In early September, a television station in Madagascar screened a horrifying video. The clip purported to show a young Malagasy woman being tortured to death by members of the Kuwaiti household where she was a domestic worker. Although the Malagasy government later determined that the video was not from Kuwait and the victim was not Malagasy, the broadcast incited popular outrage and placed the issue of human trafficking back on Madagascar’s national agenda.
Few people are more painfully aware of the tragic consequences of trafficking than pastor Helivao Poget, the director of ministry to marginalized people (SAFFIFAA) at the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar (FJKM), one of Presbyterian World Mission’s global partners.
In October 2010, a body bag arrived in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. The black vinyl bag, which had been shipped from Lebanon, contained the body of a young woman.
The woman, named Mampionona, had once been a regular at a drop-in center run by Poget in an Antananarivo slum. Five months earlier, Mampionona had confided in Poget that she was considering an offer of employment in Lebanon. Poget had warned her about the risks of such a post: Lebanon is far away, the culture is very different, and Madagascar does not have full diplomatic representation in the country to help in the event of difficulties. But Mampionona accepted the post in spite of Poget’s admonition.
Mampionona was by no means alone.
Following the military coup d’état of March 2009, which replaced Madagascar’s democratic government with an unelected “transitional” administration, the island nation of 23 million people experienced significant economic disruption and decline. Factories closed, unemployment soared, and many households struggled to make ends meet. Hundreds of thousands of children left school to hawk wares in the street, tend fields, or do other jobs to supplement family incomes. For women, seemingly lucrative domestic work opportunities overseas looked especially attractive.
Although Poget discouraged Mampionona from taking the position, she regrets that she didn’t do more. “I did not insist that she not go,” she says with a heavy sigh.
When Mampionona’s family lost contact with her in Lebanon, Poget became profoundly troubled. In September 2010, she flew to Lebanon to look for Mampionona, who was not at the place where she was supposed to be working. Eventually, with the help of Swiss mission colleagues, she found Mampionona’s body at a city morgue.
“I was present at the autopsy,” Poget recalls grimly. “I could see from the marks on her body that she had been very badly abused, both physically and sexually.”
When Mampionona’s body arrived back in Madagascar, a second autopsy was performed, with the evidence of abuse shocking Malagasy officials.
Poget then made another trip to Lebanon, gathering information to persuade Madagascar’s government to intervene. Her efforts helped to identify more than 400 Malagasy women in exploitative domestic positions—and, tragically, the bodies of 45 more Malagasy women who had not survived their ordeal. Ultimately, 380 women were able to return to Madagascar. The Malagasy government eventually banned labor contracts in the Middle East. Poget hoped that this would save others from a similar fate and bring a difficult chapter to a close.
But there was more to come. In late 2013, as she was returning from a month in the United States as a PC(USA) International Peacemaker, Poget was contacted by a colleague whose sister had taken a domestic position in Kuwait. The sister had begged for help in escaping the unrealistic expectations and tyrannical discipline of her employer. She was afraid even to leave the house because she had no idea where to go or how to get back to Madagascar.
The story sounded depressingly familiar to Poget, but she did not have the contacts in Kuwait that she had had in Lebanon. So she turned to me, the PC(USA) regional liaison for Southern Africa and Madagascar, for help coordinating the PC(USA)’s accompaniment of FJKM.
With the assistance of members of the PC(USA) Human Trafficking Roundtable, I was able to put Poget in touch with several people working on trafficking issues in Kuwait, including a foreign mission organization that had established a safe house for guest workers fleeing difficult situations.
For the staff of the safe house, the connection was a godsend. They had several Malagasy guest workers staying with them, but no contacts in Madagascar to help them to repatriate the women. In spite of Poget’s earlier success in negotiating the return of the Malagasy guest workers in Lebanon, her work was sensitive because, in some cases, the women’s families felt there was something shameful about the situation. That’s where the PC(USA) came in, acting as a go-between in the discussions to minimize Poget’s visibility.
With the support of the PC(USA) in place, Poget arranged a visit to Kuwait. There, she met not only the women in the safe house, but also a number of Malagasy women being detained in government prisons for violating their visa conditions by running away from abusive employers. She collected the stories of more than 50 women, some of them bearing signs of severe trauma or mental health problems. Some were imprisoned with children they had birthed in Kuwait, children who were the result of rape at the hands of their employers or their employers’ sons.
“It was only through the power and grace of God that I was able to cope with what I found in Lebanon and Kuwait,” Poget says. “God alone gave me the courage to carry on.”
Poget discovered, to her alarm, that there were approximately 7,300 Malagasy women working on labor contracts in Kuwait, despite the Malagasy government’s ban. She later learned that some top officials of the government had very profitable recruitment agencies and were thwarting Malagasy law by routing desperate recruits through intermediary nations.
Over the course of the next year, scores of women returned to Madagascar from Kuwait. The hardest cases were those of women with undocumented infants, but through her resourcefulness and network of contacts Poget was able to get all of the mothers and children home safely. Poget and her team helped to secure appropriate care for women who needed medical or psychological treatment and helped many to be reunited with their families. Fresh elections at the end of 2013 put Madagascar back on a democratic path and revived hope for more effective control of labor trafficking to the Middle East.
Poget’s work, however, is not finished.
Even if recruitment of new workers is halted, Poget’s information indicates that there are still thousands of Malagasy nationals working in Kuwait, many of whom are likely to be in difficult circumstances. There is also a need to expand domestic economic opportunities, particularly for women, and to promote public awareness of the dangers of trafficking and exploitative labor contracts. The church—particularly the six million-strong FJKM—is ideally situated to share this message. Poget is working to enrich the curriculum at FJKM seminaries to better equip future pastors to educate their congregations and to confront issues such as sexual violence and trafficking.
In addition, other fronts in the struggle against trafficking may yet emerge. A few months ago, another mutilated female body was returned to Madagascar, this time from Saudi Arabia. Malagasy police recently arrested a former member of the “transitional” parliament for trafficking, after finding 100 young people, mostly women, at his home. They had reportedly been recruited to work in Saudi Arabia.
Despite these challenges, however, Poget is not giving up. “Together we are learning how to keep life in God, and we keep fighting alongside God for human dignity,” she says. “It is hard work with a lot of risks and violence, but it brings me happiness because I can offer God’s protection and love for everyone.”
Douglas Tilton is Presbyterian World Mission’s regional liaison for Southern Africa and Madagascar.