World Pulse

Ugandan Women Pursuing Dreams End Up in Trafficking Nightmare

Patsy L A
Posted February 12, 2016 from Uganda

Migrant domestic workers labor, and often live, within the confines of private homes. There, they can slip out of sight from the laws meant to protect them. Roughly 1 out of 5 domestic workers in the world is an international migrant. Most of these workers are women. They cook, clean, and care for others’ families—often far from their own. When isolated from their support networks and dependent on an employer for survival, these workers can become vulnerable to exploitation.

A global movement has arisen to create and enforce human rights protections for migrant domestic workers, and bring the struggles of this population to light. In several countries, high profile cases of domestic worker abuse have led to new legislation. Indonesia, Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia have recently taken steps to prevent their citizens from migrating for work in countries with track records of abuse. But this hasn't solved the problem. The exploitation of migrant domestic workers is a pressing human rights issue that defies borders. It is a topic that has ignited the voices of World Pulse members from Nepal, from the Philippines, from the Maldives. And now, from Uganda.

In this story, Patricia Lindrio takes us into the hidden world of trafficked Ugandan maids in the United Arab Emirates, letting their voices ring out.

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Tash | Uganda

I could hear the voices of happy children playing in the background as Namu* sobbed, telling the story of how her own joy had been taken from her.

Namu’s journey began in Kampala, Uganda when a friend recommended her to a work recruitment agency. Fresh from graduating with a diploma in Tourism and Catering, Namu immediately applied. She believed the agency would help her secure work as a chef in Dubai. With excitement for a better life ahead, she rushed to tell her mother the good news. Together, they started looking for funds to pay the agents. They needed 1,500 US dollars, which would include airfare and visa fees—surely a small amount for pursuit of a bigger dream. Namu could not stop fantasizing about her new salary and how easily she could clear her debts in a couple months’ time.

Namu was told her flight would be direct to Dubai. Instead, she landed in Kenya, where a month-long detour would become the beginning of her nightmares.

As weeks went by without the promised visa, Namu spoke up. “I asked my agent for a refund,” sobbed Namu. “However, the agent threatened me to pay the moneyshe spent on me in terms of accommodation and food for which I didn’t have.” With no money and no way to communicate with her family back home, Namu decided to wait it out. There was no way she was going back home to her poor mother in debt.

Finally, a place opened up. Namu’s traffickers confiscated her passport and sent her to Dubai under a different woman’s name. She knew she had lost who she was back in Kenya in that small room. She also believed she had left behind her misery and troubles. She reached Dubai, nameless and with big dreams. Those dreams faded quickly as she realized she was to be the sole maid for a household of over 12 adults and an infant. She was stuck with a ruthless boss who abuses her on a day-to-day basis.

“There is so much hardship here,” she said. “I know we are poor back home but this is not a way to live.”

Namu’s story is not unique. Namu is one of over thirty women who shared their stories in a Whatsapp group for Ugandan housemaids in the United Arab Emirates. Whatsapp audio recordings are the only means of communication available to many of these women. Some of the women have their phones confiscated and granted to them for about five hours a day. Others aren’t allowed to communicate with the outside world at all. I heard about some of their ordeals from their counterparts. Some manage to sneak in telephones.

The women I heard from did not find the better life they were looking for abroad, and many aren’t sure how —or if—they can ever return to their life back in Uganda.

“My search for a better life led me to real hell,” lamented Kyomu*, a 36-year-old mother of four who left her children behind in Uganda to pursue work in the United Arab Emirates.

“I have been here for a year now. The treatment by my bosses is terrible. When I fall sick, I am locked in the house. I work from 5am to 1am usually. I do all the manual labor in a household of 15 people.

“I blame myself for my ordeal sometimes,” said Kyomu. “I bought into the cliché. I just thought I could be one of the lucky ones, the ones who get good homes. The agencies that bring us here completely sell us, so they don’t care what happens to us after.”

Namu and Kyomu are like many women who feel trapped in their circumstances and at the mercy of their employers after being trafficked into the country. They stay because they have no way to leave. They’ve had their travel documents taken, or they have gone through all their life savings. They fear being ridiculed by society and their families. They worry what their agents will do to them if they return to Uganda.

“How can I go back home?” cried Kyomu. “I have absolutely nothing to show for my stay here, nothing! And how will I earn a living when I go home; I haven’t saved anything because of my situation. I have nowhere to start!”

Many of these women find themselves living off of meager wages and their employers’ food scraps: one meal a day of plain white rice and tomato.

Without the resources to leave, domestic workers are at risk for violence. “Heassaults me every other day, sometimes for no reason whatsoever,” says one woman of her employer. Another woman describes how behind closed doors, her boss rapes her, threatening to take away her pay if she speaks up. Other women suffer verbal abuse by employers who call them dogs and monkeys.

I will never forget the voice of a woman crying from bondage in a bathroom cell. She had not had a meal all day. “I am tired, I think this is the end of me. I am thinking of taking my life.” It was not the first time she was locked in the filthy bathroom.

“Don't do it,” cried the other girls in the Whatsapp group. “Please, don't!”

These 30 women represent many more women who are still in limbo, held captive in their places of work, with no voice, and in debt to their masters.

Some steps have been taken to combat human trafficking, but we need to do more. According to the National Preventing of Trafficking in Persons Office, reported trafficking cases in Uganda have declined from 837 cases in 2013 to 294 cases in 2014.

In January, in light of human rights abuses in another Gulf state, Saudi Arabia, the Ugandan government took the preventative step of banning housemaids from being sent there. This can be considered a victory, but the Ugandan government needs to do more to show its commitment to combating human trafficking.

Employers only get away with abusing maids because they are aware nothing can be done to them. There is continued need to investigate recruitment agencies and bring the criminals to Justice.

The lives of trafficking victims are often forgotten until a visible tragedy, like a death, brings the issue to light. There are still women in bondage who will need to be returned safely home.

I dare the government to crack down on incompetent recruitment agencies and traffickers and to ensure that there is accountability when a case of trafficking arises. I ask individuals to think of how they treat maids in their homes and what example they are teaching their children. And I challenge us all to keep fighting for women like Namu and Kyomu.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Take Action: Join Patricia in raising your voice on this issue. Sign her petition.

Comments 11

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Feb 15, 2016
Feb 15, 2016

Thank you Patricia for sharing the experiences of Namu and Kyomu with us. As sad as the experiences you narrated are, but those are real life situations of women, especially women from Africa. Poverty has been a driving force pushing African women into risky adventures and taking tool of so many precious lifes. Slavery of women for labour or for sex are violence against them and amount to abuse of women's rights. It is our collective responsibility to stand together in solidarity and in actions that would draw attention of our governments to the sufferings of African women.  

Thank you once again for raising your voice for the voiceless.

Celine Osukwu

Feb 15, 2016
Feb 15, 2016

Thank you for sharing their stories Patricia.  So much of the world believes the concept of the "indentured servant" and slavery ended in the 1800s.  It is unacceptable that these women are left without choices or protection.  


Nusrat Ara
Feb 17, 2016
Feb 17, 2016

Thanks Patricia for sharing their story. Human Trafficking is a big issue and we need to create more awareness about the issue.

Keep writing.

Feb 17, 2016
Feb 17, 2016

Thank you so much for sharing this Patricia. It's such a tragedy that human trafficking is prevalent in our society. Further, the law does not provide an effective remedy in most of these cases. We will continue to raise awareness of this issue until governments around the world decide to take effective action. 

Feb 18, 2016
Feb 18, 2016

I am witness to the excitement of women (and men) when they are traveling overseas to work and often in the countries middle east. Some of them are first time traveler with looks of disbelief that they even reached the airport and bound to take their first plane ride while thinking of what good ife they will be bringing to their families - to the families they will be leaving behind once they boarded the plane and off to the new destination.

I've heard stories too of women being lured out of bliss with promise of money and good life not knowing exactly why they agreed to it but because traffickers are such good talkers, women just fall in the trap and more often than not are not able to get out of.

But I too have heard good stories came out of this migration. Many lives had changed. I am a product of such, my dad also went overseas to earn good money to send us four children to good school and have the life we want and we did just that and made our parents proud.

Migration is not bad but when someone is put in harms way consciouly (by the agency or by the "masters") then it becomes really really bad.

Human trafficking is a serious crime against humanity in so many ways, it is the modern day slavery that nobody wants to admit. The only problem now is that many people, mostly women do it knowing the "uncertainties" they will face once overseas, and that makes it more difficult to tackle.

Human trafficking increased when people felt trapped in their own country and community. When they feel progress can only be achieved if one have a lot of money and often overseas is where many thing will find it.

A lot of social issues evolved around poverty or the lack of means to live a decent life, to enjoying basic services and getting the satisfaction of staying where they are. I know too that a lot of efforts have been put in to solve the problem of poverty but with the other crimes against humanities especially war, the problem seems to be doubling. The government will need to triple its effort to solve the root cause of the problem and let the others wither and die with it (if ever that happens).

Patricia, your post put faces (and voices) in the problem of household domestic abuse. I hope your plea is heard by your government. I hope my country too will do more about it, I hope Nepal and Indonesia and all other countries stand with us to do something about it and finally make a dent and effect change to better the lives of the many women in domestic work outside their countries.

Here in WP we can keep raising our voices for others to hear and heed and effect change.

Mar 02, 2016
Mar 02, 2016

I so appreciate your comment here Coolasas because it's so true that often, particularly with women, the worst of the offenses are tied to something that in and of it self can be inherently good, like migration for work.  

JK Wilson
Feb 24, 2016
Feb 24, 2016

Hey Guys,Thanks for sharing, I was in Uganda working on my master thesis project which deals with unpaid domestic workers from the rural areas of Uganda. It's really difficult hearing their stories but it's important as every stories will empower women at different level.

Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi
Apr 01, 2016
Apr 01, 2016

Hi Patricia This is very heartbreaking. My eyes are filled with tears. I know many of these women are forced to take on these jobs in hope of a better life, but some never live to see another day. One of my maids told me she wanted to start a business and stop working as a housemaid . When she left our home, after about a year i heard from her relatives that she left for Saudi Arabia but was afriad to tell me. No one has heard from her since 2012. If she had asked for my advice i would have told her but she thought that she had landed on a gold mine. Thanks for sharing and am glad these women have a whatsapp group where they can encourage and support one Another. Alot needs to be done for sure. Stay blessed

Apr 10, 2016
Apr 10, 2016

Thank you for sharing!

Apr 14, 2016
Apr 14, 2016


thank you for opening the rest of the world to the plight of our Ugandan women. It is sad that even well educated young ladies we know are falling for these gimmicks by the recruitment agencies, all in the name of getting a better life. I personally feel that it is a case of desperateness and one that we as women can combat, we can will and teach ourselves to be self reliant, to come up with ways of helping ourselves even in the midst of poverty. I am a firm believer that where there is a will...there truly is a way. It is high time we found a better way than working overseas, we can make it here too!!!!

Ward Reddick
Mar 29, 2017
Mar 29, 2017

thank you for the thorough work you do Patricia, you have confirmed all of my worst fears and more, but it is a relief to know there are people such as yourself taking such time to understand and help and communicate for these woman..

I am in the midst of an identical situation with a friend/former employee currently working in Muscat, having left her baby at home with a sister.  We have been in regular contact as she has slowly declined emotionally and physically over the past year.. at the moment she is being held at the local office after leaving her second failed attempt to complete a six-month contract due to fear, hunger, and exhaustion.  She is in the same Whatsapp group as the Prossy woman that recently died of an apparent suicide.. I think it was the last straw for my friend.

She has no use of her phone now that she is at the office, and of course they are not letting her communicate with anyone.  The office is asking for a very large sum of money from her family to send her home early, effectively trying to claw back every shilling they have paid her and then some.  Her family cannot possibly raise the amount..

It is a situation beyond my ability to imagine, but she was brave/desperate enough to demand to be returned to the office, and she was resolved to refuse to accept a position at another home.. she has been there for over two weeks.. not a word except for the suspect assurances of the office that she is fine though unable to speak on the phone to confirm it.

So another horrible story possibly in the making.  Any suggestions welcomed. Although I possess a lot of confirmation of her identity and desire to come home, office and recruiter contacts, I fear her employers are monsters and my sense is that negotiating with monsters is a complicated affair..

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