This summer in Indonesia, I worked with a grantee organization of the Global Fund for Women called Rifka Annisa (which means “Friends of Women”). One of this NGO’s main efforts is to help women who have been trafficked as “domestic servants” to reclaim their lives. Six million women are currently trafficked in Indonesia. Most of them are sent to work in countries in the Gulf States and in other Asian countries like Malaysia and Pakistan. The following are two photo-documentary stories of women who have survived the experience of being “trafficked.”
The staff of Rifka Annisa and I drove for two hours from Yogyakarta to the village of Gunung Kidul. There, I met Seni Lestari, a 27-year-old woman. She was living with her husband, her son, and her mother. Three years ago, in desperation of finding a job, she contacted an agency that promised to place her as a domestic servant in Saudi Arabia. As a housewife, Seni thought her background had prepared her for the demands of the job. Unfortunately, her employers had something else in mind. Seni was the “domestic worker” for a large family with 12 children and 7 grandchildren. She was forced to work from 5 am until 1 am, nearly 20 hours a day without any days off. Seni was often beaten if the work was not done properly. She was able to contact her family only for the first few months – and then she lost communication with her family in Indonesia. During the first two years of her work, she received only five months of compensation.
As I am sitting in Seni’s home and listening to her story, I watch her son and husband and mother and try to imagine what it must have felt like for them to know Seni was being held as a domestic slave, without a way to contact them. I had so many questions: Why didn’t her mother, Murjinem, try to contact her? In fact, Murjinem did call many times, but Seni’s employer simply hung up on her and never told Seni her mother had called. Why didn’t Seni try to run away? Seni feared that a foreign woman alone in Saudi Arabia may be raped, and the thought of that kept Seni a prisoner. During the first few months when Seni was able to speak with her mother, Murjinem actively discouraged her from trying to run away. Why didn’t Murjinem try to contact the Indonesian Embassy to get help for her daughter? Apparently she did, but received no response. Murjinem also tried to contact the agency that had sent her daughter to Saudi Arabia, but the “agency” no longer existed.
After two years, when Seni’s contract had ended, she was informed by her employer that she could not return home: she would be held prisoner as a domestic slave. Here is where the organization Rifka Annisa started to intervene and to work with the Indonesian Embassy to release Seni. It took a year for her to regain her freedom. In fact, Seni returned home only two weeks ago. It is difficult to imagine the pain and suffering that her son, her husband, her mother, and of course Seni, endured during this three-year nightmare. Thanks to Rifka Annisa, Seni is now reunited with her family.
Niawati is the second victim of trafficking whom I met. Not surprisingly, she also came from a small village and struggled to make ends meet. When her husband left her to live with another woman, she had to bear the economic burden of supporting herself and her child. Nia, as she is commonly called, connected with illegal traffickers who smuggled her into Malaysia to work as a maid. Only her parents knew of her plan; she did not tell any of the village officials who might have discouraged her.
Nia started working with a family in Penang, but was passed around to several families, each of which mistreated her. She finally landed with a Pakistani family. The husband had two wives, an Indonesian wife and a Pakistani wife. Nia worked with this family for three years, suffering abuse from the Pakistani wife who beat her and withheld payment. All of Nia’s salary had been sent directly to the trafficker as compensation for the expense of bringing Nia to Malaysia. She was in a desperate situation, as she was illegal and felt she had no legitimate means to denounce the abuse. She was also isolated and had no way to contact her parents back home. Then one day the Indonesian wife apparently took pity on Nia, and gave her $45 to buy a telephone, which she immediately used to call her parents.
Responding to the crisis, Nia’s parents contacted the village leader, who contacted Rifka Annisa. The NGO then set out to work with the Indonesian embassy in Malaysia to repatriate Nia. Again, it took over a year to free Nia. Her ordeal, which began with a two-year contract in 2007, did not end until she returned home four years later, in 2011.
We originally drove to Nia’s parents’ home, where we had hoped to see her united with her family and child. Nia was not living at home, however. In fact, she was working as a maid in another household in Yogyakarta. Her employer was treating her very well, and I actually photographed her in her new household. It was clear that she had not overcome the trauma of the four years in Malaysia, where she had lived as a slave without any of the most basic human freedoms.