For Women Abused While Working Abroad, Trauma Lingers After Coming Home

Jesmin Papri
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For Women Abused While Working Abroad, Trauma Lingers After Coming Home A female migrant-worker breaks down in tears while talking about her experience of being abused abroad, during an interview in Satkhira district, Bangladesh, Nov. 8. 2021.
[Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]

The men raped her every night for months, Nazma Begum recalls.

She went off to Saudi Arabia for her second stint as a housemaid last year, expecting a decent work-life. But only 10 months later, the mother-of-two returned home traumatized after enduring months of what she described as physical abuse and sexual assault.

“The owner of my new house started sexually abusing me just a few days after I arrived,” Nazma told BernarNews, saying she did not know which was the city in the kingdom where the middleman had sent her.

“I was forced to work the whole day, and at night, I got no sleep. One to three men used to rape me every night. They used to beat me if I refused them,” she said, alleging that the men drugged her with an unknown substance, which made her “almost unconscious” before the nightly assaults. 

“At one point, I became very sick. Then the men brought me to an airport with a ticket in my hand. I don’t know how I got back home,” said Nazma, 38, who now lives in Sunamganj, a district in northeastern Bangladesh.

Nazma is among Bangladeshi women who have suffered abuse while trying to scratch out a living in menial jobs abroad but who need support after returning home, victims and non-government agencies told BenarNews in a series of interviews.

But despite the crucial role that migrant workers play in Bangladesh’s economy – they are an overseas workforce of millions who send home billions of dollars in remittances per year – there are no formal government-led rehabilitation programs or trauma centers to help returnees heal mentally from and overcome such trauma – no matter whether they’re women or men.

In Nazma’s case, she is making a slow recovery from mental trauma with the help of her husband and children, but says every day is an ordeal.

Nazma returned home looking like “a living corpse,” compared with the lively person she was before she went to Saudi Arabia, according to Sanur Mia, her brother-in-law.

“Her mental condition was terrible. She even could not recognize her two children. We found several signs of injury in her body,” he told BenarNews.

Nazma was one of at least 25 women interviewed for this report. They all said they were still dealing with severe mental health issues after traumatic experiences abroad.

Rehana Khatun, a migrant worker from Manikganj district, said she was trafficked to Jordan at age 15, where she was trapped by a Bangladeshi middlemen and forced to work in the sex trade, she alleged.

Rehana was six months’ pregnant when she came home after a year of torment abroad.

She was “a mess,” mental health-wise, and lost everything, Rehana said, adding that her family also faced problems because of her.

“I find no reason to stay alive if I remember the one year of pain when I was forced to work as a sex worker,” said Rehana, now the mother of a three-year-old girl.

According to 2017 statistics from the government, out of 1 million Bangladeshi workers who migrated overseas for jobs, 121,935 were women – about 12 percent of the expatriate migrant workforce. 

“The majority of Bangladeshi women labor migrants remain in traditional roles such as housekeeping in countries in the Gulf region,” the International Organization for Migration, U.N. agency, said in a 2019 report.

Horrible experiences, including physical abuse and sexual assaults, are common among Bangladeshi female migrant-workers, many of whom travel abroad for work via legal means and at their own will. Others are trafficked aboard and exploited in slave-like working conditions.

According to a recent report by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, a Dhaka-based grassroots action group, at least 35 percent of female migrant-workers face physical abuse in the workplace, 52 percent face mental torture, and 11 percent face sexual harassment. 

The report, released in August, also said that more than a fifth of the female workers faced some type of illness or social stigma and got divorced after returning from overseas.

The mother of a female migrant-worker said that her daughter came home with a six-month-old baby after being raped overseas. 

“She gave the baby to another couple since we can never let others in the community know what happened. It is very tough to give your baby to others. But we had no alternative,” the mother, who asked not to be named, told BenarNews.

“After my daughter returned home, some government agencies and NGOs provided some support for us following media reports. But such assistance has been now stopped,” she said.

Shahidul Alam, director-general of the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET), said the government had no program or initiative in place to provide mental health services to migrant workers who have suffered abuse abroad, regardless of whether they are men or women.

“But a plan for a rehabilitation project is underway,” he told BenarNews.

He was referring to a nearly U.S. $50 million program to distribute financial aid and provide skills-training to 200,000 migrant workers who have returned home.


Salma Khatun, a migrant-worker from Bangladesh’s Pirojpur district, carries her child near the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka after arriving on a flight from Saudi Arabia, March 26, 2021. [Sabrina Yasmeen/BenarNews]

NGOs help women to heal


In Bangladesh during the past few years, some non-governmental organizations meanwhile have started providing psycho-social support to female migrant-returnees.

Eight women who have received such support said they had benefitted from such counseling and assistance. 


A trafficking victim, Alea Khatun, returned home from India with the support of Justice and Care, an NGO which provided her with psychological counseling as well as with training in tailoring and how to use a computer.


“Instead of attempting suicide, now I am preparing to give support to my family,” Alea told BenarNews. Now, she is also learning how to drive a car.


According to a report published in April by Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a community-based migrants’ organization, at least 60 percent of 226 women who were surveyed in four districts after returning home had faced some type of abuse abroad. Sixteen percent had faced sexual harassment.


 “Normally, women expatriates face some form of social [ostracism] after the return. Their family also hesitate to receive them if they were abused sexually or physically,” said Abdullah Al Mamun, a program manager at OKUP.


“So, there is a need for a complete rehabilitation center for the migrant victims. Trauma relief support is critical for them to restart their normal lives and work,” he said, adding that his organization had arranged such programs for 66 women and 25 men since January.


Shariful Hasan, who directs the migration program at BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), an international non-governmental organization and the country’s largest NGO, said that “psycho-social counseling and economic rehabilitation are a must for the expatriates who returned home after experiencing abuse.”


BRAC provided such socio-psychological counseling support to about 5,000 expatriates in the past few years, he said. 


Jonaki Begum, 40, a migrant returnee in Faridpur district, said she was abused sexually and physically by her employer in Lebanon for months. Her husband died when she was still abroad.


OKUP helped her by providing some financial aid and arranging for psychological counseling after she returned home.


“My employer tortured me for eight months. I returned home in a traumatized condition. The OKUP provided me with necessary treatment and provided some cash incentives,” she said.


“I have procured a cow and arranged the wedding for my two daughters through this amount. It helped hugely.”


Editor’s note: Victims’ names have been changed throughout to protect their identities.


This story was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.


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