Asia - Pacific

Dream turns into terror for Bangladeshi women in Arabia

Asma Akter among hundreds or thousands of women workers who return from Saudi Arabia empty-handed, traumatized by abuse

Md. Kamruzzaman   | 17.11.2019
Dream turns into terror for Bangladeshi women in Arabia Shahnaj Begum, 40, who returned from Saudi Arabia in January 2018, tells her plight to Anadolu Agency.

DHAKA, Bangladesh

Asma Akter, the daughter of an impoverished family in remote north-central Bangladesh, spent a small fortune of 80,000 Bangladeshi taka ($950) to go to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid, pursuing her dream of escaping poverty. 

Akter, 25, agreed to migrate in the hope she would earn enough money to ensure a good future for her 4-year-old daughter.

She was told her monthly wage would be 25,000 taka ($300). Akter’s husband Ashraful also encouraged her to move overseas.

In April 2018, just days after flying into the Saudi capital Riyadh, her dream turned into a nightmare as she found herself doing backbreaking working for 15-16 hours a day as well as facing physical assault.

One evening, Akter was alone at home when suddenly, the homeowner returned and raped her.

“I was so shocked by that abrupt incident that I almost lost my language,” Akter told Anadolu Agency, tears rolling down her cheeks.

A few days later, Akter was again molested by the homeowner’s eldest son and then by his son-in-law.

The trio continued raping Akter whenever they had the opportunity. “I shared this with the female members of the family, but they did not believe me; instead they tortured me severely,” she said.

Then Akter became pregnant. “It seemed that I was no longer a human being. I was seeking a chance to flee,” she said.

Early one morning, when the family was sleeping, she made her desperate escape. “I opened the door and started running like mad.”

A man stopped her on the street and took her to Bangladesh’s Embassy in Riyadh. Her four-month ordeal -- the worst chapter of her life -- was finished. “Then I stayed in the embassy’s safe shelter for three months before returning home in January 2019.”

In March, Akter gave birth to her second daughter. Her husband, though he had encouraged her to go to Saudi Arabia, did not accept the baby and left her.

With two daughters, Akter is now struggling to survive in a society where her neighbors, as well as her relatives, shun her.

Back home empty-handed 

In the last four years, 9,000 Bangladeshi women workers have returned from Saudi Arabia, most with stories of physical torture and sexual assault like Akter, according to BRAC, a nongovernmental organization also working with Bangladeshi migration workers.

“During this period, 152 dead bodies, including 66 who committed suicide, have been returned from Saudi. Unfortunately, no Saudi offender has been punished,” Shariful Islam Hasan, head of the BRAC Migration program, told Anadolu Agency.

Almost all female workers returned with empty hands and many with only the dress on her back, said Hasan.

“We found many women at Dhaka airport still bearing scars of physical torture on their bodies,” he said, adding that no recruiting agencies or concerned ministries were found to receive the traumatized women.

From January to October, at least 950 female workers returned from Saudi Arabia, many with stories of sexual abuse, while the total figure in 2018 was 1,365, according to BRAC.

Shahnaj Begum, 40, returned from Saudi Arabia in January 2018, telling Anadolu Agency she had worked at a house in Riyadh for eight months. “My Saudi employer did not pay me a single penny, as they claimed that they had bought me from an agent with 450,000 Bangladeshi taka [$5,300] as a permanent slave.”

She said from early morning until midnight she had to work, “yet they tortured me with sticks in case of minor mistakes.”

“One day I found a chance and fled. When I was running down the street, some Bangladeshis took me to the Bangladesh Embassy. I stayed there for 45 days.”

Lamenting her unfortunate fate, the mother of four said: “I am now burdened with heavy loans.”

Collective measures urged

According to the Expatriates' Welfare & Overseas Employment Ministry, more than 300,000 women workers have travelled to Saudi Arabia from Bangladesh since 1991.

Currently, 270,000 Bangladeshi women are working in Saudi Arabia, and many are reportedly being tortured.

“We need combined initiatives to solve the problem,” Syeda Shahana Bari, additional secretary of the Expatriates' Welfare & Overseas Employment Ministry, told Anadolu Agency.

“Recruiting agencies must export female manpower on the basis of requirements. Women should also be taught minimum skills in Arabic language, culture, and the Saudi cooking style before flying,” she added.

Punitive measures

On Tuesday, Imran Ahmad, Bangladesh’s Expatriates' Welfare & Overseas Employment Minister, told the country’s parliament that the licenses of three recruiting agencies have been suspended while 160 have had their licenses suspended for irregularities.

“We have also fined some agencies for misdeeds,” he added.

Citing the government’s zero-tolerance for irregularities in exporting women to Saudi Arabia, he said: “We are enacting new laws for recruiting agencies to ensure sound exportation of female manpower abroad.”

On the women not taking steps against their employers, additional secretary Bari, however, added: “In all cases, tortured women workers are desperate to return home without filing lawsuits there, and we have little scope to book the offenders.”

Continued labor market

Currently, around two million Bangladeshis, including women, are working in Saudi Arabia and sending huge remittances back home.

“We never support sex assault or other abuse on any woman. We also have to keep the labor market in Saudi smooth for the country’s greater interests,” Mosharraf Hossain Patwary, owner of the Al Mamun Overseas recruiting agency, told Anadolu Agency.

Patwary said the relevant ministry, recruiting agencies, and Bangladesh’s Embassy should work together to raise the issue before the Saudi government.

But some social, cultural, and political groups and activists are demanding a halt to the tide of women workers going to Saudi Arabia.

At a press briefing last week in Dhaka, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said: “We have opened hotlines and are operating safe shelters for overseas female workers.”

Stressing the need for proper registration before sending women workers to Saudi Arabia, he said: “Still now no recruiting agency maintain registration for female workers. We have directed them to maintain detailed registration so that we can easily monitor them and provide services in time of need.”

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