Maya Limbu* has been to hell and back. And the road to that hell was paved with her own good intentions.
Working as a cleaner in a private hospital in Saudi Arabia for two years was what this Nepali woman had planned. “I dreamt of giving a proper education to my kids, as I had abandoned my studies after the eighth standard because my parents could not afford my education,” she says. So she borrowed Rs65,000, paid it to an agent who made arrangements for her employment and travel and flew off to the kingdom with a dream that she would single-handedly change her family’s future. The dream soon began turning into a nightmare.
When Limbu’s initial contract ended, her employer asked her if she would work at his relative’s house next. Wanting to return to her husband and two children in Nepal, Limbu declined the offer. There was another reason: the working conditions at the hospital had not been good and she expected little to change with her new employer.
“I have heard that working in a house is dangerous. Most domestic workers suffer inhumane behaviour at the hands of the owner,” she says. “Moreover, they force workers into immoral activities.”
Limbu’s refusal, however, did not go down well with her employer. The man grabbed her by the hand and dragged her to a small room. He threatened Limbu, saying that she would have to spend the rest of her life in that very room unless she complied with his wishes. “He threatened to kill me if I tried to run away,” she says with tears in her eyes.
The tiny room had only a single door and no windows or lights. When that door was closed it was so dark that Limbu could not even see her hand in front of her face. She was on a diet of dried food — mostly noodles — that left her starving most of the time. She was not allowed to go outside, even to the bathroom, so she used a small pot when nature called. Once the pot was full, she could only empty it in a nearby bathroom in the presence of her former employer or someone else sent by him to watch over her. The man had snatched her cell phone, so she couldn’t contact anyone.
Ironically, Limbu’s ordeal is not rare in a land that champions ultra-orthodox Islam. The increased demand for manual labour and the prospect of foreign exchange earnings for poor immigrant workers have attracted the influx of migrant workers from developing countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Nepal. But these workers often suffer physical, sexual and mental abuse at the hands of their employers. Their suffering goes undetected when workers do not speak up for fear of reprisal or when they employ illegal means to travel and seek work in the Gulf, and thus fall off the radar of their native countries. Such illegal means include travelling to the Gulf States via India to avoid detection or availing the services of unregistered agents who can arrange travel and employment with insufficient or fake documentation.
In 1998, a Nepali domestic worker committed suicide in Kuwait after repeated physical and sexual abuse by her employer. Following huge public uproar in Nepal, Kathmandu imposed a strict ban on women working in the Gulf countries. Though this rule was relaxed in 2010 — requiring Nepali embassies in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar to certify that there is demand for Nepali female workers in these countries and that the conditions of basic wage, insurance, accommodation and security are met — it is still difficult for a woman to get permission to work in the Gulf. As a result, travelling through illegal channels to the Gulf has become even more rampant, leaving migrants even more vulnerable to abuse. And because of this trend, the data of migrant female workers cannot be ascertained, though some unofficial sources claim that more than 12,500 such women are currently working in the Gulf countries.
When Limbu was one of these invisible, nameless women, she spent 11 days of solitary confinement in the dark, dingy room that her captor kept her locked in, crying constantly. On the twelfth day, another woman was brought in. Her story was eerily similar to that of Limbu’s: she had refused to continue working at another doctor’s house and was being punished for it. “When I met her, she was traumatised. She was afraid of everything and her eyes were red because of crying and [her] body was trembling because of weakness,” Limbu recalls.
“That woman was in her mid-forties. She told me that she had to do dirty work for [the] house-owner’s wife and for his son,” Limbu says. The woman was forced to perform sexual acts on the head of the household and the son, and if she refused, they would beat her.
This way, Limbu got a friend in captivity. They shared their miseries, wept together and hoped for something better to happen. As days went by, more girls arrived. At one point, their number grew to seven — all women originating from rural Nepal.
Their employer would visit them once every week and ask if they would cooperate. Upon hearing their rejections, he would threaten “to leave you here until you die”.
It was nearly three months in captivity, when one day Limbu saw a Nepali man outside her room through the crack of the door. Judging by his looks, she presumed he worked at the house as a security guard and called out to him, grabbing his attention. She told him they were trapped in this room and were being subjected to horrible abuse. Upon hearing their story, the guard went on to inform other Nepalis of these women and with their help, established contact with the Nepali embassy in Saudi Arabia.
Finally, after the three-and-a-half month long ordeal, Limbu landed in Kathmandu in September 2011 with the help of travel documents provided by the Nepali embassy. Her passport and other documents still lay with her former employer, while her salary from the last month, 500 Saudi Riyals, also went unpaid.
While she has managed to escape, hundreds of women continue living this nightmare everyday in the Gulf due to intimidation and poverty. She was lucky not to have suffered serious physical or sexual abuse, like so many immigrant female workers from the third world do. But her captivity, the use of coercion and the time spent with other unfortunate women have still left her scarred for life. Now that she is home with her family, Limbu wants to forget the days she spent in Saudi Arabia.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 5th, 2012.