From where I stand: “I kept the courage and managed to escape”

Saleema Rahman is an advocate for the rights and safe migration of women domestic workers from India. Her journey as a women’s rights advocate began after she came back from Saudi Arabia, having overcome many hardships as a domestic worker herself.


Saleema Rahman. Photo: ICM/Sumbul Mashhadi
Saleema Rahman. Photo: ICM/Sumbul Mashhadi

After the death of my husband, I went to Saudi Arabia to work as a tailor. But once I completed that job, my employer sold me to another person. They wanted me to do housework, which I refused. So, they punished me, took away my passport and my phone.

I continued to fight. I told my employer that I was a teacher and a tailor, and that was the work I was there to do, otherwise I would return to India. He replied that he would kill me, cut me into pieces and throw me into the sea if I continued to complain. I was terrified, but when he left the house, I spoke to his wife. I told her that it would be her loss if her husband killed me, because he would get jailed and her children would grow up fatherless. She said that I was a dangerous woman, and they sent me to a centre where people who refuse to work are sent.

There, I met many women from different countries. It felt like a market—potential employers would come and choose the workers they wanted. [Some of us] used to put coconut oil in our hair because they didn’t like the smell, hoping they wouldn’t choose us.

I finally managed to escape after a long time. All this happened because I couldn’t read the agreement properly and hadn’t taken the necessary precautions. To start with, the contract must be in a language that the women can read comfortably.

Today, I work with the National Domestic Workers' Movement in Hyderabad, which empowers women migrants. I have been with them now for 15 years. I survey areas [where women migrants work], talk to them about the problems they face and gather their stories.

I am doing this work because I think that the lessons I learnt from my difficult experiences can inform the decisions of young women aspiring to work overseas.”

SDG 5: Gender equality

Saleema Rahman, 50, advocates for women migrant and domestic workers’ rights to mobility and safe migration through the National Domestic Workers' Movement, a UN Women partner. She recently completed a UN Women Training of Trainers programme on safe migration and conducts Pre-Departure Orientation Trainings for aspiring women domestic workers in and around the southern state of Hyderabad, India. Her work contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality and Goal 8 on decent work for all, including migrant workers.