An interview with Ismi: From domestic worker to paralegal advocate

March 7, 2022
Category: People Profile

“The world is already unfair to women,” says Ismi Malihatun Nasiha. “Be prepared for it so we can turn the tables.”

A former migrant domestic worker (MDW), Ismi has helped to do just that. The paralegal can even pinpoint the exact moment that she turned the tables – not that she knew it at the time.

It came when she tried to bring a case against her former employer in Singapore.

Before work abroad, Ismi had been a Girl Scoutmaster after graduating high school. She was a mentor for the flag hoisting troop at a junior high school in her native Lampung. Ismi had also been entrusted to help with troubled students at the junior high and work with the administrative team.

Ismi then left her home for Singapore in 2014. It was her first time working overseas.

Facing adversity overseas

“My first and only experience working abroad still makes me feel traumatized,” she said of her nine months there.

Ismi was forced to sleep in the same bed as the employer’s three children and made to take care of 11 cats. When she was sick, she had to pay her own medical bills and work throughout her illness. Despite this, she got on well with the children and their grandparents.

When her relationship with her employer deteriorated, the employer threw Ismi’s personal belongings away, including her journal – a vital tool for Ismi to document her time in Singapore and the treatment she suffered.

When Ismi finally left the employer, did not pay for her ticket home.

Scarred by the experience, Ismi had “no desire” to return to being a migrant domestic worker but she wanted to help others.

“As soon as I got back home, I took some time and joined a training from BP2MI (The National Board for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers) and SBMI Lampung.”

Her turning point came when she met Ari, the former head of JWB’s Indonesia office, who was on a visit to Lampung with the University of Indonesia.

Ari’s visit was part of a programme to promote awareness for migrant domestic worker rights. It included slots for individual case screenings, which is where Ismi decided to tell Ari about her mistreatment in Singapore.

“I had nothing to lose,” she said, adding that the case would end in either victory or a lesson learned.

From loss to leadership in her community

“We unfortunately lost the case, as there was not any proper evidence of all that happened. My employer also moved out of her flat and could not be found. In this case, there was no justice for me.”

Reflecting on her experience, Ismi shared that she did not know her rights in Singapore. She suffered at the hands of her employer, unaware that the treatment was not normal, or legal.

“Had I known more about the rights of migrant workers, I would not have had to suffer that way.”

This experience though made Ismi realize that she wanted to teach others, to prevent them from falling into the same fate.

“I decided to educate as many MDWs-to-be as possible. I do not want to see another Ismi around me,” she says. “Little did I know that it was my turning point to do something else.”

Not just one thing. Ismi has been busy. Very busy, in fact.

“I am a paralegal for SBMI and a caseworker for Kalyanamitra, an NGO that is focused on the establishment of women’s rights in Indonesia. At the same time, now I am a mentee for JWB’s mentorship project, Program AKSES, where I learn more about cross-border litigation and more.

Ismi is also a speaker for many awareness raising programs for safe migration in her home region.

“I enjoy all my activities a lot. I love learning with others. It is a great pleasure to be there with people and to finally share my knowledge and experiences with them.”

Ismi feels like her  confidence has grown, and she thrives off the feedback from the talks.

“People love attending my talk. According to them, it is easy for them to understand the substance of my talk. It keeps me going.”

She has one simple message for other women to keep going this International Women’s Day.

“Do not settle for less. Do not feel afraid to speak and to submit opinions, we are as equal as men. Never feel inferior because of your gender.”

She believes that while some confine women to the role of help “simply because of our gender”, “being an MDW is still an honorable choice for women” in her eyes.

“There is no limitations for what a woman can do. If a woman understands what she could achieve, there is no turning back and if she knows how to handle troubles, she will not be exploited.”

“I want MDWs to be smart so there is no way they get swindled. I want them to know where to go.”