Harvini worked quietly by a fish pond in a Javanese village surrounded by bottle-green paddy fields and rolling mountains, a world away from the horrors she has endured in recent years.
She is one of a group of Indonesian women who were exploited in Saudi Arabia and are now trying to rebuild their lives through a modest project farming catfish.
The 31-year-old’s story is similar to that of many women from her impoverished village on Java, Indonesia’s most populous island.
In 2009, she was lured by the promise of earning US$200 a month by working as a maid in oil-rich Saudi Arabia. She decided to leave behind her toddler son to take up the offer.
“All I wanted was to bring back some money for my family,” said Harvini, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
It turned out to be a nightmare. Harvini’s recruiter traded her to different families, she was forced to work 18 hours a day and did not get her wages for months.
“I cried every day,” she said.
The case of Harvini and other women at the farm is classified as trafficking. The UN definition of human trafficking includes recruiting and transporting a person by means of coercion or deception for the purpose of exploitation.
Tens of thousands of Indonesian women leave the country every year to go abroad to work as domestic helpers and — despite the government’s vows to improve their protection — tales of abuse and exploitation are common.
Some of the worst stories have emerged from Saudi Arabia, a major destination.
Indonesia imposed a ban on sending new maids there in 2015, but rights groups say domestic helpers continue to go, tempted by the relatively high salaries.
The catfish initiative has provided trafficking victims with a chance to earn at least some sort of income. It is a modest arrangement — a pond surrounded by vegetation sits at the back of a red-roofed village house in Caringin, about four hours from Jakarta.
The project, which is run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and a local charity, is managed by 10 women, including Harvini, who have all worked as domestic helpers abroad, but fell victim to trafficking.
It trains women how to nurture the fish before they can be sold to local markets and gives them financial management skills.
The IOM said it is essential to help trafficking victims earn a living wage at home to “reject the fantasy world painted by traffickers and unscrupulous labor recruiters.”
“There’s a high degree of risk that victims of trafficking will end up being re-trafficked if you fail to address the basic socioeconomic drivers behind the decision to migrate in search of work in the first place,” IOM Indonesia spokesman Paul Dillon said. “An investment here pays untold dividends in the future.”
The farm has been running for more than a year.
It brings in an average of US$200 a month from fish sales. Running costs are deducted and the rest shared among the women.
One of them, Enok Salamah, said they feed the fish three times a day and it has been a case of trial and error to get everything running smoothly.
“We can’t feed them too much or too little, or the fish will die. If the weather is too hot it is not good for the fish either,” the 50-year-old said.
She worked as a maid in Saudi Arabia for nearly three years, but six years after her return, her ex-employer still owes her 10 months’ pay.
“This fish farming project helps us financially. The income is not enough, but at least it gives us something to do,” she said.
Jejen Nurjanah from the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union has helped train the women.
The union said the project also helps trafficking victims to overcome social barriers as they reintegrate into their community.
“Many of these women have been through very traumatizing experiences,” said Nurjanah, herself a former domestic worker. “Apart from providing a source of income, this project is a platform for them to be a part of a group initiative, learning to support each other and regain self-confidence.”
Harvini said she sometime tries to persuade local women not to follow in her footsteps to work in Saudi Arabia. However, it is hard to stop people from seizing the opportunity of earning more abroad.
“They are curious and they want to try their luck,” she said.
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