“Punish him, punish him!”
"I was so happy when I saw the madam of the house, I told her I'd do whatever she asked of me," described Moyna. "She took me to a room and asked me if I wanted to shower after my long flight from Bangladesh." Moyna said yes.
"After that she gave me a dress to wear that was very flimsy and revealing and asked me to put it on," Moyna shared. "I said I can't wear this." That is when the mistress of the house started to beat her up. A crying, scared Moyna put on the outfit provided to her. The matronly-looking woman is a mother of two and had gone to the Middle East to support her children.
"A young man entered the room, and wrapped his arms around me," continued the woman, breaking down into sobs as she told the story. "An older man, the master of the house followed."
Physically, mentally and emotionally, drained, Moyna steadily got sicker and sicker until her sponsors "sold" her to Dubai where she ended up in a hospital. She used to continuously pass blood as a result of the sexual abuse and still continues to do so. She was in the Middle East for 11 months before managing a flight back home.
Moyna was one of the many women speaking about their experiences of abuse in the Middle East, in front of a full audience at the Muktijuddho Jadughar premises last week. Almost all the women had gone there to provide domestic services. They were speaking at a Public Hearing arranged by One Billion Rising.
"The master of the house and his son used to come into my room and abuse me," described Yasmin who had gone to Jordan for a job at a garments factory, but was cheated into entering domestic service. "The dalal's name is Altaf, punish him! Punish him!" Yasmin screamed at the audience before collapsing into a fit of sobs on the podium.
According to the existing laws, none of these women who had, on many occasions, been treated as modern-day sex slaves can ever get justice for the terrifying ordeal they faced. They are now back in Bangladesh, battered and bruised, working menial jobs for peanuts.
"The first barrier that a domestic worker who is being raped will face is in reporting the event," stated Shakirul Islam, the chairman of Ovibashi Kormi Unnayan Programme. They were one of the organisations who worked closely with the survivors speaking at the event. "The migrant workers going from Bangladesh are rarely allowed to have cell phones. They depend on their employers to make calls. So how will they call the police?" he added.
"If they try to get out of the house and go to the police station, they need the permission of their employers. The minute they step out of the house without their consent, they become undocumented," continued Shakirul. "The employers can then file a lawsuit against the workers for running away."
That is precisely what happened to Yasmin. Unable to take the abuse anymore, she ran away from home one day, under the pretext of leaving the house to take out the trash. After walking for a while, she was picked up by the police and thrown into prison for three months.
This happened because domestic workers are brought to the Middle East through the "kafala" system, under which their employers pay a heavy sum of money to be provided with a labourer. Only the employer can let the worker go—there is no other way out.
"I was bought" was the most common line spoken by the women on stage that day.
The only way that rape victims can get help is so idealistic that Shakirul has never seen it happen in his years working for migrant worker rights. "Bangladeshi embassies in the Middle East have legal wings that are supposed to help victims," he stated. Acknowledging the fact that domestic workers can neither use phones, nor get out of the house on their own, an embassy can get to know whether someone is being abused only if they constantly monitor the wellbeing of all the migrants. "That does not happen," said Shakirul.
"The embassy does not help much," said Ayesha, a migrant worker from Jordan, speaking through Skype at the event, "If we go to them for help, they say that we have signed contracts and so must go back to our employers to finish our terms."
"The labour wings in the Bangladeshi embassies have no accountability towards the government," stated Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association, also adding in retrospect, "We cannot collaborate with the NGOs there because most of them are state-owned."
Even if a victim of sexual abuse does get access to legal services the onus of proving the rape is on the victim according to existing laws. If the incident cannot be proved, the migrant worker would be sentenced by the court for committing adultery, or for being alone with a man who is not family. Punishment for those offences still involves archaic methods like flogging.
All they can do is come back home, tails dragging. "Migrant workers who return to Bangladesh sick or injured are given a small government financial package. Sexual abuse victims, who go through debilitating trauma, are excluded from programmes like these because of one reason only—they need to be able to show medical records issued from their country of employment, to be eligible for compensation," said Shakirul. If women are not being able to report rape, how would they get medical records?
"In the case of unnatural deaths, for example suicides due to torture, no autopsies are done in the Middle East," he added, citing it to be a judicial gap.
According to government statistics, one million female migrant workers went abroad from Bangladesh this year, almost all of whom found employment in the Middle East. The actual number would be higher, when taking into account the number of undocumented workers flying out. According to a report published in The Daily Star early last year, Saudi Arabia requested 2 lakh women in the domestic sector.
"Presently Bangladesh has no bilateral agreements with any country. All workers going are being recruited by individual agencies with one wing here and another there," said Syed Saiful Haque, chairman Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants, in a speech at the One Billion Rising event.
Is there a way out?
To begin with, the recruiting agencies can be held legally accountable for hoodwinking migrant workers, said Nazmun Ara Sultana, a former head of the Appellate Division in the Supreme Court. "Their licenses can be revoked. A High Court order can be extracted on this matter if a relevant organisation brings forth a case."
The real culprits however will stay safe until further notice.