In 2013, Ethiopia announced a ban on domestic workers from going to the Middle East. Authorities estimate nearly 1 million Ethiopians working legally and illegally in the region. It comes with opportunity and risk, especially for women.

By Magdalena Vaculciakova (Worldcrunch) |

DEGA―The house in Saudi Arabia was huge, with endless rooms blasted with cool air conditioning, recalls Tsega of her years as a migrant domestic worker. Now back in Dega, her village in northern Ethiopia, the 45-year-old mother of four describes her former life in the Gulf.

The air is thick with heat in this arid northern region of Tigray, which suffered greatly from the 1984 famine and more recent droughts caused by El Niňo. There is no electricity in Dega, no mill to process flour and women have to walk two miles to collect water.

Tsega’s family has no land, and few means to earn money, so Tsega’s husband eventually decided to leave for Saudi Arabia. Tsega agreed, hoping he could give their family a chance at a better life. But once he left, he did not send any money back. “I did not trust him, I thought he was not interested in me anymore,” she says.

In 2008, Tsega decided to go to Saudi Arabia to search for her husband and earn her own money to support the family. Her mother agreed to look after Tsega’s youngest, a one-year-old boy, while her eldest daughter would care for the rest of the siblings. “I was very sad leaving my children behind,” she says. “I just wanted to earn money so that we can have a better house.”

So Tsega joined hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian men and women seeking to pull their families out of poverty by working overseas. Women in particular have filled the demand for domestic workers in the Middle East.

Women often face greater social pressure to migrate than men, said Ethiopian gender and development specialist Meskerem Mulatu Legesse. As women and girls have lower education and employment rates but face the same expectations to take care of their parents, becoming a foreign domestic worker and sending their wages home is one way to help. Some girls choose to leave in order not to become a burden on their families; in other cases, parents send their daughters to the Middle East in the hope they’ll find a better life there.

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