Slavery in the Indian Ocean: The Trafficking of Women in Madagascar

06/07/2016 17:16 | Updated 06 July 2016


'I want to send my daughter abroad to work but I'm afraid. There are now many ads for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait asking just for girls between 18 and 38.' She looks at me worriedly, 'they just want girls,' says Olga, the owner of a small BnB in Antananarivo.

Trafficking. Arguably one of the worst human horrors occurring on this planet at this time. Slavery in its modern form. Men, women and children are tricked and coerced into slavery for labor and worse, sexual slavery. It is estimated that there are around 30 million men, women and children currently enslaved across the globe.

False adds for work lure young women and girls into hidden traps. Told they are going to work in a hairdressers or a bar, they find the reality to be something very different. In the case of Madagascar, a terrible economic crisis in 2008 plunged the country into horrific poverty, pushing many Madagasy's to look for alternative options to survive. Many have opted to go abroad to nearby Mauriticious and Seychelles. Many have also gone to the Gulf countries Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon where they have been made victims of abuse, rape and slavery.

Daniel Silva from the IOM said the increasing poverty has led to more and more people becoming victims of trafficking both inside and outside of Madagascar.

In a study conducted by the IOM in six regions of Madagascar as well as Lebanon and Kuwait, they found most of the trafficking is for forced labor and in the case of women and girls its sexual exploitation.

Soloarivelo Anntsa from the Ministry of Population and Social Protection and Women's protection in Antananarivo told me that the situation was so bad they created the ministry to prevent abuse related to migration.

'When they are sent overseas they think that they are going to have a job but there are cases where they're not paid. The employers are supposed to give them a return ticket but sometimes they don't do this. They take their passports and because they don't know about the country its really difficult for them to go to the police or to do anything,' she says.

Jeannie Berthina working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Antananarivo says recruitment agencies usually recruit girls from the poorest parts of northern Madagascar and tell them that it's going to be paradise.

'We know that there is physical abuse and sexual abuse,' she says.


Madagasy women who have gone to work in Saudi Arabia have told Berthina that men have threatened to kill them if they don't do what they say.

One of the problems in the Gulf countries is the Kafala System which allows migrants to only have one employer. If the migrant chooses to change employer due to abuse, they have no rights. This then limits the movements of the migrants and makes them more vulnerable to abuse.

Silva says there have been reports of rape. 'Kuwait seems to be the worst,' he says. 'Maids are seen as the private property of the house and can be disposed as they want.'

In 2015 the Ministry of Employment cancelled all the permits for the recruitment agencies in order to force them to apply for new permits in an attempt to increase regulation. However, there are still recruitment agencies being run illegally as it's not difficult to get a fake permit.

'Corruption is at all levels,' says Silva.

In 2013 the abuse of Madagasy workers occurring in the Gulf States was considered so bad a decree was implemented preventing Madagasy's from going to Kuwait, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Now Madagascar is looking at renewing its contract with the Saudi government allowing Madgasy's to travel. I ask Silva why the government would allow this knowing the risk of trafficking and abuse. He replies due to the severity of the economic crisis Madagasy people are going anyway illegally so they are looking for ways in which they can regulate it.

'Its very much an issue,' says Silva, 'and nothing indicates that it's going to stop soon.'

'We need awareness,' he says.

By now, my travels have taken me to many corners of the earth and one of the clear consistencies that I have seen is this, the exploitation of the vulnerable. The world is full of it. It comes to no surprise to me that men in the Middle East are exploiting women who they know don't know their rights. My several recent trips to the Middle East have shown me that slavery, harassment, abuse and discrimination against women are all very much part of the norm. As is racism. I would imagine there would be few who would blink an eye at a Kuwaiti man beating a Madagasy woman. Several years ago I travelled to Kuwait. I met an Iranian man and while sitting down to lunch he looked at me warily and said, 'you won't even believe what is happening in this country. Slavery is real.' It would seem all these years later and having come to learn more about the topic, slavery is indeed real. The question is now, what are we going to do about it?