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Gulf journeys: Securing the lives of South Asia’s women migrants

Jun 15, 2012

Women migrant workers face many difficulties, especially the ones who migrate to the Gulf. A new study shows the need for newer policies to tackle the issues of their rights.

The journey of life often entails travel out of places we call home, to locations and cultures that are unfamiliar.

WFS Women

Migration is quite clearly one of the cardinal realities of our times. Every year hundreds of thousands of people leave their places of residence in search of a better source of livelihood and what they hope will be a brighter future. Today, there are at least 190 million migrant workers globally and women constitute nearly half this number. Yet, despite their numbers, women remain invisible and their contributions to national and family incomes go unrecognised.

“It’s time to consider migration through the gender lens, given the rising feminisation of migration,” says Dr S.K. Sasikumar, senior fellow of the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute (VVGNLI), Delhi. Sasikumar has just co-authored, along with Dr Rakkee Thimothy, Associate Fellow, VVGNLI, a new study, ‘Migration of Women Workers From South Asia to the Gulf’, which strongly recommends policy making on migration that is sensitive to women and their rights. 

The study, supported by UN Women, dwelled on the realities of migrant women workers in five major countries of origin – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – as well as those in six receiving countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia (which incidentally has the highest number of migrant workers from South Asia), and the United Arab Emirates. 

What makes women migrant workers particularly vulnerable? The reasons range from subjective factors like their lack of literacy, information, and the ability to express themselves in the local language, to objective circumstances like criminalised recruiting networks and indifferent regulation. What adds to their difficulties is the fact that they inhabit the lowest echelons of the job market – by far the largest proportion of them work as domestic workers. Thimothy points out, "Because of the highly personalised and isolated nature of domestic work, there is a higher chance of these women facing problems, including physical assaults."

The study highlights the widely prevalent ‘kafala’, or sponsorship system, that exists in most Gulf countries and which binds the migrant domestic worker to her employer. A worker who comes in through the ‘kafala’ route is entitled only to temporary resident status and has to work for the same employer for the entire period of the migration. 

What typically happens in these cases is that employers take away the passport and related documents. Fear of deportation forces the domestic worker to accept every situation she finds herself in and accede to every demand that is made of her. Dr Jean D’Cunha, global migration adviser for UN Women, emphasises the urgency of reforming of the ‘kafala’ system.

What makes women migrant workers particularly vulnerable? The reasons range from subjective factors like their lack of literacy, information, and the ability to express themselves in the local language, to objective circumstances like criminalised recruiting networks and indifferent regulation. What adds to their difficulties is the fact that they inhabit the lowest echelons of the job market – by far the largest proportion of them work as domestic workers. 

According to anecdotal evidence cited in the study, women have had to face non-payment of dues and suffer physical and verbal abuse on a daily basis. They could be the target of everyone within the employer’s family – from the children to the adults – and this could extend to sexual violence as well. Justice in such cases remains elusive, often even where murders and rapes have occurred. Domestic workers in the Gulf are expressly excluded from even the modest protective legislation for migrants that is offered by countries like Kuwait and Qatar. 

An important observation made in the study is the need to adopt a more women-centric approach to policy making on migration. Existing policies either invisibilise women or employ a patronising attitude towards them in the name of 'protecting' them. According to the authors, one of the striking aspects of South Asian emigration policies is that they do not treat men and women uniformly. 

The example is cited of the public outrage in Nepal that followed the sexual assault and death of a young Nepalese woman in the Gulf in 1998 that led to the country banning female migration, which remained in place till 2003. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India have all placed restrictions on women travelling abroad for domestic work at some point or the other. Pakistan, to this day, stipulates that only women above the age of 35 are entitled to work as domestic help outside the country.

Such arbitrary rules violate a women’s right to free movement and employment. Migration is an important source of mobility and is a human right. Instead of placing restrictions on their movement, it would be far better to put in place measures that ensure the safety and security of female migrants. In fact, restrictive policies only make migration even less safe because many women are then forced to adopt risky ways to migrate.

Some countries – like Sri Lanka – have learnt from past experiences and evolved comprehensive pre-departure orientation programmes, especially for women from rural backgrounds. Thimothy underlines the importance of orientation programmes, "Women migrants, we find, are vulnerable and face discrimination at every point of the migration cycle – during exit, transit, destination and return. At the point of exit, for instance, we find they don’t have crucial information about what their new jobs entail, or even on something as basic as the language and customs of the people they will now be living with."

What’s conspicuous is the unavailability of accurate data and proper documentation. Says Sasikumar, "Data on migration, especially gender disaggregated data, is very poor and scattered. For instance, there are no statistics available on the contribution women workers make in terms of the money they send back, although we know that a country like India, for instance, earns $55 billion through the remittances of people migrating from its shores."

This lack of proper accounting means that women are not given their due recognition for having turned around household economies and redefined development narratives in their home countries. Their numbers are not small - in 2010, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries received 6.45 million female migrants from South Asia – and their impact has been considerable. For instance, women migrants from Nepal, by buying property with money earned through their hard labour in foreign shores are challenging the feudal, male-centred land ownership norms in their country. It is interesting to note also that less women than men lost their jobs in the Gulf after the global recession, indicating that the demand for labour in sectors like care work and domestic service remains high even in the era of financial crisis.

It’s time then, to applaud the faceless woman migrant from South Asia, recognise her contribution and secure her life. As UN Women Regional Programme Director Anne F. Stenhammer iterates, "Together we need to make migration safe and an experience of dignity for the women of South Asia."

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