Annick Andriahsatovo sits at the table before our interview, cooing over her 9-month-old son, Alydioh. Andriahsatovo is 22, with a disarming smile and an easy, maternal air. She also has a nightmare story to tell. In September 2012, shortly after completing her baccalaureate degree, Andriahsatovo—who lives in a suburb of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar—received a visit from a job-placement agency recruiter. The woman assured her that she could make good money working as a domestic servant in Kuwait, and also that there would be none of the labor-abuse problems recently reported in the media.
Andriahsatovo hadn’t the faintest idea how to find Kuwait on a map, but she immediately agreed. Her parents were out of work, and there weren’t enough decent-paying jobs in Madagascar to justify even looking. On November 15, her flight took off from Ivato International Airport. “I was sad to leave my family,” she recalls. “But I had courage.”
Her problems began the moment she set foot in Kuwait City. At the office of the Kuwaiti placement agency, she was “sold” from the employer listed in her contract to a second man, a retiree with a twenty-four-room residence. He wasted no time assigning her an impossible load of chores: cleaning all the rooms, cooking the food, washing the clothes. Her workdays lasted twenty-one hours, and she ate only leftovers from the family’s meals—provided there were any. When her performance failed to satisfy her employer’s exacting standards, he would strike her.
About two months after arriving, Andriahsatovo noticed that she’d stopped menstruating. An exam revealed that she was four months pregnant. Her boss was not pleased. He upped her workload despite her declining physical condition. On April 13, she felt sharp stomach pains. Not for the first time, Andriahsatovo implored him to call a doctor. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” he said dismissively. Desperate, she asked a Filipino neighbor to call a taxi. The next day, at the hospital, she gave birth to twins—the girl stillborn; the boy alive, but more than two months premature.
Andriahsatovo was transferred to a social hospital as she waited for her newborn son to gain strength. Two weeks later, the police paid a visit; they said that she and Alydioh could soon return to Madagascar. Instead, mother and son were reunited inside a squalid detention facility teeming with former domestic servants from the countries that make up Kuwait’s major labor suppliers: the Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal. Most had fled abusive employers and now awaited their fate—deportation for most, but for others a prison sentence.
The detention center, Andriahsatovo says, was no place for a human being, let alone a 2-week-old preemie. There weren’t enough beds for everyone inside the cramped cell, so Andriahsatovo and Alydioh slept on the floor. Food and milk were in short supply. The only water came from the toilet. Alydioh was constantly sick.
The other detainees came and went following interventions by their embassies or consulates. Madagascar, however, has no consular representation in Kuwait. As the months passed in their dark, filthy cell, Andriahsatovo was left to wonder whether Alydioh would ever experience Madagascar’s embracing sunshine.
Andriahsatovo’s nightmare, with small variations in place and time and nature, is one that has been shared by tens of thousands of young Malagasy women over the last five years. It is also a nightmare with many fathers: a corrupt and ineffectual Malagasy state, callously indifferent host countries, unscrupulous traffickers, abusive employers, and international donors blinded by protocol and their own professed ideals to the real-world consequences of their actions.