According to Bangladeshi authorities, nearly 50,000 female workers went to Saudi Arabia until the end of September this year [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]
Dhaka, Bangladesh – Shirina Begum was no stranger to sleeping on an empty stomach. For days on end, she had to consume “bhater mar” (the starchy water poured off cooked rice) to quell her hunger after feeding her two children and ailing husband.
Growing up in the small Bangladeshi village of Namorikari in Lalmonirhat, which often faces seasonal famines, 29-year-old Begum struggled to make ends meet.
With no cultivable land at her disposal and living in a house made of straw, she seemed destined to live her life on subsistence.
Then one day, she heard that one of her neighbours was going to Saudi Arabiato work as a housemaid.
“I was told that she would make around 20,000 taka ($235) a month and only needed to spend 40,000 taka ($471) to go to Saudi Arabia,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I decided to borrow money from a local moneylender and go to Saudi Arabia to work there,” she said.
In May this year, she started her journey, leaving behind her family. Her agent told her that she would only need to cook for a family of four in the city of Al-Kharj.
She later found out that the family had six members and her duties also included cleaning, washing and other household chores.
“It was a tough job for $235 a month. I needed to work for 14-15 hours straight. It was hard for me to understand their language [Arabic]. I also couldn’t cook to their taste. I didn’t have any access to a phone, so I couldn’t talk to my family back home,” she said.
“They also beat me with a stick sometimes.”
Begum said she was also sexually assaulted by the eldest son of the family, which spurred her to run away.
“I was sleeping in the kitchen. Suddenly I realised someone was trying to get on the top of me. I screamed loud but he shut my mouth with his hand. Then he molested me. At one point, I applied all my force and he was compelled to leave me,” she said.
The next day, she mustered the courage and fled to the nearest police station. As she did not have proper immigration papers, she spent nearly four weeks in prison until she was able to return to Bangladesh with 20 others in late October with the help of Bangladeshi embassy in Saudi Arabia.
“I was treated like an animal inside the prison,” she said.
“I was able to work for only four months and I got salary of just two months. Now I am in debt as I can’t pay back to my loan sharks.”
Begum is among the nearly 50,000 women who went to the Gulf country for work until the end of September this year.
According to government figures, more than 300,000 female workers have travelled to Saudi Arabia since 1991, but many of them return with stories of abuse and exploitation.
In the last four years, at least 66 Bangladeshi female workers died in Saudi Arabia, 52 of them committing suicide.
The story of Dalia Akhter, another migrant who worked in Saudi Arabia, ended with a broken limb.
Akhter, a resident of Gendaria outside the capital Dhaka, was told she would be taking care of an elderly woman in the town Ad-Dilum in Saudi Arabia in exchange for $266 a month.
However, she woke up to the harsh reality when she reached there in July 2018. Long working hours, rude behaviour and physical abuse were everyday experiences.
“I had to work from 5am to 10pm every day without a break,” she said.
“The Malkin (her female employer) used to beat me with a stick when I could not understand her instructions. I felt helpless and trapped,” she said.
After she refused to continue working for the family, she was “sold” to another family, Akter says. Under the Saudi “kafala” – or visa sponsorship – system, a migrant worker’s residency permit is tied to the “sponsoring” employers whose written consent is required for the worker to change employers or leave the country under normal circumstances.
Akter’s working conditions got worse. The new family was even harsher on her than the previous one, she says. She jumped from the roof of the three-storey house in an attempted suicide and broke her leg, after which her employer left her with the Bangladeshi embassy in the capital, Riyadh.
After living in a safe house in Riyadh run by the Bangladeshi embassy for three weeks, Akhter was sent back to Bangladesh this September, her leg permanently incapable of healing.
“Before going to Saudi Arabia, I used to work in garment sector. Now with a broken leg, I have become a burden to my family,” said Akhter.
Bangladesh’s garment sector, the South Asian nation’s biggest export earner, employs millions of women.