This week, Bangladesh effectively shut down 166 agencies recruiting people to work in Saudi Arabia. 

The country cited claims of sexual abuse and torture as the reason behind the closures, saying many of its nationals who resided in the Gulf nation were subjected to inhumane treatment. 

Government spokesman Munirus Saleheen said that the agencies that were shut down "had failed to provide safeguards to the migrant workers and in some cases sent them back to their employers," in a statement to AFP. 

Around 300,000 Bangladeshi women have traveled to the kingdom since 1991 and were mainly hired as domestic workers, according to Dhaka government statistics. In recent months, tens have returned home saying they had to escape ruthless violations of their rights with some accusing recruiters of "selling them as sex slaves."

Activists form a human chain in Dhaka to protest and raise awareness for Bangladeshi female migrant workers who can face various forms of abuse, including physical, psychological and even sexual abuse by employers in Saudi Arabia (AFP Photo/MUNIR UZ ZAMAN Source: Yahoo

The South Asian country's decision comes less than a month after a video of a Bangladeshi domestic worker describing the abuse she encountered in a Saudi household sparked shockwaves online. At the time, 25-year-old Sumi Akter said her employers physically assaulted her, locked her up, and starved her for weeks. She was also subject to "merciless sexual assault."

Akter, who made a desperate plea to return home, also said that she had been "tortured" by previous employers in the country. The woman's husband said all efforts to bring her back home had failed. Her story sparked widespread outrage in her home country where thousands protested against the system that allows for such abuse. 

Akter's video went viral not long after the body of fellow Bangladeshi migrant worker Nazma Begum was repatriated in late October. Prior to her death due to an "untreated illness," 42-year-old Begum had reportedly begged her son to rescue her from her abusive employers.

Both Akter and Begum were promised jobs as hospital janitors prior to arrival to Saudi Arabia, after which they were forced to work as domestic workers.

Bangladesh has taken several other serious steps to protect domestic workers

In the past few weeks, Bangladeshi officials met with Saudi authorities in Riyadh to discuss the alarming rise in abuse cases being reported. A statement issued by the Bangladeshi Expatriate Welfare Ministry said that both countries have since "decided to update an online database of the female workers to ensure their safety."

Saudi police have also agreed to protect Bangladeshi women who escape from their employers' homes, promising to not return them to abusive workplaces. 

The ministry added that the Saudi Department of Protection and Support "will take prompt action if a female worker falls in danger."

Last week, Dhaka officials announced they were working on repatriating another 32 women who sent out a joint distress video call from a Saudi detention center where they were being held after running away from their employers. 

The number of Bangladeshi domestic workers leaving Saudi Arabia is on the rise

According to statistics published by Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC), an NGO that works to end poverty, around 1,300 Bangladeshi left Saudi Arabia in 2018 due to sexual and physical abuse by their employers.

They also added that this year alone, the bodies of 48 female workers who had died in the kingdom were repatriated back home. An Al Jazeera report also revealed that at least 66 Bangladeshi female workers have died in Saudi Arabia over the past four years, 52 of whom had taken their own lives.

It is estimated that thousands of victims stay in the country despite being abused as they need to send money back home. Remittances from domestic workers in the Gulf nation are the second biggest source of income for Bangladesh's economy, according to the Middle East Eye.

Saudi Arabia adopts the kafala system, which "gives sponsoring employers substantial control over workers and leaves workers vulnerable to situations of trafficking and forced labor," according to Human Rights Watch.

The sponsorship system legally binds domestic workers to their employers, giving them very limited legal protection. The widely-condemned system exists in different forms in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon.