In 1998, when Anis Hidayah was 20 and studying law in her native Indonesia, she heard a horrific story about a female compatriot who was raped by her employer while she was employed as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.

The young woman eventually escaped, but her Saudi boss faced no criminal charges and she was never compensated for her wages or the crime.

'Why is it that I didn’t know about this before?' — Anis Hidayah

Hidayah came from a village in East Java where half of the women in the country regularly left their husbands and children to go abroad, taking up posts as domestic workers in an effort to lift themselves out of poverty.

After hearing about the case, Hidayah wondered: "Why is it that I didn’t know about this before?"

There was little media discussion of the issue in Indonesia at the time, and no government monitoring of the vast labour pool leaving the country on domestic worker contracts.

Hidayah soon discovered that when women sign up with recruiters to go to work as maids and nannies overseas, they fall into a void.

Having signed two-year, legally binding contracts, they are sent to countries like Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where they might work up to 18 hours a day, every day of the week, according to Human Rights Watch, an independent organization that monitors the industry.

Employers sometimes confiscate domestic workers' passports or even imprison them in their homes. In worst-case scenarios, the women are beaten, raped and starved. These and other abuses are chronicled by Human Rights Watch in several reports, including its most recent in 2010, "Slow Reform, Protection of Migrant Domestic Workers in Asia and the Middle East."

Leaders of the family

"Today, there are seven million migrant workers in Indonesia. Six million of those migrant workers are women and most are domestic workers," Hidayah said in during an interview in Toronto, where she was honoured recently by Human Rights Watch with the Alison Des Forges award for extraordinary activism.

"Because of poverty, women often emerge as the leaders of the family to help their families."

In 2004, Hidayah founded the Jakarta-based Migrant Care, a non-governmental organization that lobbies on the rights of migrant workers by pushing Indonesian lawmakers to come up with domestic reforms on migrant labour and by organizing protests and extensive media coverage.

'Anis Hidayah has become a national voice in Indonesia.' —Nisha Varia

'We monitor their treatment and give legal advice to the women," she said.

Her organization now deals with 1,000 cases a year, with women complaining about violence and abuse in Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

Abuse can start before these women even leave home, Hidayah said. Recruiters sometimes lock the women in recruitment centres while they wait to be matched with families abroad. Then they are saddled with the cost of airfare to their destinations, with the money taken from future wages, leaving them in debt before they even start working.

Human Rights Watch first became aware of Hidayah’s pioneering work with domestic workers in 2004, when one of the organization's researchers, Nisha Varia, was doing field work in Indonesia.

"Anis Hidayah has become a national voice in Indonesia," said Varia, now senior researcher in the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch.

Putting pressure on government

"The pressure put on the Indonesian government by Anis is strong," she said in an interview in Toronto. 

Hidayah is a master at lobbying in her native country, contacting politicians directly and using the media to publicize the issue, Varia said.

"Indonesians have yet to make it an electoral issue, but I've seen the issue evolve over the years," she said. "Today there is strong coverage of migrant issues in the media in Indonesia."

Human Rights Watch is also actively trying to raise international awareness about domestic workers.

"It’s a huge economic issue in Asia," said Varia.

Worldwide, there are 50 million to 100 million domestic workers, according to Human Rights Watch.

"This is a significant year to highlight the issue because the International Labour Organization in Geneva adopted a treaty to protect these workers in  June," said Varia. The new international guidelines call for standards and rules in the treatment and protection of domestic workers.

Now that the international treaty has been approved, advocacy groups are lobbying to get it ratified by individual countries.

Dream of going global

Meanwhile, Migrant Care in Indonesia has grown from an office of four staff members to 12. It gets funding from big agencies such as the Ford Foundation, Asia Foundation and the Open Society Institute.

Hidayah hopes it will eventually go global.

"Our dream is to expand to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia and Singapore," she said.

Asked to name a case of which she is particularly proud, Hidayah tells the story of a 32-year-old Indonesian woman named Ceriyati.

Ceriyati went to Malaysia in 2006 and was abused and tortured by her employer, Hidayah said. The employer kept her confined to an apartment, prevented her from calling her family on the telephone, beat her and then put salt in her wounds to make them more painful. The employer also limited her food, giving her only three biscuits a day, Hidayah said.

The woman endured this life for seven months until she eventually escaped by tying together bed sheets and scaling down 23 floors from a window. She then fled to the police. Hidayah learned of her situation and helped get her out of the country.

'Discrimination happens all over the world'

Although Human Rights Watch has focused its research on mistreatment and exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Asia and Arab countries (Saudi Arabian households alone employ 1.5 million domestic workers), it also monitors foreign domestic workers in North America.

"Discrimination happens all over the world, including North America," said Varia.

"Domestic workers in the United States don’t have the protections of other workers."

They don’t have the right to form labour unions and there is no legal protection against sexual harassment and occupational hazards in the workplace.

"They are at heightened risk in private homes," said Varia.

Recently in British Columbia, two immigrant women who had worked as live-in domestic help in the Lower Mainland said they were treated like slaves and kept in near imprisonment in their employers’ homes.