By Coletta N. Wanjohi
DALOCHA WOREDA (DISRICT), SNNPR, 13 February 2015 – As she speaks her eyes become wet and in no time she breaks down in tears. She speaks between sobs, “I don’t want to remember the experience in the Saudi Arabia prison,” Zeineb* explains as she wipes her tears with her fingers.
Two years ago, 16 years old Zeineb stopped school at 8th grade to go and work in Saudi Arabia. She has three brothers and one sister. She wanted to make money and move them from the current one roomed mud house to a house that she would build. Her father, a painter, could not make enough money to keep Zeineb in school and provide for the rest of the family. Zeineb’s family lives in Silt’e zone in Dalocha woreda, in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region of Ethiopia.
Zeineb says she was sent to work in a rural area of Saudi Arabia as a camel caretaker. Her employer, a father of two had no respect for her.
“He used to slap me often, and he also attempted to sexually assault me. Every day he came to my room, I used to refuse,” Zeineb explains with anger painted all over her face.
Zeineb says that for one and a half year she worked without pay. One day when the employer was away she took away money worth her 6 months’ pay- as she knew where he kept his money- and fled to the capital Riyadh, by taxi.
In Riyadh an Ethiopian broker linked her to a couple whom she says paid her 10,000 birr per month. Her hope ended just two months later when her new employers left for the United States. Left on her own the Saudi police arrested her for being in Saudi illegally and threw her into prison.
“I’m happy to be back home, nobody should go there. Everybody can work here in Ethiopia and change their lives. We shall become better, I know. I tell my friends this,” She explains with brightness in her now dry eyes.
In another home just nearby, 15 year old Fatima* is doing laundry with her sisters by their water tap area. They chat as one washes and the others rinse in two huge metallic basins. From time to time they shout at their small brother not to go out of the compound into the dusty road.
15 year old Fatima went to Saudi Arabia to work at the age of 12. She stopped school at 8th grade.
The agent, who connected her to Saudi at a fee of 10,000 birr, told her that she would be paid 1,500 Saudi riyal. Lelya says when she got there her elder sister who had gone before her helped her get a job at a hair salon where she was only paid 500 riyal per month.
“We would work for long hours. Our employer would threaten us every time and was slow to pay us the meager salary. What annoyed me is that the Philippines and Indians who worked with us were paid more than we the Ethiopians,” says Fatima.
After 1 year and 8 months she decided to come back home to Dalecho. Here she found the financial situation as challenging as she had had left it. She had not made money that would make the changes that she had envisaged. Her sister who had been in Saudi for 11 years was deported for lack of legal residence permit.
“I was depressed when I found the friends I had left in school had reached grade 12, but I have to move on,” She says sadly. Fatima has decided to leave school because her father, a policeman, cannot afford to keep her there. Now she is the only one who can care of her parents, 5 sisters and 3 brothers.
“I would love to continue to study but the financial challenge is big. All is not lost. I will start up a business, maybe cosmetics shop or hair salon depending on the capital I will raise,” She expresses herself confidently.
50 km deeper into the rural areas of Dalecho woreda, Fozia* , kneads bread dough. From time to time she waves away the birds that attempt to peck into the dough. Her 4 year old daughter plays nearby with other small children.
Fozia lives with her parents in one round hut. Made of mud and wattle the hut is divided into a sleeping area, and a space for utensils. The fireplace is at the middle of the hut. On one side of the mud walls is a drawing of a simple modern house by white chalk.
Fozia has also been to Saudi Arabia. Just like the other girls she wanted to bring back home money that would change the lives of her mother, 2 sisters and 5 brothers. Having stopped school at 3rd Grade, Saudi was the only hope for a change in life.
She left for Saudi when she was 15 and had already been married by then, with a two year old daughter. She only managed to send money back home once.
“Due to communication barrier, my employer used to slap me often. I would bleed from my mouth and nose, they never took me to the hospital, ‘explains Fozia,’ my employer also threw me in prison for three days. I don’t know what I did.”
Fozia came back home just after a few months, back to the same round grass thatched house that is several kilometers away from tap water. She came back to a husband she does not want anymore because according to her, ‘he is never there’.
“Mother does pottery for a living. I am the first born child and must help her sustain the family,” Fozia explains, “I will do any legal business here, I will try anything, I know I will give my family a good life.”
Having undergone female genital mutilation herself, Fozia says that she now understands that it is a bad practice and will not subject her four year old daughter to that.
“The government has told us that is wrong so I will not allow my daughter to do it, I want her to go to school.”
Tackling the challenge of trafficking underage girls
In Dalocha woreda the excitement of working in the Arab countries begun 3 to 4 years ago. The bureau of Women and Children affairs in Dalocha says that it is primarily a financially driven challenge. It is triggered by the high expectations that the girls in the woreda develop when they see little changes that other girls who worked in Arab countries have made.
“We have banned the operation of the agents or brokers who are trafficking girls to the Arab world in this woreda,” explains Zenash Asmalesh, an officer at the bureau, “we are trying to help the unemployed girls be self employed through microfinance credit schemes.”
The ban follows a decision by the Addis Ababa administration to stop travel to Middle East countries for domestic work. In 2014, the government was forced to facilitate the return of over 150,000 Ethiopians from Saudi Arabia who did not have legal permits to work in Saudi. There had been cases of some death and mistreatment of Ethiopians by the Saudi security forces.
The courage to come back home from Saudi Arabia even without money by most girls in Dalocha woreda is positive enough. The realization by girls who went to the Middle East for jobs, that life at home even though not plush is peaceful is encouraging.
“ We are creating awareness to all community members against this shortcut to life, “ says Zenash,” We explain often in different fora the need for attitude change, that people can make good here in Ethiopia,”
The Saudi Arabia returnees have become living testimonies for other girls who haven’t made the attempt. They are not afraid to tell their story to other girls.
13 year old Lognesh Alemu who stopped school at 8th grade two years ago says that she has no hopes of going back to school because her mother is financially unable. However, she is quick to add that she will stay in Dalocha and help her mother sell pepper.
“ I will not go away like to Saudi Arabia , like the other girls I have heard,” Lognesh explains while smiling shyly, “ I hear that bad things may happen to me there, I will stay home and slowly help mother , my sister and my 3 brothers. ’
Her mother with her right hand on her chin looks at her proudly.
Photo: ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Holt
* Names have been changed to protect identity.