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July 2, 09

NEWS / Jordanian Activist Taps into the Power of the Mobile Phone Aida Abu-Ras uses modern technology to f

By Jane Morse
Staff Writer

Washington — The exploitation of migrant workers has long been a problem in many countries. Jordanian activist Aida Abu-Ras has demonstrated how the average mobile phone can be used to protect vulnerable workers.

In 2003, Abu-Ras founded Friends of Women Workers, the first nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Jordan to tackle human trafficking and the problems of female migrant workers.

In recent years, thousands of foreign women have come to Jordan for jobs, mostly as domestics. According to the U.N. Development Fund for Women, there are some 60,000 to 70,000 legal and illegal foreign women workers in Jordan. Their lack of language skills and knowledge of protective legal mechanisms, such as contractual agreements, makes them vulnerable to many forms of abuse. Friends of Women Workers tries to rectify this with public awareness campaigns.

Believing that education for both workers and their employers is the most effective means of tackling migrant worker exploitation, Abu-Ras launched a campaign in the summer of 2008 that sent 120,000 text messages to Jordanian mobile phone users instructing them on the appropriate treatment of their workers.

Sending the messages was not difficult, she told America.gov; the process was arranged with a mobile phone company. The challenge, she said, was crafting a message that was short enough to meet SMS (short message service) requirements, powerful enough to properly address the problem of migrant workers, and aimed at audiences in western Amman, the capital of Jordan, where most domestic migrant helpers are located.

“The messages were targeted at western Amman employers — both male and female — policymakers and recruiting agencies,” Abu-Ras explained.

Using SMS is effective, Abu-Ras told America.gov, noting that about 4 million of Jordan’s 5.7 million people have mobile phones. She said she would like to repeat the campaign, if funds can be raised to do so.

SMS, which allows for 160 characters or fewer depending on the language, is less expensive and more reliable than making a phone call. SMS can be sent to a large number of mobile phones at one time and messages can be automatically posted on a Web site.

Many migrant workers, Abu-Ras said, have cell phones and communicate via SMS with their relatives back home. Or they use cell phones to facilitate their jobs, especially those who take appointments for jobs on a daily basis. Some go to Internet cafes to chat with their families via computer. But illiteracy is a problem among many migrant worker women, Abu-Ras said, especially among the Sri Lankan and Indonesian girls.

In addition to the SMS campaign, Friends of Women Workers sent out 2 million e-mails. “I think both [methods of communication] are important,” Abu-Ras said. “In the e-mails we used three different cartoons that were developed especially for our NGO and UNIFEM [U.N. Development Fund for Women] by a famous cartoonist in Jordan with messages in three languages — Filipino, Sri Lankan, Indonesian — in addition to Arabic languages. So we were sending those cartoons carrying messages about human rights of migrant workers.”

The responses Abu-Ras received were encouraging and a few, she said, were unexpected.

For example, some of the employers she reached were facing problems with the recruiting agencies for migrant workers and didn’t know what to do; others had found their domestic workers had hepatitis and weren’t sure how to proceed. One woman, after receiving the message, decided to take her domestic worker, who complained of being sexually harassed by a man at the supermarket, to the police station to file a report.

Abu-Ras’s innovative work earned her the honor of being named one of the “Heroes Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery” in this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report, issued annually by the U.S. State Department. The report catalogues human slavery in countries around the world as well as what their governments are doing to combat the problem. (See “Innovative Activists Save Trafficking Victims in Jordan and India.”)

Abu-Ras now works as regional gender adviser for the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA) headquartered in Beirut, Lebanon, and continues to champion the rights of women migrant workers.


A study sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that there are 4 billion mobile phone subscribers in the world today and says that mobile phones “have become the most widely used form of information communication technology in human history.” Released in November 2008, the study, entitled “A Mobile Voice: The Use of Mobile Phones in Citizen Media” (PDF, 900 KB), found that mobile phones are often the only technology to which people in low- and middle-income countries have access.

Another study released in 2009 by the International Telecommunication Union, one of the oldest organizations established to standardize telecommunications, found that mobile phones have reached nearly 50 percent of the world’s population, and that by the end of 2007, 64 percent of the world’s mobile subscriptions were from developing countries.



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