How a Malawi WhatsApp group helped save women trafficked to Oman

By Florence Phiri in Lilongwe & Tamasin Ford in London,BBC Africa Eye

BBC Africa Eye investigates how a WhatsApp group helped save more than 50 Malawian women trafficked to Oman to work in slave-like conditions.

Warning: Some people may find details in this story distressing.

A 32-year-old woman breaks down in tears as she relives the abuse she experienced when, hoping for a better life, she found herself working as a maid in Oman.

Georgina, who like all the trafficked women interviewed by the BBC opted to only use her first name, believed she had been recruited to work as a driver in Dubai.

She had owned a small business in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, and was managing when approached by an agent saying she could earn more money in the Middle East.

It was not until the plane landed in Muscat, the capital of Oman, that she realised she had been deceived and subsequently trapped by a family who made her work gruelling hours, seven days a week.

“I reached a point where I couldn’t take it,” she says, detailing how she got as little as two hours’ sleep.

She had not been there long when her boss began forcing her to have sex with him, threatening to shoot her if she said anything.

“It wasn’t only him,” she says. “He would bring friends and they would pay him after.”

She struggles to speak as she recounts how she was forced into anal sex: “I got badly injured. I became so distraught.”

It is estimated there are around two million female domestic workers in the Gulf Arab states. In a survey of 400 women in Oman by migrant charity Do Bold, published by the 2023 US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, almost all were found to be victims of human trafficking.

Nearly a third said they were sexually abused, while half reported physical abuse and discrimination.

After several weeks, Georgina became desperate and in a post on Facebook she begged for someone to help her.

Thousands of miles away in the US state of New Hampshire, 38-year-old Malawian social media activist Pililani Mombe Nyoni saw her message and began to investigate.

She got in touch and got the Facebook post removed for Georgina’s safety and passed on her own WhatsApp number, which began to circulate in Oman. She soon realised it was a wider problem.

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