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Old October 3, 2007, 10:10 PM
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Here is a report that explores this situation.

Wives at Home Worry about Husbands' Fidelity
Qurratul Ain Tahmina

SIRAJGANJ, Bangladesh, Dec 18 (IPS) - Hamida Begum (not her real name) of this district in northern Bangladesh has a startled look about her. She barely raises the veil from her face. The timid eyes look too prominent on her thin and sharp face.

The women gathered at the office of a non-government organisation here are rather ruthless in describing Hamida's misfortune. They mean sympathy, but their lack of tact must hurt.

Mosammat Sahana Begum is a young woman, whose husband, like those of the others, works in Malaysia, which draws the second biggest number of Bangladeshi migrant workers after Saudi Arabia. There are more than 100,000 skilled workers in Malaysia, but the figure could rise to 300,000 if undocumented workers are included.

"Our occasional worries about the fidelity of our husbands pale in comparison to her woes," Sahana points at Hamida. "Her husband is always straying."

"It would be 13 years since he first went to Malaysia," Hamida says. "About three years back he came home and stayed for about a year and a half."

"This time he sent some money regularly for about a year," contemplates Hamida. "But then on I haven't heard from him."

Hamida knows that her husband had married a Malaysian girl on his first trip. "I hear he is no longer with her," says Hamida. "But I do not really know what he is up to now."

Hamida has three sons and three daughters to take care of. "My eldest son, still quite young, works as a handloom operator," says Hamida. "Another son, about eight years of age, works as a helper. We have to manage with the money these two bring."

Sahana's husband first went to Malaysia in 1995, at the peak of the exodus of migrant labour to Malaysia. He came home for four years and went again in March 2002. Two of Sahana's four children have been born and conceived during his stay in that South-east Asian country.

"We women in Bangladesh observe 'purdah', but there men work side by side girls," says Sahana. "The men who are smart are easily swayed to bad directions." Sahana's comments cause a ripple of laughter in the group.

SHISUK, a non-government organisation working with the Sirajganj migrant workers and their families since 1999, has so far organised 18 groups of in total 180 women. More than one-third of the group members are wives of migrant workers.

"They say that while at home their husbands demand sex even before the bleeding period of forty days after childbirth is over," says Mosammat Jobaida Khatun, a community organiser of SHISUK. "And they often wonder if their husbands frequent other women while abroad."

"We hear accounts of men marrying there, even having children," Jobaida says, although not all are like that.

Now that the Malaysian government has resumed taking Bangladeshi workers after a suspension of seven years - the two countries signed a labour agreement in October - among its major concerns is that of male workers getting married to Malaysian women.

The Malaysian government included in the accord requirements that Bangladeshi workers be aged from 18 to 40, be able to speak Malay or English, have no criminal record - and cannot get married in Malaysia. The men's contracts would be terminated as soon as he marries a Malaysian woman.

"We got to ensure that our men do not cause any social disturbances in Malaysia," says Daliluddin Mondal, secretary, Bangladesh's Ministry of Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment.

Sakiul Millat Morshed, SHISUK's executive director, agrees. "The workers must have some accountability," says Morshed. "They are going to Malaysia for working for a certain period only and not to get married and set up homes."

"Previously when they had stopped taking our workers," says Mondal, ''we were informally told that next to recruitment-related problems, such marriages were the major reason for the 1996 freeze (on hiring of Bangladeshi workers)".

Thanks to mobile phones now available in villages, the women can now talk to their men abroad. But not all men call home regularly, often caught up in the insecurities and hassles of an undocumented migrant's life -- and sometimes absorbed in new affections.

"There are constant pressures from home to send money," Mohammad Abdul Khaleque, another of the NGO's community organisers and himself a returnee from Malaysia, says, trying to explain the situation. "At one point some (migrant workers) begin to feel deprived and used as a machine for earning money."

"Frustrated, together with friends they then seek sexual pleasures," says Khaleque. "And often men form attachments while working together with women."

Moina Begum's husband confessed to her that he gone with women several times during his first stay in Malaysia of nearly five years. "This time when he went back, he promised to me that he would not do it without seeking my permission first," says Moina, not her real name. "He now often tells me over phone of his desperations at weak moments," says Moina. "I advise him to pray in such moments. I say, I do not have such thoughts, why should he?"

Aware of the emotional, physical and social conditions of migrant work, SHISUK is also promoting condom use. The women here in Bangladesh are informed about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. "Prior to her husband's coming home, a woman contacts me," says Bedana. "I then give her condoms and show her the proper way to use those."

Abdul Mannan, a returnee, talks about a fellow worker who had kept up a long relationship with a migrant worker from Indonesian. "All he earned in seven years was spent after this woman who eventually left him for another man."

While in Malaysia, Ainul Kabir had been prudent and regularly sent money home. "I never took that path because I could see that friends who kept girlfriends needed to borrow money every month,'' he says. Men too stress that not all of them do this.

"Our men marrying there is certainly not a general phenomenon," says A Y M Mosharraf Hossain, who was the labour counsellor at the Bangladesh High Commission in Kuala Lumpur from 1998 to 2002. "I don't think it's on any alarming scale."

But still, this causes reintegration problems, says Khaleque, who is also a leader of the Migrant Workers' Welfare Forum in Sirajganj: "The women there are fair and pretty and a returnee often makes comparison and finds his wife unattractive,'' says Khaleque. ''These overt or subconscious cravings create tensions between a couple."

"The husbands sometimes complain that we are too thin," says Mosammat Maloti Begum. "We then tell them that what do they expect? In their absence we have to run the families. Not that they send home huge amounts of money!"

Mosammat Bedana Khatun, SHISUK's programme organiser for the female spouse groups, says the opposite is also true: "Often during the long absence of the husband, the wife may leave home for another man."

Link to news.
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