Op-ed: Understanding Modern Migrant Women
08/03/2018 - We live in a world of unprecedented mobility with an estimated 258 million international migrants globally. Women and girls represent almost half of that number. All of them want better lives and are full of hopes, ideas and aspirations. International Women’s Day, which falls on 8 March, is a time for the global community to reflect on progress made towards empowering female migrants and protecting their rights.
Female migration is nothing new. Across the globe, women have been on the move for as long as men have. What has changed over recent decades are the proportion of women in the migrant workforce, their motivations to migrate, and the role they play in the global economy – trends broadly described as the “feminization of migration”.
These trends are particularly evident in Southeast Asia, where migration was male-dominated up to the 1980s. Today, women account for 48 percent of the 9.87 million migrants in the region, and their prominence is increasing by the day.
Traditionally, women in the region migrated by association – often for marriage, family reunification or to accompany a spouse migrating for work. This continues to be case in Thailand, where many migrant women from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia follow their husbands to work alongside them in agriculture, construction sites and factories.
But the rising number of women who now migrate independently suggests that this is changing. For millions of women today, migrating for work is now an attractive option. It provides an opportunity to advance socially, economically, and professionally; to improve the lives of families back home; and to obtain empowerment and autonomy.
The contributions of these women must not be discounted. For countries of origin, female migrants are an important source of remittances. We now know that migrant women, despite earning less, send a greater portion of their income home more frequently and over longer periods of time than their male counterparts. These funds often support entire families and are an effective means of poverty reduction.
For the host countries such as Thailand, migrant women now fill major gaps in the labour market. In some sectors, the participation of migrant women is staggeringly high. The construction industry, for example, employs over 200,000 women - almost 40 per cent of all migrant construction workers.
Migrant women also fill huge numbers of jobs perceived as "low-status", including domestic work, caregiving, hospitality and nursing. While often shunned by locals, these jobs are crucial and demand for workers in these sectors will increase as Thailand’s population ages.
Yet despite the important roles they play, migrant women continue to be undervalued by society. Even though they work equally hard and perform most tasks as well as men (hard physical labour being the notable exception), many continue to be paid less and have less access to training and careers. This is despite labour laws that clearly stipulate that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work in Thailand, as in many other countries.
Migrant women also tend to be relegated to gender-specific job categories in industries that are less regulated. These include domestic work and entertainment, where wages are low and protection is minimal, leaving many vulnerable to exploitation. Far too often we read horror stories of domestic workers forced to work excessive hours, denied days off, subjected to physical and mental abuse, and, in extreme cases, assaulted, sometimes fatally, by their employers.
The reality for female migrants is that their gender dramatically influences their migratory experience at every stage. Many are confounded by unique challenges, from unscrupulous brokers looking to mislead and cheat them before they leave the country, to gender-based violence during transit, to abusive labour practices and lack of access to social services in countries of destination.
Even in skilled professions, migrant women often find themselves structurally disadvantaged, doing jobs for which they are over-qualified due to discrimination from employers who view them as “less capable”.
We therefore need to recognize that such inequalities exist and work towards gender-sensitive responses that empower women and lessen their vulnerabilities.
These include promoting safer migration for women, better regulation of their recruitment and deployment, and the introduction of policies that encourage their participation in all sectors of the economy.
Public awareness is also key in combatting the stigma attached to female migration. Protecting a woman’s rights and upholding them is not solely the responsibility of governments, international organizations or NGOs. It also is the responsibility of individuals who can be empowered to promote a culture of tolerance, respect and human dignity.
As we work towards the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, it is important to recognize the role that gender plays in the lives of migrants. The situation of female migrants demands our attention and should be at the forefront of global efforts to tackle inequality. We must make every effort to ensure that their voices are heard.
Dana Graber Ladek is the Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Mission in Thailand.