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Recruited in Ethiopia, exploited in Yemen

Recruited in Ethiopia, exploited in Yemen

by Nicolien den Boer*



Ethiopian Christian women are noticeable for their bright headscarves

A growing number of girls are being recruited in Ethiopia to work as domestic servants in nearby Yemen. Once there, they're often kept locked in the house, and are sometimes subjected to physical, mental and even sexual abuse.

Amsterdam-based anthropologist Marina de Regt has been providing help to Ethiopian women like Helen, whose employment agent beat her with a stick two days after she arrived in Yemen.

Helen Chana is painfully thin. She beams as she tucks into a large plate of food in an Ethiopian restaurant in the centre of the Yemeni capital Sana'a.

She's had a good week, says her Ethiopian friend, social worker Kirubel Belete Lemma. But she has a lot of bad weeks, he explains, when she is depressed and has no appetite. Then she relives the pain she endured two years ago, when she visited her Yemeni employment agent, her Ethiopian recruiters' contact, to say she couldn't stand her work.

"He was angry and took a stick and beat me over and over again here," says Helen, pointing to her kidneys. "The force of the beating was terrible. Afterwards I couldn't stand up or sit down."

HelenChana who went to Yemen for work

Well-paid job
Helen - only 18 at the time - had just been persuaded to go to Yemen to do what was described to her as a well-paid job with reasonable working hours and good prospects. She was approached by a young woman who she met by chance in a shared taxi. Many women are recruited in this way, in the street or outside of school. The economic situation in Ethiopia is so depressed that many girls are tempted by stories of a good wage in the Middle East.

"They enter the country on a temporary visa and end up as domestic workers with Yemeni families. It's a hard life that awaits them,"says anthropologist Marina de Regt.

"They often know they are going to do domestic work, but not how little they will be paid or how much work they will be expected to do. They work seven days a week, from six o'clock in the morning to one o'clock at night. They are often locked in the house, are mentally and physically abused, and are sometimes even raped."

According to Kirubel Belete Lemma, who leads an aid project started by Dr De Regt, women are sometimes "beaten so hard they are no longer able to bear children".Nevertheless, the flow of women from Africa to Yemen is increasing. There are an estimated 50,000 women from Ethiopia and other African countries living in Yemen. In the streets of Sana'a the Ethiopian women, most of them Christian, are easily recognised by the colourful headscarves they wear instead of the black niqabs worn by Yemeni Muslim women.

Many women also go to other countries like Saudi Arabia, Lebanon or Syria in search of a better life. But according to Dr De Regt, who originally went to Yemen to do anthropological research among the Ethiopian women, many girls choose Yemen because of horror stories in the media about other countries in the region.

Aid organisations regularly sound the alarm about the appalling working conditions of domestic workers in these countries, and the words rape, exploitation and slavery come up in every report. But similar stories about Yemen are conspicuous by their absence. While it is true that the situation in the country is not as bad as it is elsewhere, according to Belete Lemma, the Ethiopian government does its best to suppress the negative stories.

"The Ethiopian government has a long history of friendly relations with Yemen, and wants to maintain it. Ethiopia is also partly dependent on Yemeni investors."

Dr Marina de Regt

Forgotten group
Dr De Regt says the Ethiopian women in Yemen are a forgotten group. Supported by the UN women's development fund UNIFEM, Belete Lemma is now trying to establish contracts between employers and employees. Well-intentioned families who employ domestic workers are often happy to have a contract, he explains.

Dr De Regt and Belete Lemma stress that there are many families who do treat the girls well. Clear agreements protect both parties, and families often fear their employees will steal from them or run away.

Like Helen, most Ethiopian girls plan to work in Yemen temporarily and then return to their families in Africa with some decent money, but when their tourist visas run out after three months, they are officially illegal. They don't realise that they can only leave the country if they pay a heavy fine for each day they have overstayed their visa. According to Dr De Regt,

"By the time women have been working in Yemen for two years, the fine is so high they can never leave the country."
*RNW Translation (mb/cc)

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