By Beh Lih Yi
KEBONPEDES, Indonesia, April 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Saepudin's village of Kebonpedes on Indonesia's Java island, it is so common for women to leave to work as domestic helpers abroad that one local neighbourhood is dubbed the "Jeddah block".
It has earned the nickname because 80 percent of the women living there have taken up jobs as maids in Saudi Arabia, one of the major destinations for Indonesian domestic helpers besides Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Indonesia has prohibited its citizens from travelling to the Middle East to work as maids since 2015 after cases of abuse, but traffickers still target women and continue to find ways around the ban to meet soaring demand in the region.
Indonesian women had said they were beaten up, sexually abused by their employers and often had their pay withheld.
Under a new pilot project, village heads like Saepudin in rural Indonesia - where most of the women are recruited - have been empowered to take on human traffickers in a bid to crack down on the illegal practices.
"(The recruiters) make all sort of false promises. We keep seeing cases of our women being abused, beaten up and not getting paid," Saepudin, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Kebonpedes.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) project involves 13 villages in the Sukabumi district. The area has been frequently targeted by traffickers and saw 4,000 cases of maids having been recruited to go to the Middle East last year.
The U.N. migration agency works with the villages to formulate local laws to counter the illegal practice, and train officials to prevent residents from falling prey to traffickers.
Heavy decentralisation of power in the Indonesian archipelago has granted local authorities a degree of autonomy in drawing up their own regulations.
A key part of the programme is educating village heads about how to spot women who might become trafficking victims.
Indonesians who plan to work overseas need to obtain permission from their village chiefs before travelling, and Saepudin said he now questions the women about where they are planning to go and who recruited them.
"If they fail to give a satisfactory answer or show the necessary documents, I will refuse to sign the consent letter," he explained. Some of the laws that villages have introduced to combat traffickers include making recruiters report to local chiefs, and making it illegal to lie to women when they are being persuaded to go abroad.
"Local leaders are often unaware of the prevalence of human trafficking in their areas," IOM Indonesia spokesman Paul Dillon said.
"Now they're coming around to understand how destabilising it can be for an entire community when its young women and men return broken from their experiences overseas."
Officials said they were hopeful the project would help raise awareness of the dangers of human trafficking, and encourage more villagers to come forward to report the crime.
"Trafficking in persons often begins with unscrupulous recruitment," Sujatmiko, a senior official from the Coordinating Ministry of Human Development and Cultural Affairs, said in a statement.
The initiative is expected to be introduced in the East Nusa Tenggara province later this year, one of the major areas for maid recruitment.
Maids make up more than a third of the 6 million Indonesians working abroad.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)