Eight years after graduating from one of the state-owned universities in the South-West without a job after several unsuccessful applications and interviews, Helen Omoniyi (not real name) decided to seek greener pastures in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.
She left Lagos on one Monday in June 2016 on a journey that she hoped would turn her life around. As she left the shores of a country she had spent 28 years of her life, her mind pondered on many things all through the flight to Dubai, a rich city in the UAE known for luxury shopping, and ultramodern architecture, among others.
“I couldn’t bear the shame of being jobless anymore, so I thought if leaving Nigeria would be my last resort, so be it,” Omoniyi told our correspondent via a WhatsApp call.
On the day she left Nigeria, she had mixed feelings, though, saying she was excited as well as doubtful, not knowing what the future held for her in Dubai.
She said, “I was happy to look for opportunities somewhere else as I couldn’t get any job in Nigeria despite several efforts. In fact, I couldn’t count the number of applications I wrote in Nigeria. Some companies called me for interviews but I didn’t emerge successfully. So a friend who had been working in Dubai urged me to leave Nigeria, that there were jobs in Dubai.
“After passing through the necessary procedure to travel to Dubai, I finally left Nigeria in June 2016. That was about eight years after I graduated from university with a degree in Biochemistry. But as I left Nigeria, I didn’t know what life held for me in Dubai. I had many thoughts during my flight. I thought, ‘What if things didn’t work out as planned?’”
But it was too late to decide to return to Nigeria. She had to face the consequences of whatever decision she took. She finally arrived in Dubai to settle for a new life.
Omoniyi said she eventually got a job as a waiter at a Chinese-run restaurant in the city, earning about Dh1, 000 (N105, 000) per month, an amount she complained was barely enough to cater to her feeding, accommodation, among other expenses.
However, Omoniyi said she had no option but to cope with whatever she was earning and hoping for more as time went by.
But as months went by, she said her boss always complimented her beauty, describing her as the most beautiful black lady he had ever seen.
She said, “Initially, I used to smile at him for the compliments but I later got suspicious and infuriated when he didn’t want to stop complimenting me. As a lady, I knew that trick. My suspicion was confirmed sometime in November 2017 when on one occasion I went to his office to seek permission from him to sit an exam. He smiled and granted me permission but as I was leaving his office, he slapped my buttocks. But I warned him never to try it again. Then he flared up.
“He started insulting me. Before I knew what was happening, he grabbed my waist and held my throat. He asked how I dared to ‘threaten’ him in his own office. Then he started fondling my breasts as he pressed me against the wall. As I kept on struggling with him, he lifted my skirt and underwear and raped me.”
Asked if she reported the case to the Dubai police, Omoniyi said no, saying women’s rights records were poor in the Gulf country. She stated that from her findings, rather than arrest rapists, most women who reported rape were the ones often arrested for either premarital sex or extramarital affairs.
Omoniyi’s observation was perhaps correct. In a 2016 report by the Independent UK, a British woman, 25, who reported being gang-raped by two men in Dubai was charged with sex outside marriage while the alleged rapists were allowed to go scot-free.
Following her arrest for extramarital sex, the victim’s passport was confiscated, and prohibited from leaving the country to face legal proceedings. The Independent UK noted that the prescribed punishments for extramarital sex in the UAE include imprisonment, deportation, floggings, and stoning to death.
A human rights group, Detained in Dubai, noted that cases like that of the British woman were not uncommon in the Gulf.
“Dubai struggles to maintain its promoted reputation of being tolerant, modern, progressive, and focussed on happiness and positivity, while it regularly victimises women for reporting crime. All of the glamour, glitz, and fireworks displays in the world press cannot disguise the negative image that incidents like this one generate,” DD told Independent UK.
Radha Stirling, who founded DD in 2008, said over the past decade, the group had practically been involved in lobbying judicial improvements in crime report handling in the UAE.
DD cited Alicia Gali, an Australian national who spent eight months in jail after reporting being drugged and violently raped. Despite showing her broken bones and evidence of serious assault, Gali was the one jailed rather than the perpetrators.
“Several cases of women being jailed for being victims was actually why I didn’t bother to report my manager to the authorities,” Omoniyi said, adding that she had since left the restaurant for another job.
Another Nigerian based in Dubai, simply identified as Chioma, told our correspondent that she had once suffered sexual harassment by her employer in Dubai.
She said, “I worked as a home help when I first got to Dubai about seven years ago. It was during the course of performing my job one day when my employer raped me. I wouldn’t know whether he was a Pakistani or Indian as he resembled either. His wife had travelled out of town and he called me to do some chores.
“I was in the kitchen doing the dishes when I felt his arms on my buttocks. The next thing I saw was a gun held to my face. He threatened to shoot me if I didn’t do his bidding. I had to cave in. He lived in one of those exclusive neighbourhoods.
“After a week or so, he called to apologise profusely, saying he did not know what came over him. Whatever came over him, I told him never to call me again. The fact that I was a home help didn’t mean I was a slave. If not because of the poor economic situation at home in Nigeria, why would I become a home help in another country?”
Chioma said thankfully, she later got a teaching job at a language centre in the city.
“At a point, though, I had to forgive him. As a matter of fact, he has been of help in one or two days after the incident. I think he was really remorseful,” she added.
Also, Yetunde, a fair-complexioned lady who sought greener pastures in the UAE in 2014, said she was also raped by her employer when she worked as home help, saying the incident also made her to leave the country and return home.
She said, “I had barely spent three months in Dubai when I was raped. I was new in the country and didn’t know the procedure for reporting rape. Unfortunately, I had no one in Dubai that could guide me through what to do.
“I think I told a friend in Nigeria who encouraged me to ‘leave the matter to God’ because I didn’t know if reporting the case could lead to loss of the job. I succumbed to that advice because I feared losing my job. But when I look back, I regret keeping quiet. But what was I to do? I didn’t even know whether Dubai was like Nigeria, where rape victims hardly get justice.”
Another Nigerian, Kemi Badmus, said she was raped by her employer in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Badmus, who travelled for a contract job at a factory in 2018, said she had finished the contract since early 2020 but had not been able to return to Nigeria due to the suspension of international flights which resumed September 5.
However, during the course of her contract, Badmus said she suffered sexual harassment at the hands of one of her superiors at the factory.
She said, “Sometime in 2019, one of my superiors offered to drop me at home in his car. He said he would try to help me extend my contract in the company. While on the way home, he said he wanted to pick up an item at a friend’s place. The next thing I saw was him veering off to a dark place with palm trees lined up on the two sides of the road. If they killed someone there, it would probably take months for anyone to notice.
“He then stopped his car but lied to me that his engine developed a fault. The next thing I saw was him touching my body and removing my head covering. Of course, he had locked the doors and I couldn’t open it. Even if I did, I didn’t know where to run to. I tried to scream but no one would have heard me; the place was quiet. He asked me to give ‘it’ – he meant sex – to him either gently or forcefully. He did not even allow me to give an answer before raping me.
“After the act, he dropped me at the house and warned me never to tell anyone. He said if I did, no one would even believe me because I was not important. Also, he told me that the authorities would flog me if I reported the incident to them. I had heard something like that too and fear made me not report the incident. Even if what I heard was a lie, I didn’t know who to report to and how to go about it. I was just a contract worker in the country.’’
As Dubai, Saudi Arabia is also said to be notorious for poor women/human rights. In 2007, ABC News reported a victim of gang-rape by seven men who was sentenced to 200 lashes.
The woman, known anonymously in the Saudi press as “Qatif Girl” (named after the eastern province town where the crime took place), was originally sentenced to 90 lashes for being in a state of “khalwa” – that is, a retreat with a male who was not a relative.
But the General Court of Qatif increased the punishment to 200 lashes and six months in jail after the victim took her case to the press.
Authorities were reported to have deemed her action an “attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media,” according to Arab News.
However, Qatif Girl’s seven attackers were convicted of rape with sentences that ranged from two to nine years in prison, Arab News reported.
Meanwhile, Badmus’ friend, simply identified as Rashidat, who had also been sexually assaulted in the Middle East country, told our correspondent that she was fed up with life in Saudi Arabia. She said shortly before finishing her two-year contract job in the country, the COVID-19 pandemic came and stalled her return to Nigeria.
She said she and others were being frustrated as about 10 of them were lodged in a small room that could barely contain three people because their contract agreements had ended and the company was not willing to sponsor their return trip to Nigeria.
She said, “We are in frustration here because the company insisted that even if international flights commenced, they wouldn’t book our flight to Nigeria until January/February 2021 when the flight tickets were expected to be cheaper.
“We are not being paid any money and we are hungry. The company is asking us to sign another two years contract but our fear is that if anyone should sign another contract, it means another journey of suffering. We just want to get out of here and return home.
“However, out of being broke and hungry, I heard some girls are signing another contract.”
Another Nigerian lady, simply identified as Bola, who sought greener pastures in Beirut, Lebanon in 2015, said she was raped by her male employer while she worked as a waiter at a bar.
“The incident left me scarred but knowing why I travelled out of Nigeria in the first place, I had to endure the hardship until I eventually got out of the country. Thankfully, I was able to leave Lebanon for Dubai three years ago and life has been pretty fair to me since then,” she said.
Rape laws in Arab countries
Although sexual harassment occurs perhaps almost everywhere in the world, it is reportedly common in many Arab countries due to laws favouring men.
Although many Arab countries have since been trying to address the issue, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said much needed to be done by the countries to increase their human rights records.
“Dozens of women human rights defenders were targeted for advocating for women’s rights or protesting against violence against women or sexual harassment, particularly in Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. However, 2018, like 2017, saw limited positive developments at a legislative and institutional level with respect to women’s rights and violence against women,” Amnesty said in its 2018 review of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.
Similarly, writer Mais Haddad of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, the United States, wrote on jurist.org in 2017 how the laws in Arab countries protected rapists and further oppressed rape victims.
She said, “In the Arab world, women are under systematic discrimination socially, politically, and economically. This discrimination is mirrored, deepened, and embodied within the Arab countries’ legal systems. A quick study of these countries laws is enough to realise that male is the dominant gender and women fall at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
“Laws that deal with rape are one of many other examples of how women are treated as second-class citizens. Even though rape’s punishment found in the Arab states criminal codes can be up to life imprisonment and the death penalty. However, the problem lies not in the punishment of rape, rather in the burden of proof and the provision that a rapist shall not be prosecuted if he marries the victim.
“Consequently, these laws are further oppressive on women to come to light and report such crimes. Victims also face pressure and fear from their families and societies as the norms are to shame and stigmatise the victim of rape.”
Haddad further said judicial drawback to already troubling laws regarding rape was the burden of proof. She cited that for example, for a rape conviction to actually be handed down, the laws in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Qatar, and Mauritania mandated either a confession from the rapist or a witness account from four adult males.
Haddad added, “In all cases, with neither of those things readily available, along with laws that make extramarital sex illegal, women reporting rape are likely to find themselves as the subject of criminal investigation and often, actually, sentenced. The result is the victims often don’t report rape, fearing they will be tried for adultery. In the UAE in many cases, foreign women who are on a tourism vacation in Dubai, not knowing of these laws ended up being arrested after they went to the police to report they had been raped.
“In Saudi Arabia, a victim known as ‘Girl of Qatif’ was gang-raped by seven men. At her 2006 trial, she was sentenced to 90 lashes (and later 200) for being alone in a car with a man to whom she was not married.”
Nigerian women suffer abuse in Arab countries
On several occasions, Nigerian ladies seeking greener pastures in Arab countries had become victims of sexual assault at the hands of their male employers.
Recently, a 23-year-old Nigerian teacher, Omolola Ajayi, was held hostage in the Arab country by her employer, Youssef Maurwan.
In a viral video on social media, Ajayi had narrated her ordeals at the hands of her master in Lebanon.
Narrating her plight in Yoruba, the Osun State indigene lamented that her boss made life miserable for her since she arrived in Lebanon.
She said a family friend linked her up with an agent who took her to Lebanon with a promise to get her a teaching job there, but instead of being offered a teaching job, her passport was seized while her employers allegedly attempted to rape her.
“The person I live with wants to rape me but I have been resisting him. He collected my phone and said he would not give me the phone until I accept to have sex with him. It is when he sleeps or goes out that I manage to take calls where he keeps the phone.”
Ajayi said the situation became worse when she called her agent to get her out of captivity but the man told her he had paid for her life.
But following outrage at the incident and subsequent investigations by the Nigerian authorities, in collaboration with their Lebanese authorities, three suspects, including two Nigerians and a Lebanese were arrested by the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps in Ilorin, Kwara State.
Some weeks after the incident, about 50 trafficked Nigerian women were rescued from Lebanon and returned home by the Federal Government.
The United Nations noted that thousands of women and girls from Nigeria and other African countries were being trafficked every year and sold into sexual slavery.
Findings showed that the victims were often lured away with promises of jobs in Europe or Asia but they usually ended up being exploited as domestic maids or forced into prostitution.
In June, the Director-General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, Julie Okah-Donli, decried that most Nigerian girls were trafficked to Middle East countries such as Oman, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, referring to them as countries with whom Nigeria had no labour agreements.
A Lagos-based psychologist, Dr Sola Olanipekun, noted that violence usually occurred in every country around the world, regardless of political affiliation, economic prosperity, or culture. He, however, said societal attitudes towards sexual assault could vary greatly from country to country and the support a victim would receive from local law officials could be surprisingly inadequate.
“Knowing who to call and what to do if you’ve been sexually assaulted in another country can make a big difference in your pursuit of justice and the eventual outcome.
“I would advise victims to seek advice from lawyers in the countries where they are working or residing. I also think there are now some non-governmental organisations fighting for justice for rape victims in Arab countries. If any Nigerian lady is sexually assaulted, they should not keep quiet,” he said.
The spokesperson for the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Mr Gabriel Odu, explained that Nigeria did not have migration pacts with most of the Arab countries, hence the possibility of labour and sexual exploitation. He also referred our correspondent to NAPTIP, saying the agency was in a better position to respond to the issues.
“Most of the girls left Nigeria for those countries legally; they had visas before travelling. But their work there is illegal because we don’t have migration pacts with those countries, especially Lebanon.
“This is why most of the girls end up being exploited, which leads to a case of human trafficking. So NAPTIP is in a better position to respond to issues of sexual and labour exploitation abroad,” he said.
Responding, the Director of Public Enlightenment, NAPTIP, Mr Arinze Orakwe, said the agency would intervene – with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Organisation for Migration and Nigeria Immigration Service – to ensure the victims’ repatriation.
He said, “Most of the victims were trafficked because some people facilitated their trips. NAPTIP is naturally involved in cases like this. When we hear such reports, we write the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Organisation for Migration because they are the agencies that carry out repatriations.
“The responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to get to the embassies at those countries to prepare the necessary documentation. When this is done with the support of IOM, the victims are brought back to Nigeria.
“Sometimes, NIDCOM also gets involved because they work on diaspora issues. When the victims arrive home, NAPTIP receives them in collaboration with the Nigeria Immigration Service. After they are received, we profile and rehabilitate them.”
Orakwe also enjoined the victims to get across to the Nigerian embassies in the countries they were located to report their plights.