From being a victim to becoming a migrant women’s rights advocate

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih at present( Photo by Anne Marxze Umil/Bulatlat)

Erwiana’s story was among the many stories of domestic workers who, despite the impact of abuse on her – physically and emotionally, have risen up again and worked for the welfare of fellow migrant workers.


YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia – In January 2014, news of an abused Indonesian migrant worker made international headlines after suffering severe physical injuries inflicted by her employer.

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih worked as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. For months, Erwiana suffered abuse at the hands of her employer. Because she was not allowed to see a doctor, her body weakened due to her injuries. This was when her employer arranged her return to Indonesia.

“She took me to the Hong Kong International Airport. Another Indonesian helped me to come home and took me to the hospital,” Erwiana said in an interview with Bulatlat.

In April 2014, the Times Magazine included Erwiana in its 100 Most Powerful People in the icons category.

Erwiana’s story was among the many stories of domestic workers who, despite the impact of abuse on her – physically and emotionally, have risen up again and worked for the welfare of fellow migrant workers.

How is she now and how did she recover?

Bulatlat had a chance to sit down with Erwiana, now happily married, and with one child.

Erwiana in solidarity with Mary Jane Veloso. (Photo by Anne Marxze Umil/Bulatlat)

1) How are you and what are the things you do after your recovery?

I continued my studies. I got a scholarship from the Sanata Dharma University, a Catholic university in Yogyakarta.

The university actually went to my house and offered me scholarship. After that I went to the university for some tests before entering the university and completed my college degree.

It was also in the university that I met my husband.

I also joined Kabar Bumi, an organization of former migrant workers and their families. But I had to leave for Hong Kong because I had my internship at the Mission for Migrant Workers in 2019 to 2020.

There I am helping in the cases of migrant workers, doing consultation and policy advocacy. During the time of the pandemic, I also joined outreach activities for migrant workers who (gather) in the park or under the bridge.

And then after a year, I came back here in Yogyakarta, got pregnant and got married.

I was supposed to go back to Hong Kong because the mission needs staff and they also want me to come back. But then, since I have my baby, I decided to stay here.

Right now I am with a non-government organization, the Beranda Perempuan which was established in 2010. They have expanded their program for migration issues. Now it is serving migrant workers in rural areas in Sumatra, Indonesia.

So now, I am helping in the advocacy and campaign program for migrants. We also help in the education of the former migrant workers and their families about migrant issues. We also produce materials for migrant workers like on parenting. We are also part of a study by the Asia Pacific Research Network on migrants.

2) Tell us about your family. Why did you have to go to Hong Kong to work?

We are a poor family from a village in Ngawi, East Java. Many families in our place also migrate to other places, some in the cities and some overseas to work.

Our place, a mountainous area, has a rich land. Anything we plant grows there. But many of us do not own land. Most of the land is owned by the government which was later on transformed into a plantation. In our place, there are many wood and rubber plantations.

Those who are able to plant produce have to rent (land) just to grow food (and sell it). But income is still not enough. The materials for farming are also expensive.

That is why many young people go to Jakarta or Surabaya, a big city where they can earn higher salaries.

When I was a kid, both my parents were farmers, they would go to other places to harvest or go wherever there was something to harvest in the land of their boss. But the income was still insufficient so my father decided to work in Jakarta as a construction worker. When he came back, it was my mother who left the house to work as a domestic worker in Brunei Darussalam. She was there for about four to five years.

By the time I finished vocational high school, I decided to work in Jakarta. I was 19 years old then. I worked there in a car repair shop but since the salary was not enough I transferred to an Indian restaurant. But income was still not enough. It only goes to the rent for my room, food and other daily needs.

I was there for about two years.

Because my salary was still not enough for our daily needs, I decided to work as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. I also wanted to continue studying in college that time because my background is accounting. Maybe if I graduated from college, I will have a better job with a higher salary and have a better life. But I didn’t know that I would face that kind of employer.

That was my first employer.

Erwiana with partners of Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Developmen. (Photo by Anne Marxze Umil/Bulatlat)

3) How did you manage to gather all the strength and rise up again?

My experience is very traumatic, very sad. Sometimes it makes me lose my confidence. I felt that there was no hope at that time. But life should continue, right? That’s why I continued.

It’s a very hard struggle (to rise up) because of the trauma. I’m lucky I have free treatment for the psychiatrist. I am also lucky to have friends to talk to. The support I get is also overwhelming from my family, friends and migrant groups not only in Indonesia but also from other countries.

I also learned about political issues (in the process of my healing) and knew that what happened to me is not my fault. It is because of the system. That it did not happen only to me, it also happened to others. So that made me stronger.

It also helped that friends are cooperative. When I am tired, I just tell them that I need to stop and take a rest.

My body became weak because of the beating. I have a broken nose. Sometimes I’m chilling because of the trauma and that (will last for my entire) lifetime.

My backbone is also fragile. When I was pregnant, it was very difficult. I delivered the baby at seven months. But it’s still a blessing from God. I am very happy that I have her. She also makes me strong. She has also become my motivation.

When the cases we handle win, that also helps me to be stronger. One is the case of Kartika Puspitasari who recently won the case against her employer.

Before, when the government handled the case, she didn’t get anything. But after we handled it, she won and (the compensation) is big.

I also learned in the organization to fight and how to fight. Because if we don’t fight, justice will not be served to us.

4) What is your message to women migrant workers who are afraid to voice out their stories?

It is really not easy (to speak), before I was very afraid too if not for the people who are supporting me.

Just be brave and defend themselves if they are being abused or their rights are being violated.

After the beating, I still (see a) psychiatrist. Although my employer was detained for six years, that is not enough for the pain (to disappear). Until now she is still not paying the damages even if the judge in Hong Kong has already ordered the compensation.

The Indonesian Migrant Workers Union in Hong Kong is always ready to help also. They helped us a lot and we are very happy for that.

While it is difficult to get out of the situation, but I learned that joining the community will also make me stronger. (RTS, RVO) (

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