Thursday, October 7, 1999 Published at 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Ethiopian maids 'abused in Middle East'
Thousands of young Ethiopian women are being enticed to the Middle East with the promise of work - only to suffer verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Now the Ethiopian government wants to take action as Nita Bhalla reports from Addis Ababa.
Yemisrach was 23 when she went to Beirut in 1996.
She worked there for three years, seven days a week from 5am to 10pm. She was locked in the house at all times and never given any freedom.
Yemisrach says she suffered 'mental torture' and even though she is now safely back home in Ethiopia, she still finds it difficult to leave the house.
Other horror stories have also been emerging about girls who have been raped and sexually abused, although many are reluctant to talk about it owing to cultural taboos.
The Ethiopian government has acknowledged that thousands of young Ethiopian women working in the Middle East are being abused by their employers.
With unemployment at an all-time high in Ethiopia, many go to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Bahrain or The Emirates to look for work as housemaids.
But government officials have only recently confirmed that most girls are employed in back-breaking jobs for up to 18 hours a day.
Aysanew Kassa, of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association - set up to promote the legal, social and political status of Ethiopian women - says he has personally dealt with more than 40 cases of girls abused by employers in the Middle East.
" The girls are very relunctant to talk about sexual slavery and we cannot provide hard facts - only that we know that it happens," he says.
"The abuse in the Middle East goes beyond just physical, we know that often girls have to perform sexual favours. But unfortunately for us, to talk about sex and sexuality in Ethiopia is taboo and to get the hard facts from girls is very difficult."
Among his cases, there have been girls who have returned partially paralysed, insane, with broken backs and legs and girls who have been burned with acid.
He says some never come back and their families have no way of finding them.
Their employers only allow them to return home when their contract ends or when they fail to give any service due to sickness or disability.
Government taking steps
Despite a massive awareness campaign by the Ethiopian media last year, the numbers flocking to the Middle East are still huge.
In the last three months, more than 1,920 girls have gone to work in Beirut alone and it is estimated that hundreds more go every week.
The Ethiopian government says it is doing what it can to protect and advise these girls.
Tilahun Gizaw, Middle East Officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says the highest number of complaints comes from Lebanon.
He confirmed that the government is looking at establishing an embassy there, to represent the interests of thousands of Ethiopians.
He also said a committee, made up of members from the Ministry of Immigration, Labour and Social Affairs, and Foreign Affairs has been set up to work with the Lebanese and support these girls.
"Because we don't have an embassy in Beirut, an official from our Cairo embassy goes there every three months to talk to the girls and speak to their employers," he says.
But many believe the issue needs to be tackled in Ethiopia too.
Clampdown on agencies
Most of the girls are offered these jobs by organisations which set themselves up as travel agencies in Ethiopia.
The agencies take up to 7,000 birr - $875 - from each girl without providing receipts or contracts.
The Ethiopian government says it has issued a proclamation to control the activities of these agencies and that in order to export labour to the Middle East, agencies must have a permit from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.
However, the cost of a permit is $30,000 - a large amount that forces the agencies to work underground.
Over the past two weeks, one of the independent papers in Ethiopia, The Reporter, has again highlighted the dangers faced by girls working in the Middle East.
In the last three editions, the paper focused on placing more pressure on the government to take responsibility.
It, however, remains to be seen just how serious the government is in tackling this issue.