Hundreds of women and girls from the greater Horn of Africa mainly from Ethiopia and parts of Somalia and Kenya migrate as domestic laborers to the Arab Gulf countries and the Middle East, through legitimized and hidden means. Women migration is stirred up by lack of opportunities within the region, the promise of better wages and an improved quality of life in general. In turn, the masses of migrants are driven by extreme poverty, lack of opportunities, conflicts and struggling economies, all resulting in massive unemployment that taints the Horn of Africa region.
In this context, migration seems like the only option for men and women from the Horn. While labour migration does improve the situation of millions of people across the region, and mends their quality of life, the other side of the picture is the pressure and the consequences of migration on migrant workers – particularly women and girl domestic workers migrating to the Middle East and the Gulf countries.
According to SIHA’s research (Caught between Poverty and Trauma), the discrepancies between the expectations of women and girls from rural Ethiopia, and the harsh reality in the Middle East and Arab Gulf countries could, however, not be further apart. While those women who are trafficked, smuggled or migrated consciously are focusing on the end result of their migration, and the possible economic elevation, they lack substantial information on the realities abroad including the nature and type of labour awaiting them, and/or cultural rules and traditions that will govern their day-to-day experiences. On the other hand, the status of women in general in the Middle East and Gulf countries has been subject to discriminatory customs and laws which encourage women’s subordination. Within this context, African women domestic workers who lay at the bottom of the workers’ hierarchy are exposed to violence and layers of subordination. Their employment sphere in a concealed space within the homes and their contract terms are in the hands of unpitying employers, and the smugglers and traffickers who control their financial freedom, generating regular fees off their wages. All this, results in most women and girls finding the reality extremely grim while facing culture shock, racial and religious discrimination, as well as long and tedious working hours with inadequate or no breaks.
Many young rural migrant women are confronted with the need to change their religious identities, and even their names. Sexual violence and resulting pregnancies from rape, sexually transmitted diseases, torture causing broken limbs or shaving of hair, burning of hands, or other body parts, emotional abuse coupled with unpaid or underpaid salaries for years, all typically result in cycles of trauma and mental illness .
The prevalence of mental and psychological collapse among young women domestic workers from Ethiopia and other African countries is rising. Once collapsed women and girls are deported from their migration country in an arbitrary and cruel manner, those able to return to Ethiopia often exhibit mental health symptoms and feelings of shame, coupled with the stigma of returning home with obvious physical injuries and symptoms of sexual assault and exploitation.
From 2012 to present, SIHA has been working in partnership with its member – Good Samaritan Association (GSA), supporting deported migrant and traumatized girls rehabilitation in Addis Ababa.
SIHA has observed that there are structural capacity factors that limit civil society to provide specialized support services to traumatized women and girls with serious mental health issues. The brutal truth is that women and girl migrant workers are off-the-radar of both local and international support due to their class, gender and their migration destination. Consequently, the prevention, protection and rehabilitation efforts provided to traumatized women and girls in particular, are by far insignificant.
There are not many rehabilitation shelters and centers in comparison with the growing number of traumatized returnee girls – moreover, Ethiopia is still categorized as a low income country with limited resources and expertise in mental health care.
There is pressing need for a more comprehensive array of support to be provided, including social and psycho-therapeutic interventions, generic mental health services, rehabilitation, and special programs for these vulnerable girls and women in their countries of migration and when they return to their home country.
Alas, the ineluctable reality is that most returnee migrant girls with mental health problems will hardly receive appropriate services because of lack of resources, and apprehension from concerned bodies. They will remain the burden of an underfunded, poorly-equipped civil society trying their very best to pick up the pieces and provide structural rehabilitation services.
The wretched result of such an ill-fated situation are an accumulated number of young women with severe mental health problems who are falling between the cracks, and struggle with accrued trauma that often leads them to suicide or absolute loss of mental health.