You have reached the main content

Bangladeshi Women: Sought After but Stigmatised

Not enough knowledge while leaving and not enough support on return, the women are rallying around each other to build a community of resilience. In the second and concluding part of the Bangladesh report, we delve into the critical role played by returnees and families of migrants.

On March 1, 2024

Trafficking and forced labour are arguably most rampant in sectors such as domestic work. The push-pull factors of female migration have very much been determined and shaped by the interests of the states at both ends of migration. In some instances, the origin states are almost held to ransom.

“KSA placed so much pressure on Bangladesh as they need domestic workers. So they signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2011-12,” recalls Syed Saiful Haque of Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants (WARBE). Following this, the government started marketing jobs for women domestic workers aggressively.

“In 2009-2010, Saudi stopped recruiting from here as there were too many Bangladeshis in their labour market. They opened up only with the condition that we would also send women. So it was agreed that women would go on zero cost and the employer would pay for everything. There was also an agreement between the local recruitment agents association and the Saudi agents’ association. They demanded that 10,000 women be sent every month,” says Saiful, who has worked in Saudi himself, and feels women are used as commodities and enslaved. 

“Not only did they put pressure on us to send larger numbers of women, but we could not charge any money either,” says Tipu Sultan of BAIRA (Bangladesh Association of International Recruitments Agents). All costs were to be borne by employers — on paper. About 700 agents registered with BAIRA have a licence to send women abroad. 

“When the market opened for women in 2014, the ministry also put pressure on us to send women. Recruitment agents went to 64 districts to collect females. We did not receive any money, but we gave the dalal money to find them. The [Saudi] embassy told us they’d issue two male visas for one female visa, otherwise no male visa. We sent a lot of women, over 300,000…”

According to official data, since 2014, about a million Bangladeshi women have gone abroad to work, nearly half of whom went to Saudi. (See Table 1)


"When the market opened for women in 2014, the ministry also put pressure on us to send women... The [Saudi] embassy told us they’d issue two male visas for one female visa, otherwise no male visa. We sent a lot of women, over 300,000…

Table 1: Female Outbound Migration

Year Total KSA Jordan
2014 76,007 13 20,134
2016 118,088 68,286 22,689
2017 121,925 83,354 19,872
2020 21,934 12,735 3,661
2021 80,143 53,082 13,643
2022 105,466 70,279 11,879
2023 76,108 50,524


Source: BMET


“Now there are lots of problems for women who are there. No food, money, or rest, and bad accommodation. Lots of agents are going to jail here for trafficking; if there are problems in Saudi, we are punished. How is that fair? Musaned [Saudi’s official recruitment platform for domestic workers] also only favours Saudi agencies. We receive a lot of visas, then the Saudi counterpart doesn’t give us the money due. If we demand they file false complaints and blacklist us. Our embassy is not able to intervene. About 80-90% of Saudi agencies don’t pay us. We have huge problems.”

Sultan’s colleague Anwar tries to diffuse the complaints. “Still, only 2-3% of workers have problems. It’s all good.”

Though there was a steep decline in female migration in 2020 due to the pandemic, the numbers are once again steadily increasing, along with different kinds of vulnerabilities. “Domestic workers until recently had one-month training, but now it is two months and most women are reluctant to spend that much time, and they find other routes. But one important condition is that it is mandatory now to set up a bank account to receive emigration clearance,” says Rahinure, the assistant director at DEMO, Cumilla. The condition could indeed be life-changing, as the experiences of the women interviewed show.

Women who migrate are usually facing poverty, unlike men who are not necessarily in poverty and have some kind of capital – to sell land or take loans. “Women are also comfortable going to Saudi because it is a Muslim country,” Shireen, the trainer at Dhaka TTC, says. “They also come from broken families and have other vulnerabilities, so the goal is self-reliance. Most of them have kids and have no viable options locally to earn enough for survival.” Or so they believe.

In Munshiganj, about two hours out of Dhaka, on the terrace of an unfinished building – the home of a returnee – there is a vibrant discussion circle taking place. Across the road is another returnee’s home where she has her embroidery and tailoring unit, where she proudly introduces her children – all of whom are a testimony to her success. They are all members of a community-based network called Migrant Forum, established by OKUP (Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program).


"The [Saudi] embassy told us they’d issue two male visas for one female visa, otherwise no male visa. We sent a lot of women, over 300,000…"

A few take a while to warm up, but most of them dive in without inhibitions – women of all ages sharing their experiences abroad and at home. Taslima’s is a success story. She sits proudly, listing her achievements. She returned during the COVID-19 pandemic and was mentally down, but pursued midwifery and set up a mini garment store and a tailoring shop. She also works on educating the community. “I advise people against going. I had no information about life there or the alternatives locally; people won’t do the jobs locally that they would abroad. There is a stigma around being a domestic worker here, even if they can earn well.” It took Taslima 10 years to come back home, as she was not earning enough.  

She says it helps to have a known face communicating and spreading knowledge. As a community-based organisation, the forum has given rise to other activities too. “We have a blood donor network now. I give free tailoring classes to Forum members, alongside my midwifery work.” There’s a strong sense of purpose to her daily routine, that’s infectious as she brings in more members to the network.

Helena has been to Lebanon, the UAE, and Qatar, and her experiences were repeatedly underwhelming, not earning enough or being paid regularly. “What I sent back home was spent, and my husband took another wife… so there I had to go abroad again.” She had no bank account in her name then. “Now I have a bank account but no money,” she laughs, everyone else sniggers, but their stories are not very different. 

Of the group of 14, only four had a bank account from the beginning. But over the years, most did open one. All of them were paid in cash (if at all) by the employer and sent remittances home through a money exchange. The awareness around controlling their finances, and the shift from merely providing for their families to also securing their own futures, came over several years for all of them.

The good or bad experiences are not contingent on a country, or dependent on its laws. It is almost always at the dispensation of the individual employer, who are laws unto themselves when the only legal way of employing a domestic worker is as a live-in; which begs the question of how laws could vest so much power in an individual.

Jasmine is the eldest in her family and wanted to secure the future of her siblings and parents. “Flooding is common [in the area], and it is difficult to maintain a livelihood. I stayed in Oman for 13 years. The first four years were a huge problem.” She was subject to physical and mental torture, but fought back and threatened to go to the police. The threat worked, and she managed to get a job at a salon. “That was very good. I built a house that gives me rent. I sent money when my family needed it but saved the rest,” Jasmine says, proud of what she has achieved. Especially since, when she first went to Oman, she had zero knowledge of the process. “Everything was done by the dalal. I had to change my passport thrice, even then it was not done well, and my age was faked.” 

Moina had a great employer in Bahrain for 13 years and managed to save, but she spent all her money on her daughter’s wedding and medical expenses. “Bahrain visa was not available when I wanted to go back, so I went to Qatar… and returned quickly,” she shudders, not dwelling on what happened there. 

"They use derogatory terms to speak of migrant women. When we return we face stigma as migrant women, after being treated badly at destination too. There is no such stigma for men."

Children of neglect

Except two, all the women left behind young children to migrate. The children were rarely in the care of the fathers. A grandmother or an aunt or a sister would step in. Ruma left behind 5- and 8-year-old daughters to go abroad. “My elder daughter took her life in her teens.” Ruma is stoic and terse in the telling of her tragedy. The other women chime in with their own experiences of the neglect and stigma their children faced.

Taslima’s mother had offered to take care of her grandkids, but within a week said she was unable to, and instead sent the kids to a madrassa boarding school. Though she has many thoughts about the school, she is proud her daughter is the first woman to have a driving licence in the town, and that she planned to get a taxi.

Moina says these are special schools for children, but those were not the right place to study. “There’s lots of suffering in these madrassas. My daughter was a very good student, but during secondary school she had to endure a lot of ‘eve teasing’ [a benign term for sexual harassment, commonly used in South Asia] and I had to get her married. If it had been a proper boarding school, it would have been better. Our child’s safety is important.” Though she sent back money monthly to her husband, she doubts her two kids received appropriate care.

Amina, who went to Saudi, says you often end up leaving children with relatives who don’t always care for them. “Just give food and a roof, but no moral support. I left an 8-year-old, and now he is a teenager, so misled and doesn’t obey me. Madrassas are only religious schools, and they do not care for the child. In our country, the government and society accuses us when children go astray, when we have problems they ask us why we go abroad.”

There is a simmering anger amongst the group.

Ruma listens intently, and then slowly opens up, saying migrant women do not get proper respect from the community or officials. “They use derogatory terms (bidesh ferot mohila) to speak of migrant women. When we return we face stigma as migrant women, after being treated badly at destination too. There is no such stigma for men. Migrant mothers and their children suffer so much mental stress. My 14-year-old is still struggling [due to stigma].”

Rukshana’s husband left her with two children aged 12 and 8 years. “My family was of no help. My daughters were treated so badly by my sister, though I paid for their care. One daughter even tried to commit suicide. No one should go abroad leaving their kids.” She now runs a tailoring unit employing 22–25 women locally and is happy her kids are doing well too.

Alo is divorced and a single mother of three children, so she had to migrate to earn a living, she says. Her oldest son was 10 years old and heard such negative things about his mother that no child should, she couldn’t continue and had to return.

Jasmine stresses the dire need for help and care when women return, which is now one of the functions of the Migrant Forums. “Families only want money, they don’t care for the person sending it.”

While Moina turns her anger towards the government – “They only want our remittance but not doing enough to financially support us,” Ruma points out domestic workers are skilled, and the government should utilise this in some manner. She provides caregiver services to those who need support to go to the hospital or at home. “I earn enough through that. There is a need for these services.” 

The women have suggestions on what should be done in countries they go to work in as well. Jasmine says healthcare access is tough across all the destination countries. “And there should be labour inspections for domestic workers too. In the salon, monthly we had an inspection. We need at least a check-in every few months at home.”

Ruma speaks of the need for financial education. “My employer used to ask why I was sending money to my brother instead of to my own bank account. But we need to have accounts in the Arab countries too so we don’t have to send money home.”  

Shirin, an organiser and advocate working with the Bangladesh Free Trade Union Congress (BFTUC) offices, says during the course of her work she keeps hearing the word ‘sapna’ (the dream) thrown around – and everyone has a dream of a better life and will believe any lie. Shirin goes door to door speaking to women planning to go abroad and also works with women who have returned, often after severe tribulations. “They believe the lies of the dalals, who offer so many hopes. And when they land, there are so many problems. Receiving half the salary promised, if at all; cramped living, abuse of all types. But families don’t accept them if they fail. Even though often the husbands spend all the money they remit, that is never raised as a stigma.”

Shrin recalls a case she recently handled. “Before going to Saudi she signed a blank paper for the dalal. The salary was then forwarded to the broker and not paid to her directly.” The broker was likely living in Saudi too. “The dalals live outside the country and recruit when they are in the country for a vacation. So it becomes very difficult to nail them down.”

“Free visas for domestic workers are so easy to come by, they are literally hawking on the street.”

"There’s lots of suffering in these madrassas. My daughter was a very good student, but during secondary school she had to endure a lot of ‘eve teasing’ and I had to get her married. If it had been a proper boarding school it would have been better. Our child’s safety is important."

When governments fail, communities step in

The cycle of migration can be vicious. Families break up as one or both parents go abroad, usually separately, leaving their children in the care of extended family. And then to rescue children from the associated vulnerabilities – including drug abuse and criminal activities, they are also sent abroad hoping they’d be on the straight and narrow in the holy land. In other scenarios, women who go abroad, come back to find their remittances have been squandered away by their husbands or families, and the children are in a state of neglect. So either another relative steps up to go abroad or the women themselves have to re-migrate.

OKUP, founded by returnee migrants, came up with the idea to build voluntary platforms at the community level, now called the Migrant Forum “These communities are very close and are aware of who is coming and who is going. There are now nearly 100 migrant forums, and since it’s voluntary, it is sustainable.”

They decided against registering as a formal organisation as it would then require a binding commitment with the government, which in turn would stifle the operations. “If they are strong, they can still influence policies. We need to maintain autonomy. There is an organic culture of bonding and that should not be lost. So we took time to identify the right people to maintain this culture.”

The Migrant Forums tap into that wealth of experience and turn that into tangible education tools – a platform by and for those affected most by unsafe migration practices.

In a dimly-lit community centre room, in the late evening, a group of 10 men and women meet – some are returnees and some are families of migrants. The conversation veers into ever more dire issues – suicides, drug abuse, domestic violence. But there is a determination to tackle all of it head-on, with an honest and open conversation around the mental health of men in the community, and the need for their emotional well-being. Mina’s husband spent 13 years in Malaysia and was arrested along with others who were undocumented, though he was not. “He spent seven months in prison, and when he returned he was not recognisable at all. So skinny. Indescribable pain to see him like that. That motivated me to join the forum, seek help, and also got him to work for the cause,” she says. 

While in general male migrants don’t face the kind of stigma the women do, when they return empty-handed, or having ‘failed’, then they too are subject to taunts, says Sumon who is one of the leaders of the Forum. “They are mentally disturbed, and men don’t speak about it. But if he is supported then too becomes a change maker, a survivor.”

Like Ali, who paid BDT400,000 (US$3650) to go abroad, without a job contract. “I got a health clearance here, but there I didn’t pass. So I struggled for four years, working irregularly, borrowing more. Now I am back here, and I’ve received help and by sharing my bad experience due to lack of knowledge I help others.”

Akter, a construction worker, had worked in Dubai for eight years before the pandemic hit, and he was rendered jobless. “I was suicidal as I didn’t know what to do. I told my wife, and she asked me to come back immediately. She encouraged me, though I didn’t know what I would do when I returned.” 

Once he came back, his wife took him to a Forum meeting, where he met others like him. “Didn’t feel like I was the only one. I saw others who changed their life. I went through life skills training, and stopped feeling hopeless,” he tears up.

Apart from education, the forum also provides airport pick-up for returnees, to weed out any chance of criticism. “Say 10–15 years ago when a woman returned she was termed a bad woman. By leaders of the community welcoming them back, that stigma is broken, or at the least weakened,” according to Sumon.

Opubhia who spent BDT700,000 (US$6371) to go to Qatar eight years ago, says the actual cost then was not more than BDT83,000 (US$755). “I returned in one year, as the experience was terrible.” Articulate and didactic, he jumped into the deep end of awareness-raising. “The reasons for migration can be ugly, and I wanted to get to the root of it – child marriages, drug addictions, abuse…” 

"Husbands who are addicts are unemployed and abusive, so women go abroad. The fear of addiction also leads to families sending adolescents abroad faking their age, because they are worried they may become addicts if they stay behind. Everything is connected. It’s a vicious cycle."

Drug abuse, child marriage and domestic violence contribute to forced migration

The members all agree that there is a huge drug addiction problem amongst the men and youth – heroin, ganja, yaba tablets (a combination of methamphetamine and caffeine), and other mood-enhancing drugs.  

“There were 6,400 divorces in this region last year alone, 60 % due to addiction,” says Opubhia who works with the police on sensitisation against drug abuse. “Narayangunj (a neighbouring district) has a rehab centre but very expensive, so once you become addicted it is difficult to get out of it.”

Children of migrants in particular are very vulnerable as there is no one to take care of them, but they do have spending money that their parent(s) gives.  

Jasmine, like Opubhia, feels drug addiction is one of the causes of distress migration. “Husbands who are addicts are unemployed and abusive, so women go abroad. Three of my teenage nephews drowned when they took the boat out while high. The fear of addiction also leads to families sending adolescents abroad faking their age, because they are worried they may become addicts if they stay behind. Everything is connected. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Saudi then becomes the destination of choice, as the belief that in the holy land, there would be no room for vices. Until it is time to return, then that’s a whole other ball game.

Reluctant to return, reintegration is a challenge

There are huge gaps in the designing of return and reintegration programmes, says Saiful. There is an assumption it’s a natural trajectory. However, recent events have shown the kind of adverse social impact it might have. “In 2020, during the Covid pandemic, around 500,000 came back. And in 2022 alone over 1.1 million migrated. Many are going back.”

His organisation is one of the civil society partners of a programme by the government targeting returnees – ​​Recovery and Advancement of Informal Sector Employment (RAISE) run by the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board (WEWB)

There is a steady flow of men and women at the Cumilla Welfare Centre where the registration of returnee migrants, as part of the RAISE project [see sidebar], is underway. Ali Hussein runs the centre and highlights some issues of dire concern around return and reintegration of migrants. “Returning migrants don’t do much, because they have no financial literacy and have not invested well. They just spend. They don’t utilise their skills locally, either.” The RAISE programme is tasked with educating workers on opportunities and training them. They also receive an incentive of BDT13500 (US$123) after completing their training.

Even as the returnees register for the programme, a sizable number then approach the Grievance Management Committee (GMC), which also operates at the centre. Members of the committee are elders of the community and use their status and reach to negotiate and mediate before cases can be referred to the judicial process. This includes cases of contract breach, harassment by middlemen, premature return, abuse while abroad, trafficking and smuggling [see bottom panel].  

They have seen an uptick in the use of visit visas since the Covid-19 pandemic. “But they do not even know that. They get a visa and they just go. They either are stranded there or return having lost everything. The family or themselves reach out to us, then we speak to the dalals,” according to a committee member. “Recently we had three cases from KSA, and we managed to recover full payment.”

Boshir who had worked in Oman for 13 years and Kamal in Saudi for 14 years are at the Cumilla Welfare Centre to register for RAISE. Neither of them has much to show in terms of savings. Boshir worked as a tailor but is unemployed in Cumilla. Kamal, who worked as a barista, is eager to return to the Gulf, as he sees no opportunities for himself locally. “All my savings are gone. I just cannot stay here.”

Predominantly in the case of male returning migrants, and less so with females, the process of return is temporary, with remigration taking priority over reintegration. Maya and Kohinoor, who both have immediate family members working abroad, have now taken it upon themselves to help families of migrants and potential migrants with safe migration education and financial literacy, with much of the knowledge drawn from their collective experiences. “They don’t maintain any documents while paying the dalal. Biggest mistake. The main advice we give is on documentation. They also don’t know how to verify job contracts and visas.”

They do think people are more aware, but migrants still face financial crises, and most have no savings and also require psychological support. Kohinoor’s husband, who has been in Saudi for 15 years, is also planning his return. “He says it is no longer viable as VAT eats up his salary, and can’t send much back. What’s the use, then? He wants to come back.”

What awaits on return is an unanswered question for many, but that doesn’t deter the steady numbers of men that leave the country every day. Nor does it deter the women, who on return not only struggle to reintegrate but also face extreme stigmatisation.

Mediation and compensations

Jannatunnesa Toma, is an arbitration officer with WARBE, and manages the Grievance Receiving Centre (GRC) at the BMET office in Kakrail, Dhaka. The GRC provides services for victims of recruitment fraud, and has met with a fair degree of success, she says. The centre not only helps with repatriation but also helps them seek compensation. “Since 2017 to Oct 2023, this centre has recouped BDT8,710,000 (US$79445) recovered from recruitment agents, WEWB and even employers abroad. The total cases received during the period were 664, of which 311 were women. We have solved 208 cases, 83 men and 125 women.” says Toma. In addition to this, during the same period, the GMCs that operate at the district level have also recovered BDT9,800,000 (US$89,390), mainly through mediation between dalals and workers. 

“The money given to migrants with successful complaints, that is owed by agents, is recovered from the BDT2,500,000 (US$22800) deposit agents pay the government.” 

Most complaints are from migrants in or from Saudi, which is to be expected given the huge numbers going to the Kingdom, says Toma, who has been involved in this work for nearly five years and sees a pattern of abuse and complaints. 

“For those still abroad, families file and raise complaints to the WEWB, but those who bring cases directly on return still express a desire to go back soon. Complaints are mainly about physical and mental torture abroad, unpaid salary, job change, contract substitution, no work permit, forced irregularity, sexual abuse, and a lot of it to do with fraudulent practices of recruitment agents. Physical abuse and non-payment are most common for women migrants. Forced irregularity and contract substitution for men.”

The experience of those in distress abroad is gendered, too. “There are no shelters for male migrants, so police just deport them when they see them on the roads, without any money or justice. Many are irregular and cannot move around easily. Women have no bank accounts, are not educated and send all their salary home. They don’t even know how much they make or send. They have no account of their salary and are often not aware if they were paid their dues. They just put their thumbprint where asked without knowing what they are signing.”

(Special thanks to WARBE Development Foundation and OKUP, and their respective teams, for their insights and support with interpretations for the interviews.)

Previous: Faith and ‘free’ visas secure the Saudi stranglehold over Bangladeshi migrants