Nahida Sobhan, Bangladesh’s first woman ambassador in the Middle East is hoping her appointment will help female migrant workers in the region. She starts this week as ambassador to Jordan, a country that recruits thousands of Bangladeshi female workers monthly for its garment industry and as maids.
Ambassador Sobhan, 52, a career foreign service officer who has worked in Rome, Kolkata and Geneva said her first mission is to build a shelter at the embassy in Jordan for women labourers facing abuse or exploitation.
“When you are serving … it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman … but it is true that if a Bangladeshi woman falls in trouble, she will be more comfortable to open up to a woman,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Bangladesh ranks among the top countries sending its citizens to work overseas, with about 700,000 Bangladeshis finding jobs abroad each year but some end up cheated and become victims of abuse after being promised jobs.
“There are certain issues that woman migrants do face and I will try my best to solve those,” said Sobhan, adding that she was keen to set up a shelter at the Bangladeshi embassy in Amman for women workers like those set up in Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Jordan is home to more than 100,000 female Bangladeshi workers, mostly poor women from rural areas, and is the second ranking destination for Bangladeshi women workers after Saudi Arabia, according to government data.
But recruitment is largely carried out by unofficial brokers, which opens the door to trafficking and exploitation.
Last year at least 1,500 Bangladeshi women returned home from Saudi Arabia after being abused, an increase from 2018 when about 1,300 returned, according to Bangladeshi charity BRAC.
Neither the government nor charities have recorded the numbers returning from Jordan although activists and government officials said they received fewer complaints from Bangladeshi migrants in Jordan compared to Saudi Arabia.
“In 2019 we received about 20 to 25 complaints from Bangladeshi workers in Jordan and they were mostly related to wage issues. They were not paid properly,” said Lily Jahan, chairman of BOMSA, a Bangladeshi migrant’s rights group.
“Some of them were beaten when they protested. We informed the government about these cases.”
Sobhan described the labour laws in Jordan as “supportive” and said migrants didn’t face “severe difficulties” there but this would be a focus of her work.
“I won’t say that there are severe difficulties, but there still are certain issues and I will try my best to solve these,” she said in an interview at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Dhaka before leaving for Jordan.
Remittances from migrant workers are key for Bangladesh’s economy, making up the second-highest source of foreign currency earnings after clothes manufacturing, government data shows.
Sobhan, whose previous role was as the director general of United Nations wing of foreign office, said the government wanted to promote as many female ambassadors as possible.
“Currently, there are about seven female ambassadors out of 50. The message with my appointment is that things are changing for the better and things will continue to change,” said Sobhan. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)