Lonely nights for India's 'women left behind', unaware of Gulf migrant crisis

August 7, 2016 9:02 PM EDT

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By Anuradha Nagaraj

KALPAKKAM, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Inside her blue-walled house, E. Bhagyam sits with a faded wedding album and talks about how much she misses her husband, who works as a welder in the Gulf.

Unaware of the recent problem of Indian migrant workers stranded in Saudi Arabia with no wages or food, she said the couple have a home loan to pay off, and she has to assume her husband is fine.

"They went in a group so they must be safe," the 36-year-old mother of two said slowly. "Even if things are bad there, he won't tell me. He'll just say everything is okay and give me details of the money transfer every month."

Like Bhagyam, in every other house in the fishing hamlet of Sadraskuppam near Kalpakkam town in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, a wife waits anxiously for a call from the Gulf.

There are more than 100 "women left behind", as they are known here, living lonely lives in the small hamlet, among an estimated 1 million such wives in Tamil Nadu.

They are often depressed and always worried, found a February 2016 survey commissioned by the state government.

Nearly 70 percent of the women reported feeling anxiety, fear and loneliness.

Sixty percent considered the additional responsibilities they must bear in the absence of their husbands - such as caring for elderly parents or sorting out financial matters - a big drawback of the migration.

The survey, which covered 20,000 households across 32 districts in the state, flagged health and children's education as the other main causes of concern.

"Ironically, the women left behind are more qualified than the men and have higher standards of education," said Bernard D'Sami of the Chennai-based Loyola Institute of Social Science Training and Research, one of the survey partners.

Most of them married while their husbands were on a short break from working abroad, and 90 percent of them have never traveled to their spouse's country of work, he added.


Government figures show there are an estimated 6 million Indian migrants in the six Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Over the years, the Indian government and non-governmental groups have received a steady stream of complaints from migrant workers, ranging from non-payment of wages to torture and abuse.

In a high-profile case last month, workers sent an SOS to the Indian foreign ministry, stating the companies they worked for had shut up shop and had not paid them for months.

India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted on July 30 that thousands of Indian workers in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were facing a "food crisis" due to economic hardship. She appealed to an estimated 3 million Indians living in Saudi Arabia for help.

One of India's two junior foreign ministers, V.K. Singh, also traveled to Saudi Arabia to assess the situation and organize the return of the 7,700 affected Indian workers living in 20 camps for migrant laborers.


Men have been migrating to work from Kalpakkam for years. The nuclear power industry operating in this coastal town does not give them jobs, neither do local builders, who prefer the cheaper migrant workforce from northern Indian states.

"We know that life is not always comfortable in the Gulf but we keep going back because we have no choice," said S. Prabhu, a returnee migrant already looking for another job abroad.

V. Kalaivani, 32, doesn't follow the news, and knows nothing about the crisis hitting Indian workers in the Gulf.

"Over the many years my husband has traveled to Qatar and Saudi to work, I've got used to the idea," said the housewife with two daughters. "I guess we have been lucky so far."

Bhagyam and Kalaivani don't remember the names of the companies their husbands work for. They don't know who interviewed them or how they got to their destination. A copy of their husband's passport is somewhere in a cupboard, they think.

That is the biggest challenge, said J. Jeyanthi, coordinator of the non-profit Arunodaya Migrant Resource Centre.

"The women are clueless and that often causes anxiety. The families need the money but the women pay a heavy price because they are alone, restricted by unwritten norms which include avoiding social gatherings like weddings."

Even a small issue like who will drop the children at school if they miss the bus turns into a big deal when husbands are away, Kalaivani told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Most of us have parents and in-laws living a few houses away but it's not the same," she said.

Many women say they do not sleep well at night.

"We wait for our husbands to call," said Bhagyam. The phone usually rings way past midnight, when the men have finished their overtime. "In the day we are busy with housework. But at night, the loneliness is unbearable," she said.

The women are now reaching out to one other, forming a collective under an initiative by the Arunodaya Migrant Resource Centre.

From educating themselves on the perils of migration to sharing health concerns, they provide mutual support while their men are away.

"They need each other because they are in the same situation," Jeyanthi said. "They don't open up immediately, but slowly they are voicing their worries. It's a start."

(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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