Modern-day Slavery of Ethiopian Women

She mostly comes from a poor community. She is female which introduces a whole new dimension to her experiences in a foreign land. She’s mostly Christian, newly converted to Islam to meet the demands of her work. She’s black African. Add to that she hardly speaks a word of Arabic. She might not even speak the official language of Ethiopia. She has probably never been to Addis Ababa until she began her process for migration, which can serve as a testing ground for what to expect in the metropolis of the Arab states. This concoction and intersection of class, gender, religion and race ultimately puts her in the bottom rung of the social strata in the Middle East. She has no information and whatever bit she has does not paint the correct picture. Once she lands in the Middle East, she is at the mercy of her employers. She has no telephone access. She has neither friends nor family to call upon. She is confronted with jealous wives and sex-seeking husbands. The Ethiopian Embassy, where one may exist, is unreachable to her because she is locked up and has no means to get access to her consulate. She is the modern-day slave fighting for survival.

Remembering Alem Dechassa

There is a piercing and disturbing pain that comes with witnessing the anguish and pain of another human being gripped in the relentless embrace of suffering. There is an even sharper pain that resonates with the realization that the intersection of class, gender, religion and race plays a huge role in the source of that person’s agony. And when that person is country folk, the sorrow felt in response to their torment in foreign lands is indescribable. Not because of an inability to feel the same for anyone in a similar situation, but because of a local understanding of the circumstances that paved their tumultuous path.

That piercing, disturbing, sharp pain and sorrow is what I have felt upon watching the viral video of Alem Dechassa, an Ethiopian domestic worker in Lebanon, being dragged by her hair and physically abused by her male employer in front of her Embassy grounds. Two days after the release of this video, reports came out that Alem Dechassa had committed suicide at the psychiatric hospital she had been admitted to. She is shown fighting for survival with every inch of breath and energy left in her.

Alem’s story is one that in Ethiopia we have become all too familiar with. The rural girl or woman who is burdened with the responsibility to take care of her family or is bridled with a passion for self-development, which the reality of her small rural community cannot afford her in its humble offerings. And so the journey that requires her to shed her language, religion, culture, name, family and all that is familiar becomes much more alluring.

Is it better?

A few weeks back I find myself in a modest hair salon in the city of Bahir Dar by Lake Tana. Conversation in there is bubbling about the next wave of women making their way to the Middle East in search of better opportunities. A young woman who is friends with one of the employees in the hair salon has come in to get her hair done before her departure the next day. I ask her where she is going and she replies with caution of her flight from Addis Ababa the next evening to Saudi Arabia. I am afraid to ask her more lest my queries and my worries about the life of a domestic worker in the Middle East should come off as patronizing. Nevertheless, I proceed with one commonly asked and somewhat irrelevant question, ” is it better?” It’s irrelevant because I know she has come this far with the choice in mind that indeed it was better. Yet I ask her anyways, to get her perspective on the journey ahead of her.

She is cautious in her responses but she is also fierce. There is determination in her voice projecting to her listener that this journey is one with a purpose and end time. She has processed her contract through a ” legitimate” agency she shares with me. She adds that the Ethiopian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs have provided them with training on what to expect there, what their rights are, that they are not to give away their passports, and that they are within their right to change to different employers within the first three months of each contract. She assures me that the problem cases arise when processed through the illegitimate sending agencies only. She plans to return back with cash in hand in a few months time to start-up something in Bahir Dar.

If her dreams go as planned, it is better. Who am I to doubt that while sitting in my seat of privilege?  Even my cousin has made a better life for herself after some short years in Bahrain in domestic servitude. That is if we do not factor in her near death experience when her employer’s mother poisoned her and the other time when her employer’s brother attempted to rape her.

But how long do we continue to ” not factor in” these instances accepting them as ” minor” hiccups in these women’s progress to self-development?

Race to the bottom

There is a socio-economic concept that posits that when a certain country X enforces strict regulations say on taxation or labor standards, foreign direct investment will seek another country with less stringent regulations. In essence, flexible regulations enable the ” race to the bottom”. I found this theory somewhat worthy of mention upon reading a news article from earlier this month in which it is stated that Saudi Arabia alone is seeking up to 45,000 Ethiopian domestic workers per month to meet its requirements. This increase in demand is attributed to Saudi Arabia’s placement of ” a ban on recruiting workers from the Philippines and Indonesia after those countries imposed stricter employment conditions.” (Read more here:

This is a classic example of the Saudi Arabian government denying its responsibilities to create hospitable working conditions for migrant workers, and rather preying on countries like Ethiopia who are still in the process of strengthening their support systems for domestic workers going abroad. If in essence the Saudi government is refusing to honor better pay and living conditions for the thousands of women who flock there, would it be an overstatement to suggest that they are institutionalizing a modern form of slavery?

Whose responsibility is it anyways?

Should all fingers only be pointing to the government for a resolution? Do we as citizens not have a part to play in information sharing and raising awareness? Can we who cry out in condemnation of the many Alem stories not put our minds together and come up with a bridging solution that can reduce some of the symptoms of this problem before our girls and women leave? Can we not collaborate with the few human rights organizations working in these Middle Eastern countries to also incorporate our migrant workers in their agenda?

This is the moment when I wish for an Alem2012 viral campaign video that would generate the same fervor for action and worldwide condemnation of the Middle East track record for treatment of migrant workers.

To the governments of Middle East countries who are host to our domestic workers, I insist, our women and girls are not bottom of the rung for us!

Watch “Nightmare in Dreamland” here, a documentary on the plight of Ethiopian and other domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates.

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Love & Light

  1. When I read your name, I feared the article will be the usual feminist approach. I am surprised to find a good observation and my thoughts written down in simple and clear words.
    Many issues in our country can be settled by the cadre-favorite saying, “let’s not make the gov’t responsible for everything”. I understand the people has to take their share. However, you can make any compromises you want, the truth remains the gov’t is negligent and if it could teach its citizens, or at least make sure everybody have access to the free information enlightening many people in the world, we could have seen a lot better Ethiopia.
    I support the gov’t in most of the basic decisions it made (federalism, land policy even I understand article 31). When it comes to projecting a good image of the country, fighting for the right of its citizen abroad and generally preserving your pride and history, EPRDF fails big time.
    Now that I have wasted a good 20 minutes of work time browsing, let me get back to preparing my presentation.

  2. Your aim seem to be to make better conditions for women to leave Ethiopia.
    To many dream of leaving Ethiopia and the very few who finds the gold, will forget Ethiopia and never return, but the rest will be taken advantage of and will learn to late that life was better at home.
    There is no easy ways to make money for uneducated women who speaks only a native language.
    Ethiopia is full of resources and fertile land, why must the gold always come from the outside ?
    The solution is in Ethiopia, not outside. Education, hard work and a good goverment is the way.
    Don’t ask what other countries can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.

    1. I think you misunderstand me Realistic. It’s not about making better conditions for women to leave, but more about making better conditions for women who CHOOSE to leave. For some the “idea” of more money quickly may be more attractive than what is available and within their reach here. The women who choose to go know of the risks associated and yet they still choose to go because their personal circumstances demand it. Then don’t you think it’s important to also protect them once the decision is made to leave?

      1. I do understand you, but maybe I didn’t explain my perspective well enough.
        I like your idealism, but you have to understand, once those women leave there is no way you can protect them. Nobody cares about these women as they have no value for them, they want them as slaves, for hard work or for sex.
        Foreign countries (and it’s not only in Saudi) only want Ethiopian women because they have no rights. If they did get rights and got minimum wages, the demand for domestic workers from Ethiopia would drop to zero.
        All countries, rich or poor, has unemployed and uneducated women. Why would they ask to get from another country what they already got themself ? The answer is in your headline, it’s slavery, nothing more.
        I live in Europe and we do have rights and minimum wages, also for foreign workers, but these poor and naive women will never be able to claim their rights, they will have no passport and many times they will be beaten and locked up, kept as slaves with no chance to leave, I have many times heard about trafficked women here who kill themself because of their hopeless situation. Alem Dechassa is far from the first.
        There is no real dreams, it’s all a lie.
        The sad part is that the trafficking wouldn’t be possible without the help of other ethiopians who plant these lies and false hopes in the womens mind. Those agencies are full of bullshit and send their own people into slavery for personal gain and the salary that those women was suppose to get, but don’t get, will be for a period of time, be send back to those agencies as a commision for their help in providing women.
        Your battle is at home. To protect them is to keep them at home.
        When I read your article, the first question that comes to my mind is ‘Why does these women want to leave ?’ and that is the root cause of the problem.
        The longterm solution is create wealth and education in Ethiopia, so those women don’t want to leave. But that’s another debate.
        Ethiopia needs more people like you, who tries to make a difference, so for that you got my respect, but don’t try to change Saudi Arabia, change Ethiopia. 🙂

    2. realistic, i would have kiss u if i got you( no homo if u r a boy). imm, i want to appreciate what you said. making things for people going outside the country means encouraging people to flow outside the country, indirectly been said by the Ethiopian feminist. i do understand why our women are goin to arab countries but cant they survive by litle wage than getting pounds working for 24/7 and selling their womanhood. the ethiopian feminist idea is good but its better to make things in the country comfortable so that our women will not go outside for better paid jobs and loss their life. i feel so sad when i hear that people tell me “there is an ethiopian maid in the neignbour country. why people we were proud people; let’s work in our country and make our country to develop here in ghana i know a doctor who is famous and clever that he has no time to sit. he is the number one wanted doctor in ghana. he is the vice president in the biggest hospital please let’s not encourage people to go out. i ma self promised to go back to home after i completed ma medicine study. sorry the ethiopian feminist if i misunderstood u. GOD BLESS ETHIOPIA!!!

  3. realistic: well said!!!
    It ;don’t ask your country,ask your self what i did for my land- works for all of ethiopians. It is not feminist concern too. Unfortunately,I heard last week my sister went to saudi. I learned endurance and hard work with her.but she now prefer to leave and serve others to survive.
    O ethiopia!!!!

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