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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

STRUGGLES OF MIGRANT WORKERS

Women return only to seek mental healthcare

This is the eighth of an 11-part series on the challenges faced by migrant workers       

Update : 24 Mar 2024, 12:17 AM

"She cannot tolerate anyone around her, and she tends to attack out of insecurity," said an on-duty nurse to warn this reporter during a visit to see a patient's condition at the National Institute of Mental Health and Hospital. "She cannot trust anyone, not even her mother and brother."

"You are a bad person. You did not give me food. I will hand you over to the police," the patient said, attempting to spit on the nurse. She slaps her brother whenever he goes near her. She also tweaked her mother’s nose. 

“I have to be in constant fear, but I cannot abandon my own child,” the mother said about Sonia Akhter (pseudonym), who returned home after enduring sexual abuse while working as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia.

Sonia had been in melancholy and economic hardship ever since her husband left her and their only child a few years ago. But she tried to overcome the situation and started dreaming big after learning that it was easy to get the job of a housemaid in Saudi Arabia and that it could change her fate.

She joined the group and gave the agent Tk40,000, eyeing a prosperous life once she landed in Saudi Arabia for a two-year visa. She had scraped the money together for many days.

But Sonia had to return empty-handed after five months on February 20 of this year and was admitted to the hospital for a mental disorder.

Neglected everywhere

Last year, at least 2,902 women workers returned home from different countries, including Saudi Arabia, for physical, mental, and sexual abuse, among other reasons. The number was only 249 in December, among whom at least three women workers returned in a state of mental imbalance, according to Brac's immigration program.

From 1991 to 2017, about 700,000 women went abroad for employment. Of them, 200,000 went to Saudi Arabia, but an average of 200 workers are returning home from that country every month in 2024 due to brutal torture. Despite a poor track record, various agencies have sent 30,000 women domestic workers to Saudi Arabia in the past five months, up to March 10.

There is no official information about how many women have returned to the country in a state of mental disorder. Experts say incidents of torture are behind the decline in women workers going abroad in recent years.

Moreover, no legal action has ever been taken against anyone responsible for the incidents of torture of Bangladeshi women in Saudi Arabia.

As per the rules, women workers are sent to Saudi Arabia on a two-year contract. If a worker returns before the end of this period, the recruiting agency in Bangladesh has to send another female worker as compensation. The agency must return the owner's money if they fail. This is why the recruiting agencies do not stand by the side of the women workers when they return in the face of torture.

Even the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment does not have a shelter home or rehabilitation initiative for the returnees who need support.

The Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) conducted a study in 2021 on the social and economic status of returning women workers. The study—conducted on 323 returnees from Chittagong, Jessore, and Faridpur districts—found that 55% of women workers were physically ill, 29% had mental illness, and 85% of workers were depressed. Of the respondents, 87% of workers did not receive any treatment for mental illness. These women were also being degraded socially.

According to the survey, 61% of the women suffered from a lack of food and water abroad, 38% suffered physical abuse, and 7% were sexually abused.

High time to pay attention

The Wage Earners Welfare Board under the expatriate ministry has established a temporary accommodation facility for workers going abroad and returning home. Named after Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the centre was launched near Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport on March 18, 2022. The women workers can access accommodation facilities and food at a low price, but for a temporary period.

To increase the acceptance of women who are returning in a state of mental imbalance, the government has taken up a program with the support of the ministries of women and children affairs and social welfare, said Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Shafiqur Rahman Chowdhury.

Shariful Hasan, head of Brac's immigration program, said: "The government has no program or strategy to separate the workers who have returned due to various reasons, including persecution, as to who needs what. Mental health issues among women are generally neglected in the country. It is severe among those returning from abroad with mental illness.”

He explained by saying that the number of women workers returning home due to torture is increasing day by day. However, till now, Bangladesh has not been able to bring any of these tortures in Saudi Arabia to justice. As a result, the Saudi government may have assumed that our domestic workers could be tortured.

"We should stop sending women as domestic workers to Saudi Arabia now," he said. “Rather, women can be sent as garment workers to various countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, and Qatar, where women workers are relatively better off.”

Helal Uddin Ahmed, associate professor of the National Mental Health Institute and Hospital, said the problems of most expatriates admitted there are physical abuse and severe mental stress. In medical terms, this is called “Brief Psychotic Disorder (BPD)”.

“Most of the patients were under severe stress, while their physical abuses were not deemed very significant. But the stress was very high. Most of the workers reported that they had spent their days in a state of fear, anxiety, and panic. If these things continue for a long time, a kind of panic will be created. At some point, they lose their mental balance."

As a solution, he suggested that, before sending them abroad, the women be given a general idea of the country's language and food habits and how to live well and adapt to being separated from the family. “These things can increase their mental strength. All parties concerned should play an active role in addressing this issue,” he added.

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