No excuse for not making labour and migration safe and fair for women

Shobha Shukla *

 No excuse for not making labour and migration safe and fair for women

Female migrant workers, despite contributing a significant share to the economy, face alarming levels of sexual and other forms of gender-based violence and harassment all across the migration cycle. Actions to make labour and migration safe and fair a reality for them are sketchy at best or few and far between.

The deadly divide between “what we know works” in reducing the risk factors for gender-based violence and harassment, and “what we are doing” is unacceptable. Failure to end all forms of gender-based violence will also wreak havoc on other sustainable development goals and targets.

Though some progress has happened in different settings, the writing on the wall is clear: we will fail to end all forms of gender-based violence unless preventative actions (those that stop abuse from happening in the first place or from reoccurring) that are more gender-transformative in nature and those that tackle power inequalities and the discriminatory social norms (which drive inequality between men and women, especially women migrant workers), are urgently implemented in letter and spirit and taken to scale – everywhere.

16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence

"This [gender-based violence] is a crime against women and girls and the human family as a whole. It is also costly, with some countries estimating the economic impact at some 3.7 per cent of GDP as a result of gender-based violence. Yet, investment is pitiful, a mere 0.2 per cent of overall aid in 2022. Our collective folly in failing to invest is all the more frustrating because we know what to do: reform and implement laws and multisectoral policies; ensure survivors have access to the services they need; scale up evidence-based prevention interventions and hold perpetrators to account.

But these will not happen by themselves. We must do what we always do when we recognize the gravity of an issue: allocate serious resources," said UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous, while speaking at this year's official UN commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. "We still live in a male-dominated culture that leaves women vulnerable by denying them equality in dignity and rights," said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. "Let’s build a world that refuses to tolerate violence against women anywhere, in any form, once and for all."

The 16 days of activism against gender-based violence is an annual global campaign that runs from 25th November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10th December, Human Rights Day, indicating that violence against women is the most pervasive breach of human rights worldwide. This year's theme of "Invest to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls" focuses on the importance of financing different prevention strategies to stop violence from occurring in the first place. There should be no place for any kind of violence in any woman’s life.

Nine years ago I had spoken to Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose story of abuse had raised an international furore and brought the plight of women migrant workers centre-stage. Erwiana had come to Hong Kong from Indonesia to earn money, as her family was unable to fund her college education. “As I really wanted to bring a change in my life, and the pay in Jakarta was not enough I decided to be a migrant worker abroad. I chose Hong Kong because it is said to be a safe country and I had heard no news about migrant workers being abused there.

When I arrived in Hong Kong, all my papers, such as my passport and employment contract, were taken by my recruiting agency and I began working as a domestic help. My employer would beat me up, would let me sleep only for 4 hours a day and did not give me sufficient food to eat. I was not allowed to go out or speak with other people or use the telephone. Eight months of abuse and torture left my body badly bruised and in pain.

So one day my employer decided to send me back to Indonesia. She brought me to the airport, helped me check-in, and then left. She threatened to kill my family if I ever spoke of my plight to any other person. Abandoned at the airport and unable to walk, I luckily met an Indonesian lady who not only helped me reach home but also took a photograph of my injuries and posted it on her Facebook”.

The social media spread the news far and wide and brought Erwiana’s case into limelight. Finally her employer was convicted and found guilty by the authorities in Hong Kong. Erwiana was put on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Powerful Persons.

Erwiana’s words spoken 9 years ago, are still as relevant today as they were back then: “As women and girls we need to raise our voice against exploitation. We need to unite in this fight against discrimination and exploitation which many girls and women face. My case was finally exposed because of the unity of the migrant workers’ movement”.

No excuse for any form of gender-based violence

The Asia-Pacific region hosts nearly 30% of the estimated 281 million international migrants, with women constituting nearly 50% of migrants in the region. South East Asia and the Pacific is home to 11.6 million documented migrant workers out of which 5.2 million are women. In the ASEAN region (comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), almost 50% of the 9.9 million migrants are women.

Women’s migration in search of livelihoods to support themselves and their families is on the rise in the Asia Pacific Region. This feminisation of labour migration is influenced by the lack of decent work for women in countries of origin, and an increase in the demand for female labour - particularly in occupations that are associated with specific gender roles, like domestic and care work- in destination countries.

Women migrant workers make vital social and economic contributions to their communities and countries of origin and destination. A Regional Study shows that financial remittances from migrant workers are a great source of income for all countries within the ASEAN region. For example, an estimated US$36.240 billion in remittances was received in the Philippines in 2021 (equivalent to 9.4% of its GDP), followed by Viet Nam, with remittances accounting for 5% of its GDP. And yet, women migrant workers in ASEAN earn significantly less than men.

When vulnerabilities fuel each other

While migration has a positive impact on the economies of countries and empowers women, it also puts them at increased risk of violence, trafficking, and discrimination that limits their access to fair practices and decent work. Women migrant workers are at great risk of gender-based violence and harassment because of the discrimination and inequality that they face as women (including in their countries of origin) and as migrants (especially in countries of destination).

In Asia-Pacific countries, between 30-40% of women workers have reported some form of harassment. In a survey of returned women migrant workers from Bangladesh all reported that they had been physically, psychologically, or sexually abused at the employers’ house with 60% reporting that they often faced physical torture during employment.

The root cause of gender-based violence is the power and control which privileged or entitled people (mostly men) exercise over those with less privilege and entitlement (mostly women). It is the product of our inequitable, discriminatory and patriarchal legal, economic and social systems, which place women in disadvantageous positions across their life cycle. Inequalities between countries and the lack of political will to extend rights to migrant workers also limit women’s access to the available protection mechanisms.

The way forward

Migration should be an informed choice that is free from all forms of violence and harassment. Banning women from migrating, under the pretext of keeping them safe, will put them at greater risk of gender-based violence and harassment. What is needed is a human rights-based, and gender-responsive labour migration for women where they are not subjected to gender-based violence and harassment.

It requires a multi-level approach that includes political will by way of not only passing but also enforcing laws to combat violence against women; regional cooperation and specific strategies to address harmful practices; tackling stigma and discrimination and providing access to support services for women.

Campaigns like the Safe and Fair project by International Labour Organisation and UN Women (in collaboration with UNODC) whose main objective is to ensure that labour migration is safe and fair for all women in the ASEAN region, and they have access to all their labour rights and to decent work, need to be replicated in other parts of Asia Pacific region.

* Shobha Shukla wrote this article for
The writer is the award-winning founding Managing Editor and Executive Director of CNS (Citizen News Service)
and is a feminist, health and development justice advocate.
She is a former senior Physics faculty of prestigious Loreto Convent College
and current Coordinator of Asia Pacific Regional Media Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT Media)
and Global AMR Media Alliance (GAMA).
Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla
This article was webcasted on December 01 2023.

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