A year ago, J. Nadiya (35), a widow and mother of two from Kalikulam in Tiruvannamalai, went to Kuwait, lured by the promise of a job as domestic help that fetched Rs. 20,000 a month.

For 10 months, she was made to work night and day, not paid a penny, deprived of food and forced to shave her head and physically abused.

After escaping from her employer’s house and spending over six months at the Indian Embassy in Kuwait, Nadiya is back home, bruised and angry. “Being illiterate myself, I wanted my daughter to go to school and so, I went there to earn but was treated like an animal,” she said.

Nearly 12 women who faced situations similar to Nadiya’s returned to Chennai recently. They were recruited by agents across the State after they paid over Rs. 70,000 each, and were sent to Kuwait in 2011-2012. Many of them who faced torture at the hands of their employers managed to escape and find their way to the Indian Embassy.

“Since we did not go through proper channels, the authorities had problems with my immigration documents. Many of us had to spend more than five months at the Embassy because of that,” said Anasiya Begum, a 28-year-old worker.

Anasiya, who hails from Ramanathapuram, said she left her job as a salesperson there because the agent promised Rs. 20,000 a month, at least three times more than what she was earning. “But there, I was made to do all kinds of work — from managing the owner’s shop, house and children to cleaning, washing and cooking, without any salary or proper food. They seared my cheeks with an iron box and dragged me by the hair when I asked for my salary,” she said.

Many employers refused to return their passports and some also accused them of stealing, which only made their stay at the embassy difficult. S. Raasiya, a resident of Perambalur, recalls how for many days she was made to live inside a toilet, after which she was rescued by workers from an NGO. “My employers kept selling me to different people, and everywhere the torture continued. I was just paid one month’s salary in the 11 months I was there.”

For family members of those still stuck there, the suspense continues. Sixty-eight-year-old Sauriamma of Lalgudi regrets having sent her daughter Regina away for a salary of Rs. 15,000 a month.

“Her four-year-old daughter here cries every night for her mother. Six months ago, she had called and said the owners were beating her up. We have not heard from her since,” she said.

M. Valarmathi, coordinator of National Domestic Workers Movement, said the agents targeted widows and single mothers — mostly breadwinners — and promised hefty salaries, free shelter and food.

“But there, they are exploited and abused. Though Kuwait has thousands of domestic workers from India, they are excluded from the labour laws that protect other workers,” she said.

There is no substantial statistics on the hundreds of women from rural Tamil Nadu who go to Gulf countries for domestic work, she said. “If the Indian government has a separate cell for screening such workers at airports, perhaps we can help such people before it is too late.”

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