Abused, harassed and cut off: Bhutanese women in Iraq

Govt. trying to rescue all women who want to come home

Tashi Dema and Tshering Palden

“Will the government be able to help us?”

In a hushed tone, Choden asked. She sounded desperate.

When she called Kuensel yesterday, she said she was in a kitchen of a home in Baghdad, Iraq. She had not eaten since morning. It was almost mid-day there when she made the inquiry.

Choden has gone to Iraq in September last year.

Like other similar stories, she was fiddling her mobile phone and checking social media sites when she received a message from a friend asking if she was interested to go abroad to work.

She heard many stories of people who went abroad and earned good income. She has also seen her neighbours receiving money from their children living abroad.

“I thought this was an opportunity to help my single mother and sister and make our lives better,” Choden said.

Her friend then gave her a Facebook account of a woman, who sends girls abroad to work. “The moment I added her, she asked me if I had passport,” she said.

  The woman asked her to process her passport and to tell officials she was going to study abroad. She met two friends and went to Siliguri.

“In Siliguri, we met the woman and she brought us till Delhi. She took care of all our expenditure and bought us goods. We thought she was a good woman,” the 23-year-old Choden said. “She told us Bhutanese are treated well in Iraq and that Iraq is now under the United States and a peaceful country.”

Choden and her friends stayed in Delhi for a week and reached Baghdad through Dubai at night in trucks. “They brought us with loads covered under blankets.”

Once in Baghdad, they were not given proper food but lots of work. “We wake up at 5am and go to bed at 11:30pm. I fell sick many times and even bled from mouth twice.”

Another woman, Zangmo, also went to Iraq through the same woman, supposed to be an agent.

She said they were given leftovers, made to work without rest and did not even have clothes to change. “Our luggage was taken to the police station but we were transported in trucks under blankets.”

The 27-year-old woman said four of them went together from Bhutan. She is not aware of where the other three are. “The clients confiscated all our local SIM. We are not in touch.”

She said one of the clients, who found her phone, broke it.

She claimed they change clients to work for at night. “I am working with a man these days. Besides the household chores, he makes me massage him every night, touch me inappropriately and ask me to sleep with him.”

It has been more than four months since she left Bhutan and she claimed that the woman who sent them lured them by saying they would be paid USD 400 a month and would get tips. “But we are not paid any salary.”

She said when she told the middle woman that she wanted to return home, she asked her to pay Nu 600,000. “When I told the agent here I want to return home, he asked me to pay USD 17,000.”

She said she feels like committing suicide. “If there is no way we could return home, taking my own life is the only solution.”

Another woman shared a similar story of suffering in Sulamaniyah.

The 21-year-old woman from Wangduephodrang said a woman working there, who was related to her brother-in-law, influenced her sister to send her down.

“They initially told me the work is in Qatar and I only knew it was in Iraq when they handed us the air ticket in Dubai,” she said. “Two other girls came with me but they are in different places now.”

It has been three months since they were in Sulaymaniyah and the woman said they were made to work without food. “When we complain that we cannot work, they scold and beat us.”

She said that when they told the two women, who influenced them to come down about their suffering, they have been blocked from social media. “They are from eastern Bhutan and they do not even put their real photo in social media accounts.”

The woman said she comes from a poor family and only has a mother at home. “She cries when I tell her my plight.”

She said they lodged a complaint to Royal Bhutan Police through social media accounts more than a month ago. “We are still waiting for the response.”

 

Intervention

Meanwhile, the government would complete contacting all women placed in Iraq by two Bhutanese unregistered agents and make arrangements for those who want to return within a week, according to foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji.

Last week the government, along with relevant agencies, drafted a standard operating procedure (SOP) and Lyonpo said working on the cases have become easier through the SOP.

He said stakeholders worked over the New Year and the Nyilo to profile the girls and ask them if they wished to return. “The government and the two recruiters are working to get in touch with them.”

Dr Tandi Dorji said the stakeholders met yesterday afternoon and discussed the issue.

He said the government has questioned the two recruiters, one in Thimphu and the other in New Delhi. Both the recruiters are women.

“The 15 girls sent through one agent have been identified and when asked most wanted to remain in Iraq,” the minister said.

He said that most of them placed in Bagdad want to stay. “It’s those in Kurdistan who have problems and we’re profiling each of the girls and asking them if they want to return home.”

Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji said three women had arrived in New Delhi from Iraq of which two were pregnant and one was sick. “They knew they were pregnant only after they reached Iraq in October.

He said both the agents were also in contact with their partners in Iraq as well and they are yet to understand the terms between the agents.

Both agents were also told that their business was illegal.

The minister also said the foreign ministry has written to the Iraqi government not to allow Bhutanese girls to work as maids. “Kuwait has already banned it. Soon this restriction would extend to the whole of the Middle East.”

Are agents fooling the govt.?

However, Bhutanese maids in Baghdad are worried if the unlicensed agents are trying to influence the government by saying that they wanted to stay there.

“I don’t know who the government is in touch with,” a maid said. “I only received message from Prime Minister and I shared my plight. I got some hope when His Excellency said the government would help us.”

Another maid said that those who are suffering do not have phones and are not on social media. “I hope the government officials are not in touch with Bhutanese women working for agents here and luring others to come down.”

She said one or two women, who benefited from recruiting companies should not be allowed to make decisions for them. “There are more than 41 women in Baghdad, who want to come back. There are many others in other places.”

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