Joyce Wu and Patrick Kilby
Featured image: “Women lead an oath to protect women migrant workers” by ILO in Asia and the Pacific is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
Across the world, there are an estimated 169 million migrant workers, with women representing 41.5% of this group. Women and women-identifying migrant workers are everywhere and in every sector, from domestic work, retail and hospitality, the garment sector, offices, to the agricultural sector and more.
Women migrant workers are diverse in their identities. They can be a European backpacker who works at a Melbourne café, or a Nepalese woman who is well-versed in serial migration: six months in Saudi Arabia as a housemaid, three years in Lebanon as a freelance migrant worker, negotiating for the best contract as a domestic worker, shopkeeper and nanny. It is the story of the latter that we have been researching for the past three years, through a UK Government funded project to evaluate the impact of the International Labour Organization (ILO) project, Work in Freedom Phase II, which seeks to create a safer migration pathway and safer working conditions for migrant women in South Asia.
Through our research, we have found that women migrant workers are incredible in courage, resourcefulness and resilience, but that they constantly face gendered violence throughout the entire migration journey.
In a qualitative study with 112 women in focus groups and as key informants in Nepal, these are our findings:
At Home and in the Community
As of 2020, Nepal receives 24.5% of its GDP from remittances. Although Nepalese women make up a small percentage at 5% of the Nepalese overseas migration, it is a number that is steadily growing.
- The key factors driving migration are poverty and the need to support families and children, compounded by the lack of decent jobs locally due to the government’s lack of a gender-sensitive education policy which means Nepalese girls have fewer qualifications compared to boys.
- Family and intimate partner violence (especially drug and alcohol addiction) also serve as a push factor, with 25% of Nepalese women experiencing violence during their lifetime and 32.8% experiencing child marriage.
In our interviews with Nepalese women, working overseas thus represents an answer to poverty, as well as an escape from abusive situations.
Trafficking: A Wicked Problem with No Easy Solution
The government’s response to migrant women has been mixed. On the one hand, there are official migration agencies (locally referred to as Manpower agencies) that facilitate the process. On the other hand, Nepal vacillates between banning women from migrating or supporting them. However, limiting women’s mobility and job options overseas pushes up undocumented migration and trafficking, whereby women actively find people (sometimes it is their own family and friends who are familiar with migration procedures) who can help them.
This is a perilous journey, with India used as a transit hub to go on to the destination country.
Nepalese women have told us that during this “transit” some were forced to work in brothels for several months before being allowed to leave. This form of sexual violence and indentured labour goes unreported because Nepalese women are fearful of legal punishment if they admit to undocumented migration, as well as the stigma of being a sexual violence survivor.
At the Destination Country
For many, it is a work experience fraught with physical, sexual, emotional, verbal and financial violence. Middle Eastern countries that operate the Kafala system enables employers to withhold migrant workers’ visa and passport, thus having enormous power over them.
Women have reported being underpaid or not at all, having to work 18 hours and sleep in noisy, public areas of the house, being subjected to sexual violence and harassment from the men and boys in the household, as well as beatings and berating over small mistakes.
In Lebanon, the combination of COVID-19 and the Beirut Port explosions left migrant workers destitute as some found themselves dumped by their employers on the roadside.
However, for some women, overseas migration means higher income, the opportunity to learn new languages and cultures, and gaining self-confidence and new skills. They were able to network and work together with other migrant women to negotiate better contracts and work conditions with employers, as well as sending money back home. Children’s education and a better prospect for them is one of the key motivations for migrant women, although a number of them also expressed worry that their children are not looked after properly by their partner and/or family back home, with reports of children being teased for having a “migrant woman” as a mother. Children dropping out of was also a concern.
Ending Gendered Violence against Women
Migrating overseas for work in the hope of better outcomes will continue to be a push factor for migrant women globally. Gender inequality, globalisation and the feminisation of certain labour mean that there will be a constant demand for female migrant workers. Governments need to recognise that this is a complex issue with no quick fixes, and ending gender inequality and eliminating violence against women need to be at the centre of any policy lens.
Joyce Wu is a Senior Lecturer in Global Development at the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales. She is a Fulbright Fellow and Deputy Editor of Development in Practice.
Patrick Kilby is an Associate Professor in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University. Patrick is the Chief Editor of Development in Practice.