Reshma Khatun comes to the Shahjalal International Airport to collect the body of her  sister Abiran Begum who worked as domestic help in Saudi Arabia in 2017 and returned dead in 2019
Reshma Khatun comes to the Shahjalal International Airport to collect the body of her sister Abiran Begum who worked as domestic help in Saudi Arabia in 2017 and returned dead in 2019File photo

Many women who have faced domestic violence decide go work abroad in search of a better life. Unfortunately, some of these women who were mistreated by their husbands at home are victims of oppression abroad too.

Many of these women have thus fled their workplaces and returned home, bearing physical and mental wounds, some even dead. Compared to the previous year, an increased number of women have returned home after facing torture at the hands of their foreign employers. And after their return, they face social, economic and other problems.

Sources at the expatriates' welfare and overseas employment ministry said, 3,164 female migrant workers returned home empty handed in 2019. More than 50,000 woman workers came home last year after the contacts of most of them ended.

Records of the Wage Earner’s Board, too, shows a similar picture. A total of 695 female workers came home from January to March of last year. Then, nearly 50,000 female workers returned home from April to December.

Most of the women workers went to Saudi Arabia. Saudi police arrested those who fled from their employers or became illegal. They then sent them to detention camps. If the employers file cases, the workers face jail followed by deportation.

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BMET officials said, over the past five years more than 100,000 female workers have gone on employment to different countries annually. Some 60 to 70 per cent went to Saudi Arabia. But less women workers went abroad last year due to coronavirus. Some 20,000 female workers went abroad on jobs at that time.

According to Bangladeshi Ovhibashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA) and Bangladesh Nari Sramik Kendra (BNSK), due to coronavirus, work pressure and torture has increased on female migrants who work as domestic help. Many women face sexual harassment. They escaped their workplace to return home. Those work at the messes in the cities lost their job at the beginning of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, two officials of the expatriate ministry said, the scale of torture on migrant housemaids somewhat reduced due to talks with the countries concerned. But allegations have increased as more women returned as part of the impact of coronavirus.

Return with signs of torture

Migrant worker Tania’s Saudi employer threw her off the roof. Her employer even kicked her and broke one of her legs. Tania from Kajla in Dhaka returned home three years ago. She still can’t walk. She told Prothom Alo, she can't afford regular meals or medical treatment and received no assistance and she is not in a position to go to the bank for a loan.

Like Tania, many return home every year bearing the sign of torture. In most cases, they get no justice. Some return dead. According to the migration programme of BRAC, 410 female workers returned home dead from 2016 to 2019, including 153 from Saudi Arabia. Sixty three female migrant workers, including 22 from Saudi Arabia, returned dead in the first nine months of 2020. Of them, 14 women workers, including eight from Saudi Arabia, were believed to have committed ‘suicide.’ But victims’ families suspect these were not suicide.

A mentally challenged woman from Sunamganj, returned from Saudi Arabia on 24 September last year. Her cousin said she is 16 but went aboard by showing a higher age. Six people tortured her physically and sexually every day at her employer’s house. She lost her memory for six months

After searching for seven months, Mina Begum of Munshiganj learned that her daughter, Munira Begum allegedly committed suicide in Saudi Arabia. Munira died on 16 February last year whereas her body arrived home last September. Mother Mina does not believe her daughter committed suicide. Monira used to allege that her employer was not a good person, Mina Begum said.

Executive director of BNSK, Sumaiya Islam, said punishment of sexual abuse and torture is death in Saudi Arabia. But justice is not done due to its government’s negligence. Imposing harsh punishment will reduce crimes. But justice prevails neither at home nor aboard.

Director general of the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) Md Shamsul Alam told Prothom Alo, since they don’t have control over anything in foreign lands, all complaints can’t be settled. But they take allegation of harassing a female worker at home seriously. Complaints can be lodged at any office of the expatriate ministry.

Returning home with mental illness

Farida Khatun returned from Saudi Arabia and Dolly Begum and Ambia Khatun from Jordan, after suffering from mental illness. Like them, many others started looking around helplessly after landing on Dhaka airport. Volunteers of BRAC's migration programme rescued them and handed them over to their relatives. Government offices have no specific records on migrant workers returning home mentally imbalanced. However, BRAC said they rescued 67 mentality challenged migrant workers, including 60 female workers, from Dhaka airport since June 2018 and handed over them to their relatives.

A mentally challenged woman from Sunamganj, returned from Saudi Arabia on 24 September last year. Her cousin said she is 16 but went aboard by showing a higher age. Six people tortured her physically and sexually every day at her employer’s house. She lost her memory for six months. After efforts for several months, she was brought back home with the help of an acquaintance. She didn’t remember anyone after coming home. Her condition somewhat improved now after treatment.

No income

Last September, Nazma Akhter of Jhenaidah returned home from Jordan. She returned empty-handed despite working for 11 months. Her employer tortured her regularly. She is suffering from head injuries. A local journalist managed a makeshift place for her to stay. The journalist bought her some daily essentials and medicines. Nazma has no home or income. Her husband divorced her and remarried before she went abroad. Her husband is not providing expenses for her two children. She too has no idea about rehabilitation loans.

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Nazma told Prothom Alo that she is facing extreme hardship with her two children. Some days ago they had nothing to eat. If her parents were alive she would not face such hardship, she said. "If I had house, I would manage work to feed my two children. Now I cannot live nor die."

Every step a struggle

Manpower recruiting agencies and agents send women abroad, making profits by cheating them, according to persons dealing the migration issues. That’s why women face harassment at every step. Female workers are not aware of recruiting agencies paying agents Tk 50,000 to Tk 70,000 per worker.

Sumaiya Islam of BNSK told Prothom Alo, female workers remain out of surveillance in foreign countries so they can’t complain to anyone when they face torture or repression.

Female migrant workers go through mental pressure due to social and financial crisis after returning home. They can’t get a job due to lack of education, information and skill. They also can’t avail government loans. These women require separate training.

According to BNSK, a significant number of women going aboard are divorced. Since they have no job after returning home, they are facing great difficulties to feed their children. Female migrant workers find peace neither at home nor abroad.

Director of Bangladeshi Ovhibashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA), Farida Yasmin, told Prothom Alo there is a negative perception about female workers. The mindset of society must be changed. Their skills should be developed and they should be given certificates. The government should distinctly show the earnings of migrant women. This will depict their contribution to economy.

Lagging behind in securing loans

The government allocated Tk 2 billion (200 crore) to launch a special rehabilitation loan for migrant workers who return home. And Tk 5 billion (500 crore) more was allocated later. BMET DG Md Shamsul Alam said no separate project has been taken for the rehabilitation of female workers returning home. But women are getting priority.

However, BNSK and BOMSA said, women lack adequate information, resulting in less of them seeking loans. BNSK is training these female migrant workers to help them apply for loans.

Sahera Khatun of Sylhet, who returned from Saudi Arabia, said she went to the kingdom in search of a fortune several years ago after her husband died. She had stayed there for 16 months. Since her employer's earnings came to a halt, she was sent home without four months' salary. She has no job yet since March and is not aware of the rehabilitation loan.

Trapped at home despite visa

Sabina Akhter and Taslima Akther are sisters. They obtained Saudi visas at the beginning of last year with a hope to earn more for their family. The visa expired on April. They two spent Tk 400,000 to secure the visa for hospital cleaning jobs. They couldn’t go due to coronavirus. They obtained new visas after flight operations resume and left for Saudi Arabia on 20 December last year, but were sent back from Abu Dhabi airport due to new flight restrictions. Sabina Akhter said, their visas are still valid for one more month. If they can manage tickets they will fly again.

Shanta Islam from Narayanganj couldn’t go to Qatar after getting her visa. She was set to go in March but her visa expired in April. She spent Tk 250,000 to get the visa. Now the manpower agent demands Tk 50,000 more for it.

Dream to go overseas again

Many women want to go overseas again. Most of them had a regular income. So they dream to return again after their contract ends.

Sheuly Akhter of Madaripur stayed in Saudi Arabia for 2 years and 8 months. She left her employer after working for 10 months. Then she worked at different places taking iqma (work permit) from her employer in exchange of money. But Saudi police detained her for violating the law. She returned home on 26 November. But there is no job here. She didn’t contact her husband either. She wants to go to Saudi Arabia again for a better future for her two children. Sheuly said, she has begun the process to go to Saudi Arabia again.

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Hasanul Banna