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Story Publication logo December 21, 2020

Ethiopian Domestic Workers: Longing for Home


A young Orthodox Christian girl outside of St. Mary Entoto in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Image by Arianne Lachapelle Henry. Ethiopia, 2019.

Through the story of one woman who was trafficked to Yemen and then Saudi Arabia as domestic help, I...


Zebiba Hassan-Ali holding her daughter, Mita, while walking in the center of Dessie. Image by Arianne Lachapelle Henry. Ethiopia, 2019.

In February of 2019, Hirut D. Gebretsadik, a local media professional and a graduate in social policy and social work, and I traveled to the Amhara region in northern Ethiopia. There we met Zebiba al-Hussein, a mother of three, who shared the story of her long journey home from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where she was trafficked as a domestic worker. Although she longed for home the entire time she was away, her homecoming was not the reunion she expected. Almost a decade later, the memories of what happened have added another layer to the challenges of dealing with stigma, finding work, and caring for her family.

Almost two years after we met Zebiba, the political and economic situation further deteriorated with conflict in the northern region of Tigray, sending some 50,000 refugees into neighboring Sudan and eclipsing the steady migration of men and women like Zebiba who were already leaving. 

Alongside these humanitarian crises, the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the treatment of Ethiopian domestic workers. In Lebanon, an Ethiopian domestic worker was found dead by suicide in her employer’s home while many others, looking for a way home, remain abandoned on the streets outside the Ethiopian Embassy.

Over 2,000 women have been deported back to Ethiopia from Saudi Arabia and other countries—many after spending months imprisoned only to be sent back home to quarantine. 

Mihret Hiruy, a psychologist working at several quarantine centers including Arat Kilo and Kotebe in Addis Ababa, said, “When they were sent to the center, they would ask us, ‘Why am I here? Why am I not allowed to talk to people?’ was really challenging to calm them…Some of them did not know about COVID because they had been in prison…”

Hiruy told us many had depression, anxiety, and PTSD from the trauma they experienced. Even those who were returning to areas near the conflict or those ashamed to return to their families empty handed yearned to go back to their homes.

While listening to these stories which you will find below, we were left wondering, “Why is there a longing for home even when it may not have been a good place to begin with?”

Mihret Hiruy screens and transports women who returned (left); Hiruy holds a counseling session (right). Image courtesy of Mihret Hiruy. Ethiopia, 2020.

“He wept. He believed I was no longer alive.” 

“When I returned home my father had lost his sight,” and this was the first time he was hearing her voice, Zebiba al-Hussein told us.

"…in that short span of two years…," she continued, “My mother had died, [and] the father of my son was dead… All my relatives had given up on thinking I might still be alive” 

After being trafficked as a domestic worker first to Yemen and then Saudi Arabia, “They were all surprised [I returned]. They wanted to know what happened [to me].”

As Zebiba remembered what she had been through and to what she returned, her face deepened with sorrow.

“Around 3 am,” she began to tell her family, “I poured some bleach into a glass to drink because I had no other choice.” 

“The woman I worked for came to the hamam [the Arabic word for bathroom] saying she smelled something,” Zebiba told her family, “I told her I was getting ready to wash the child’s clothes.” 

Almost a decade after Zebiba’s return, Hirut, who accompanied me and served as a translator, and I now sat at an empty table adjacent to Zebiba while her three-year-old daughter, Mita, stood next to her mother. Zebiba had carefully dressed her that morning in a blush pink dress, braided her hair, and placed tiny gold hoops in her ears.

Zebiba outside the EDA office. Image by Arianne Lachapelle Henry. Ethiopia, 2019.

We were meeting with Zebiba in a small, spare room painted a subdued yellow. In the corner stood a poster emblazoned with Emmanuel Development Association, “committed to improving the lives of children, youth, and women.” 

Zebiba’s gentle scolds, “That’s it! No, no. Nope can’t do that. Mita!” echoed against the hollow, empty walls.

I shared that I had three children at home in an attempt to explain that I understood and was comfortable with Mita’s explorations. It seemed to reassure Zebiba and she continued her story.

“At that moment, I began to think I came here for a better life. Why should I end my life like this?” Zebiba said she asked herself when the woman she worked for confronted her about the smell of bleach in the middle of the night.

“So I dumped the bleach into the toilet when she showed up [and] I abandoned that idea. It was [late] and she went to bed. I too went to bed [around] 4 a.m.” 

When her father heard what happened to her he said, “You should have stayed here. You could have made something out of yourself. Instead you wasted two years and came back empty-handed.” 

Zebiba looked down when she talked about her father’s anger and disappointment. She had borrowed money from relatives in order to leave, and failing to bring back anything provoked guilt and shame. 

Zebiba’s daughter began to call for attention, alternating between, “Mama” and then “Zebiba! Zebiba!” We acknowledged how difficult it was for Mita to be still for so long and offered a break, but Zebiba insisted we continue. 

“I…slept for about a half hour [that night] and then woke up. [I thought] why should I destroy my life? I should just run away.”

In April 2019, a 21-year-old Ethiopian woman jumped from her fifth floor apartment to escape her abusive employers only to have passersby take photos of her. And, in October 2018, a woman was found dead in her room—presumed murdered—while working as domestic help in Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia, a video that went viral showed an Ethiopian maid hanging onto a window ledge of the seventh floor begging for help, screaming, “Hold on to me! Hold on to me!” as her employer casually filmed her fall.

In 2013, around the same time Zebiba herself returned, stories began circulating about women returning to Ethiopia’s Bole International Airport from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in extreme distress. 

Women were shrieking, wailing, and tearing at their hair. Many could not remember their names, where they had come from, or how to contact their families. Some were disrobing and others spoke Arabic believing they were still imprisoned. Some arrived unconscious. 

“Most…returnees… are suffering from major depression…PTSD, acute stress, generalized anxiety, dissociative and psychotic syndromes,” said Angelica Kokutona Wagwa, a psychologist based in Ethiopia.

Doctors Without Borders reported that the KSA’s campaign to “Saudize” their workforce by replacing foreign workers with nationals led to mass deportations. Some Ethiopians returned voluntarily, but roughly 160,000 were deported. Many arrived at the airport stripped of belongings and barefoot. 

While studying for a master’s in public health, I had learned about the hundreds of thousands of women like Zebiba compelled by poverty and climate change to find domestic work in the Gulf, many of them trafficked, most of them abused. In February 2019, I traveled to Ethiopia as a Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow to report on what happened when they came home. 

Along with a team of women from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, including Hirut D. Gebretsadik, Hadra Ahmed, a local journalist and a friend (she did not want her name used) who drove us to appointments, we researched the people and places to visit while carefully mapping out a plan to meet with women who had been trafficked. I gathered this all female team so we could provide them comfort while listening to their stories.

After learning that the Amhara region some 250 miles northwest of Addis Ababa, where Zebiba was from, was designated a hotspot by the Freedom Fund we began our reporting there. This region was considered a “main source” of women and girls going to the Middle East and was among the “highest prevalence of trafficking in Ethiopia.” 

Hirut and I flew to Dessie, a small commercial center, that is a common place for returning women to settle because there are more opportunities for small trading. It is also well known that many young girls come from surrounding villages to stay with relatives or on their own for schooling, making them vulnerable to the influence of traffickers.

From our plane overhead, we watched a tightly packed, sprawling city break off into empty and arid terrain split open by deep, narrow fissures—two worlds marked by a segregated geography. 

We had just returned from lunch with a group of women returnees and were meeting Zebiba for the first time. She and other Muslims in our group ate separately from us because of the religious prohibition on sharing the same meat with Christians. This was my first hint of the ethnic and religious separations that permeate Ethiopia.

Even in the room where we now sat, the differences between the three of us were striking. Hirut, born and raised in Addis Ababa, was wearing glasses with lips painted red signaling a serious yet youthful savvy that outshone my middle-aged blouse in a plain blue. Zebiba wore a hijab in a bold coral with a pink shirt, the colors of her outfit contrasted with the modesty of long sleeves and a full length skirt. 

As she recalled her homecoming to Cherecha, her rural village just outside of Dessie in the Amahra region of north-central Ethiopia, there was both happiness and sadness.

Leaving her village and marrying at 14, Zebiba first worked as a housemaid in Addis Ababa before she became pregnant. She explained that Cherecha is a poor area with many living in tukuls, round mud huts with thatched, conical roofs covering earthen floors, and with little to no opportunities for girls.

Returning to Cherecha one last time, she left her first-born son in her sister’s care and said goodbye. Her family had no contact with her during the two years she was trafficked.

“I told [my family] I was hoping to do better by going away but it didn't turn out as I expected.”

Arriving at 8 p.m. on her first day in Yemen, Zebiba said, “I was so sleepy, cold, and hungry when I got there, but I was put to work immediately.” She was placed with a family of three including a two-year-old child with the child’s mother as her boss.

“She told me to do the dishes, [but] I didn't speak Arabic. I [had] studied the Quran with my family and that helped me a little bit. She [had to] show me how to do it so I did it [and when I was done] I was not given food. Then I just fell asleep.”

Zebiba often worked 20-hour days. She received no pay. The woman of the household would slap her with an open hand or anything she could reach and only fed Zebiba one meal a day. Often, when sitting down to eat, the woman would yell at her to return to work and then throw away her food. 

At this part, Zebiba scooped up Mita who laid her head against her mother’s chest.  

No one had told Zebiba how past violence revisits during the most intimate moments—delivering a baby, breastfeeding an infant—to the most ordinary—washing her daughter or feeding a toddler.   

Quotidian moments flickered with raw pain. Days measured by years of reliving past assaults. Years dedicated to an unyielding drive to make life better for the next generation—a dogged act of love. Motherhood became both a violation and a gift.  

It was this drive to make things better, Zebiba told us, that pushed her to leave her home and her first son behind to work for other women. Women who as mothers struck at Zebiba with the same hand that tenderly cupped their own child’s face.

“I was always hungry and tired… It was like that for nine months and I was empty inside,” she said.

With so little to eat, Zebiba could feel the water sloshing inside her stomach while she bent over to scrub the floor. She rapidly lost weight and began to feel weak. With skin stretched over bone, the angles of her face and small knots at her wrists signaled her decline. 

“I had no one to help me. Of course, there was the embassy and supposedly I had insurance but even [the Consul General] who was friends with my employer did not ask me what the problem was, and I didn't have anybody else to talk to.”

Zebiba looked at us. “[The mother of the household was] the one who would make me suffer.” 

Mita repeated what Zebiba said trying to mimic her mother.

We paused again for a moment as Mita began to fuss and then scream. We offered to end our interview, but Zebiba wanted to finish telling her story. 

“I am grateful that you took the time to give me a chance to share what I have experienced,” she said.

Diesel-powered rickshaws called bajajas, three-wheeled blue carts with white tops, filled the brief lull in our conversation as they honked and weaved through overcrowded minibuses from the road below. I could picture the scene from our walk earlier. Street vendors lined brick walkways from the 1930s Italian occupation selling tea and other goods, their slanted stalls covered in blue and yellow tarps. A thin layer of dust and smoke veiled the daylight muting the vibrant colors.

A city street view of Dessie. Image by Arianne Lachapelle Henry. Ethiopia, 2019.

Mita climbed down from Zebiba’s lap eager to explore her surroundings again. As we gently coaxed Mita to settle with pen and paper, Zebiba went on.

Zebiba told us she began to forge a plan for other ways to make money, especially for her son back home. She heard there were more lucrative opportunities for Ethiopian maids in Saudi Arabia, and she resolved to get there, no matter how difficult the journey.

“So [one day] I cleaned the house, made food for the child, and ran away.”

She pretended to take out the trash and fled. 

“I went into a phone booth and I thought about calling [home],” Zebiba told us.

At that moment, she wanted to return home, but she was afraid to go to the embassy for help because her employer would find her. So, when a woman on the street approached her telling her that she had a place for her to stay where many homeless girls and women were taken in by an Ethiopian family, Zebiba eagerly accepted the offer. She was unaware of the arrangement she was entering into.

Arriving at a house she described as crowded and full of lost girls, with men coming and going, she continued to fear for her well-being and safety. Although food was more available, it remained scarce. She sat up all night on guard in case an older man living in the home or others visiting might attack her. 

Hirut paused at this part of Zebiba’s recounting and indicated that although she did not explicitly say so, this sounded like a type of brothel. Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, is a language of double meanings and the unspoken. 

Excavating the past is a delicate process with layers of misunderstanding. Translating trauma across culture and time is fraught with misinterpretations. In the silences and ellipses of a story, we may fail to acknowledge significance or conjure meaning where there is none.

We sought clarification, asking, “You were doing house cleaning?”

“I would do whatever needed to be done,” Zebiba told us, without a tidy resolution to our confusion. 

Differences—in living, language, power, and privilege—weighed on these empty spaces, opening an impasse between us and within us that trauma tends to create. As outsiders, we could not understand the contours of her life as a woman in rural Ethiopia—even if we asked, our interrogations often fell short.

We risked appropriating Zebiba’s experience by either mistaking her experience as representative of all Ethiopian women trafficked to the Gulf or distorting her life into a victim narrative and causing her additional harm. Her silence suggested that not only is a re-telling malleable to perspective and interpretation, but also that trauma can be a superficial way of understanding someone and their suffering.

In Migrants in Translation, Cristiana Giordano, a medical and cultural anthropologist, reflects on how one’s trauma story is often interpreted through the lens of medical, legal, political, and humanitarian institutions, as well as across borders, through cultures, and between individuals. Giordano says to speak of a woman who has been trafficked and traumatized solely, “as a migrant and to interpret her suffering only in the context of her migration could produce yet another alienation and suffering.”

We were there to listen to Zebiba’s story and, “in resting in the unknown of someone else’s experience,” Giordano says, “it proposes the acknowledgment of difference rather than recognition and care over cure as ways to rethink the politics of difference.”  

Zebiba had survived so much. Yet, she believed she was lucky because many women never return. 

Some disappear on their journeys to find work. Some are presumed drowned in the Red Sea or Gulf of Aiden where dallalas—the word for trafficker or broker—sometimes pitch people overboard when there is overcrowding or boats are overtaken by waters. Women and children placed below deck for safety often become trapped, which is why the majority of female migrant deaths happen at sea. Others die in the deserts along their journey due to fatigue, hunger, or abandonment.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) Missing Migrants project states, “A lack of data [on women and girls] perpetuates the invisibility of female migrant deaths.” Because the majority of female migrant deaths take place in remote areas or occur at sea, they often go unrecognized and uncounted. Families are left to assume the worst, as Zebiba’s had.

Some women return home in coffins, their deaths often ruled suicides.

Zebiba’s story came out in fragments followed by long pauses or questions from us seeking an explanation of backtracking on the sequence of events to get a better understanding. We navigated these pauses along with several other interruptions. 

Music from below periodically beat familiar rhythms into the room while the aroma of biblical incense, frankincense, and myrrh, from an afternoon buna [coffee in Amharic] ceremony left behind a trace of antiquity. 

We wrestled to give Zebiba time and space to share her story. 

“I’m sorry, it must be hard to retell,” Hirut said to Zebiba for me.

We acknowledged that talking to us about what was done to her was a slow and painful process for Zebiba. At times, her eyes filled with tears and she paused, looking out the window or attending to Mita.

Did Zebiba pause because of the weariness of re-telling her story over and over? I wondered. Was she re-living the experiences she recounted? Or, was it simply the exhaustion that motherhood sometimes imposed? 

Her gaze outside at the partially built concrete building broken up by empty, gaping chambers made darker by a noon sun demarcating light from dark.  The way she stared seemed less about surveying anything outside of her and more about an interiority where one sits with the inescapable burden of what happened to them.

For two months, Zebiba continued, she hid out at the crowded home. She heard that the family she had escaped from was posting pictures of her seeking her whereabouts for breaking her contract. 

While she did not want to return to her former household, the older man of this household had lost his wife and “…was looking for any chance to take advantage of me and rape me,” Zebiba said quietly. “I sat up all night. [He] was out of control.”

Between the fears of being caught, coping with nightly hypervigilance, and longing for home, Zebiba decided to escape for a second time. 

“[Rather than running away this time,]” Zebiba explained, “I asked for my pay and I asked her to help me get to the Embassy so I could go back [home] to Ethiopia.” 

Instead, the woman of the household told her she had no money to give and sent her to another woman who arranged for her to travel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 

When I heard this, I said to Zebiba, “I’m sorry for what happened to you.” It was a natural refrain that I repeated often, but Hirut gently pointed out to me that Ethiopians do not use this phrase as much because it sounds like pity. Instead, she told me, it is better to say Ayzosh which means “Be brave. Don’t worry, you’ll get through this.”

As Zebiba lay Mita against her own body, I thought about how a mother often places her own difficulties aside, but it is not always an uncomplicated negotiation. We again wondered if we should stop at this time. 

“[You are here] to understand our problem to help us solve it,” Zebiba said. She also had to return home soon to prepare the meal for her family. She then added, “As long as the intended purpose is good… and not harmful, I wouldn’t refuse it.” 

Zebiba arrived at the next home in Jizan on the Red Sea with nothing but the dress she left Ethiopia wearing and a pair of silver earrings. She was without her passport and belongings and had received no pay. With no way to prove her nationality, Zebiba said she worried that if she died she would be thrown away because no one would know who she was or where she came from.

Map showing Jizan, Saudi Arabia—a final destination for many Ethiopians.

If a trafficked domestic worker makes it to Saudi Arabia, they are subject to the control of a kafeel, an employment sponsor under the kafala system. 

Under this sponsorship, an employer has all legal control over a worker, including possession of their passport and permission required for an exit visa. Women are trapped by this arrangement and may be forced into servitude, debt bondage, and sexual slavery, where they experience high rates of violence and inhumane working conditions. Women often risk arrest, injury, or death when they escape from abusive employers. This system has been compared to modern day slavery and was labeled a, “‘sponsored’ gateway to human trafficking,” by Human Rights Watch

After her family heard some of what happened to her, Zebiba said, “They asked me to not leave again." Her father kept asking her, “Why did you go? Why did you go?” 

“She was a kind lady,” Zebiba said of her new employer, “which is why I liked her, but other than that the exploitation was the same.”

Once again, Zebiba was expected to work endless hours. She was socially isolated and confined to her employers’ home and sometimes a friend’s home they would take her to clean. The man of the main household was prone to physically abusing his wife and children. Zebiba was also being starved. Her suffering grew until one day she passed out in the bathroom and was taken to the hospital. 

“Why is she like this? Do you not have food for her?” an Arab doctor demanded of her employer’s son.

Her liver, the doctor told her, had begun to digest itself. Initially, this process sustains the body during hunger, but when starvation is prolonged, it can lead to severe liver damage among other complications. The doctor prescribed Zebiba a 20-day regimen and advised her to drink Vimto, a popular drink in the Middle East often used to break fast during Ramadan. 

After her visit to the doctor, Zebiba returned to her employer’s home to recuperate while still performing all of her household chores. 

One evening Zebiba said, “…[The husband of the household] asked me for some water and as I was walking towards the fridge to get him some he came at me calling me a whore’s daughter and slapped me in the face. Everything went dark.”

Her physical decline was apparent—her mental pain remained invisible.

As women in emotional distress began arriving back to Ethiopia in greater numbers, St. Amanuel Specialized Mental Hospital, the lone psychiatric hospital in Addis Ababa, was overwhelmed. They had to create makeshift spaces in corridors to accommodate the large number of women arriving, Ato Mengestu, Vice Director of inpatient services, told me.

They had no idea, however, that the need would continue to grow.

The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted this photo of women arriving at Bole International Airport (most barefoot) after deportation from Saudi Arabia on March 13, 2019. Image courtesy of Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Facebook Page. Ethiopia, 2019.

Many who are returning today from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries continue to report stomachaches, headaches, irritability, sadness, flashbacks, numbness, and nightmares, which are common in depression and PTSD. Others report avoidance, intrusive symptoms, and hyperarousal—additional indications of trauma-related distress. Their harrowing experiences leave enduring marks.

At the same time, Dr. Katherine Kuschminder, assistant professor at UNU-MERIT/Maastricht in the Netherlands was researching female migrants’ reintegration. One of the most haunting interviews she conducted was with the manager of the airport.

He explained how women arrived from the KSA behaving strangely, and airport employees put them in wheelchairs and wheeled them to customs. He would sometimes call an ambulance, but many times it would not come. 

When there was no place to send the women or to call for help, he wheeled them outside, leaving them by the road. 

“You know, I couldn't sleep at night,” he said. “But what was I to do? I didn't have anything I could do for them.” 

Zebiba told us she decided once again she must return home. She met a young Arab woman while in the hospital who offered to raise funds for her, suggesting she surrender at the Ethiopian Embassy. 

With funds raised by this kind stranger, along with some money given to her during the holidays from her employer’s sister, she purchased a bus ticket back to Yemen after working in Saudi Arabia for almost a year. 

Zebiba did not want to elaborate on her return journey to Sana’a, Yemen’s war-torn capital.

Once back in Yemen, with no way to prove she was an Ethiopian citizen, she said, “It makes me sick to my stomach to think about my experiences and how walking the streets [at night] in San’aa in a daze trying to find a way back, I could have even been eaten by hyenas,” she said. “I am thankful to God.”

Crossing the border at Al-Tiwal, the point from Jizan province where Zebiba worked could not have been easy, but Zebiba was determined to return home. 

Saudi officials often toss those they consider illegal migrants over the border, leaving them in the desert of Yemen with many dying or disappearing. Other times Saudi border guards fire guns at those trying to cross into their territory. A 26-year old Ethiopian man recently interviewed by Human Rights Watch said, “At the border there are many bodies rotting, decomposing. It is like a graveyard.”

After working for more than two years, she was penniless, dependent upon the kindness of strangers, and mourning for the familiar. 

Finally she encountered an Ethiopian woman and asked for help, “...I have been in three households and only experienced misery,” Zebiba told the woman. “I have decided that whether I shine shoes or whatever I do I would rather be in my own country. I have never heard from my family.” 

With the kindness of this stranger’s help, Zebiba was finally returning home.

A young girl and boy stand outside of Maryam (St. Mary) Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Image by Arianne LaChapelle Henry. Ethiopia, 2019.

Where Zebiba grew up, girls and women have some of the highest rates of illiteracy and female genital mutilation in the world, drop out of school, marry early, have limited opportunities, and face significant violence.

A World Health Organization (WHO) study found Ethiopia had the highest rate of intimate partner abuse in the world, with 71 percent reporting physical or sexual violence or both

The disadvantaged role of women, especially in rural areas, also contributes to migration. In public and private spheres men dominate women’s autonomy and rights, relegating women to a low status and threatening their physical and emotional well-being. With most families dependent on subsistence farming, climate change also leads many to send daughters abroad, as they are considered more reliable remitters than sons.

Despite the pain and abuse she experienced, Zebiba said she did not regret her decision to go in the first place. She said living in Ethiopia remains difficult, but she does not want to go back to an Arab country.

She had stopped attending school in the seventh grade and married young. Her husband was poor, and she noticed others returning from the city or other places looking like they had a good life. 

After separating from her husband because he was young and could not support their family, she felt she had to do something. She realized later, “nothing is ever so easy.”

Her narrative is peppered with phrases like Alhamdulillah, the Arabic word for “praise be to God,” as she credits her survival to her strong faith. 

“I have seen other people lose their mind in the Middle East and be taken in for treatment with holy water at those houses or in the hospitals,” she said. “I thank God that I have endured without losing myself.”

It is common for women returning from places like Saudi Arabia who may be experiencing mental illness, the effects of trauma, or both to be sent by family to holy water sites at Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Both Christians and Muslims seek out care from these places and rely on their faith to cope with difficulties.

However, these are not always safe refuges. There have been reports of practices and practitioners not condoned by the Orthodox Church who physically and sexually abuse women receiving holy water. It is also common to restrain those showing signs of mental illness. Often, it is only the overtly psychotic who are identified as mentally ill and in need of additional help, so women may spend a long-time seeking care. Some of them stay permanently at holy water sites living nearby praying and fasting daily.

At home, most women in Ethiopia are constrained by social and cultural expectations, even when it comes to healthcare. Women and girls face more restriction on their freedom of movement and can more readily access religious and traditional healers than medical services. They lack awareness about their options, cannot afford care, and often want to avoid the stigma associated with mental illness.

Women with mental illness will stay indoors hidden by family members and sometimes restrained to protect them from rape and other acts of violence. These forms of protection keep women from being present in both research and treatment, making it difficult to understand how many are affected by mental illness and in need of care. 

Two recent studies led by Dr. Christina Borba, Director of Research for Psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, and her colleagues, Dr. Maji Hailemariam and Senait Ghebrehiwet, that looked at the impacts of stigma in relation to serious mental illnesses in rural areas found women face more adversity. For instance, they are more vulnerable to social exclusion, isolation, gender-based violence, and have limited access to treatment. 

When a woman becomes impaired by mental illness, community members told Dr. Borba and colleagues, “her husband can send her to her parents.”

When Zebiba first returned home, her primary struggle was with poverty, which remained the same as before she left. 

Today Zebiba continues to struggle. Her firstborn son left school after fifth grade and works as a day laborer, for which she has regrets. He has a girlfriend and she is no longer supporting him. She remarried shortly after her return and had two daughters who are now nine and three. 

Her sole focus upon return was finding employment to take care of her two young daughters while facing the stigma and shame from assumptions that those returning from abroad have engaged in sex work. Tending to her two girls, she prepared meals and walked the streets in the hot sun peddling Qeribo, a non-alcoholic grain-based beverage. Zebiba was tryinng to live with the past trauma intruding on her present. 

Because of the struggle to find employment, Zebiba briefly considered returning to Saudi Arabia. A woman returning to domestic work in the Middle East is common, as most experience difficulties reintegrating, finding employment, or supporting children.

Her husband suggested she try another country in the Middle East. Her other family members tried to discourage her from returning at all. Still, she renewed her passport and borrowed money from relatives for a plane ticket. When she traveled to Addis Ababa, women were arriving en masse from Saudi Arabia. After learning the government had shut down migrants going to the Middle East, she turned around and—once again—returned home.

Sighing and looking out the window, Zebiba remembered the painful process of returning. An afternoon sun cast gray shadows into our room. Outside a chaotic cluster of homes fashioned from sheets of corrugated tin and wood haphazardly lined a sloping earth. 

The view behind the EDA office. Image by Arianne Lachapelle Henry. Ethiopia, 2019.

I think about Zebiba sometime in the future reading these words stung by the imprecision of my description.

These homes could be a place where she and her husband may have improvised a tin roof, considered an upgrade from the mud huts the poor inhabit. A place that shelters needs and desires alongside celebrations, joys, and sorrows. A place, too, where some pain remains hidden. A place she may call home.

Over 85 million in Ethiopia are poor in areas such as housing, child mortality, electricity, and standard of living, among other measures, which is more than the population of Germany according to the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index report of 2019.

Although significant gains in poverty reduction and deprivation have been made since 2000, 80 percent still lack adequate sanitation, three-quarters are without electricity, and over 93 percent in rural areas are poor across these dimensions. Such dire poverty is one of the reasons girls and women travel legally or illegally and are subjected to conditions of slavery and abuse.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs reports there are currently 11 million job seekers with an additional two million added each year, but the government is only able to generate about 1 million jobs a year. Domestic workers, it is well known, provide a valuable economic supplement to these troubles.

“I know that when one door closes another opens up. So I am hopeful. And I am  young and strong and I can work hard,” Zebiba said. As she took Mita by the hand, she told us, “I don't care about the fancy stuff. I would much rather my kids look prettier than I do.” 

Zebiba and many of the women who are trafficked live at the periphery of a periphery. When it comes to being raped, trafficked, or killed there is no equal opportunity.

Zebiba holds Mita outside EDA after the interview. Image by Arianne Lachapelle Henry. Ethiopia, 2019.


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Health Inequities

Health Inequities
Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


Gender Equality

Gender Equality
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Labor Rights

Labor Rights

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