEDI) with the aim of raising about 2.5 million kwacha (U$2,456) ransom to seek the release of 50 women and girls stranded in Oman.

The women and girls were reportedly recruited by middlemen with the promise of finding better jobs in the Middle Eastern country, but are now being held ransom and said to be living in deplorable conditions.

Human rights bodies have since raised concern over the matter, asking the Malawian government to take measures toward rescuing the women and girls.

Life in Oman 'unbearable'

Martha is one of seven women who have just recently managed to return to Malawi from Oman. She wanted to remain anonymous and therefore used a pseudonym.

She shared how miserable her life in the Middle East was: "Life in Oman is unbearable. I was forced to go to Oman on the promise of a job, but this is not what I was doing, I was forced to work as a slave," Martha told DW.

Modern slavery via App

Martha's family had to collect money to bring her back from Oman.

Another woman, who also wanted to remain anonymous, told DW that she was mistreated in Oman as well. She has managed to return to Malawi.

A costly rescue mission

The executive director of CDEDI Sylvester Namiwa has blamed Malawi's government for turning a blind eye on the matter.

"What is sad about the whole saga is that besides not being willing to rescue the women, the government is acting strangely by trying hard to sweep the whole matter under the [rug]," Namiwa said. 

His organization hopes to raise between $2,500 (€2,351) and $3,000 to help free the 50 women with the crowdfunding campaign.

He claims that there are also reports that 300 Malawians are trapped in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait facing a similar predicament.

Known rights violations

The deputy director for gender and women's rights at the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) Deborah Banda described the appalling treatment of women in Oman as a serious violation of human rights:

"We have heard stories that women are beaten, raped, and these are human rights violations. We can even talk of issues of reproductive rights because some of them are infected with diseases."

A grocer with four loaves of bread displayed in a shop window in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe
Due to the high unemployment rate, many Malawians travel outside the country seeking better prospectsImage: AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, gender rights activist Emma Kaliya said the government should launch a thorough investigation to bring those involved in the trafficking of women to book. Kaliya thinks that taking action on such individuals would send a strong warning signal to all perpetrators.

"They should also be able to trace those people who brought these women to Oman, so that others learn that they cannot pick people here, and expect that the government will be bailing out people who they are taking here, to go willfully to places like Oman," she told DW.

Air tickets reserved

Meanwhile, Malawi's Ministry of Homeland Security has reported that it has managed to secure air ticket sponsorship for the 50 women.The spokesperson for the ministry, John Kabaghe, indicated that what remains is the payment of the ransom.

"The first thing that we are going to do is to ensure that the problem is being addressed in the country, because as we are speaking there are people who are sending an SOS," Kabaghe said.

He also noted that since the women had entered into employment contracts in Oman, there was also an element of paying for fines for their return involved.

He added that the Omani government had been supporting them to help those who wanted to return, while refuting claims that Malawi's government was not working hard enough to bring the women and girls back.

According to the ministry, there are 350 Malawians in Oman in total, with 50 wishing to return due to working conditions.

Malawi has witnessed a proliferation of human trafficking in recent years as unemployment continues to plague the African nation. Recent reports indicate that about 85 Malawians die in South Africa every month at the hands of traffickers.

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson 

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DW's Okeri Ngutjinazo
Okeri Ngutjinazo is a Namibian-born journalist.