Despite the increased presence of women in the global migration pattern, the contribution of women to the migrant labour force is an issue that has been largely overlooked or neglected in the subregion. This point will be elaborated in the following paragraphs through the contribution of women migrant workers in the form of remittances and other social aspects.
The main reasons for migration in general—lack of viable opportunities in the home country, widespread poverty, desire for a better future and a higher remuneration in the destination country—hold true for women’s migration in South Asia, though the impact of such factors varies among countries. At the same time, as will be discussed later in the chapter, factors such as the harsh realities of family life, alcoholism of the male members of the family and oppressive social systems, seem to play a crucial role in influencing a woman’s decision to migrate. Other causes for migration are natural disasters, conflicts and violence.
In the South Asian context, the feminization of migration is largely associated with the migration of women from Sri Lanka. About 80 to 90 per cent of women from Sri Lanka migrate to work as domestic workers (SLBFE 2009). The composition of women migrants provides clues on the factors that trigger migration at the micro level. In the present decade, the migration of women workers from Sri Lanka is inextricably linked with the employment of domestic workers in Western Asia. Sri Lankan women migrants are predominantly Sinhalese and Muslim; the number of Tamils is much lower. While migrants were drawn primarily from the urban areas surrounding the capital city of Colombo in the late 1970s, they now come from all over the island, including the western districts of Colombo, Kurunegala and Gampaha (Frantz 2010).
Prior to the current rise of women’s international migration, women migrants were mainly working in plantations or in free trade zones (Brochmann 1993, Kottegoda 2006) and comprised a higher workforce participation rate. The vibrant garment industry spread across Sri Lanka also boosted the number of women migrant workers as many women trained in these factories have found jobs in garment factories overseas. The increase in women migrant labour as domestic workers and as low-skilled and semi-skilled factory workers (predominantly garment factory workers) is attributed to a number of other social, economic and policy factors.
Despite liberalization, unemployment remained a major problem and the standard of living of the population further worsened with the withdrawal of the decades-long food subsidy programme in the 1979. The increased demand for workers in Western Asia gave the Government of Sri Lanka an avenue to overcome the low economic growth. In this context, it can be argued that the historical legacies of women employment outside the household also helped women from Sri Lanka to migrate in large scale (Oishi 2006).
Women’s migration from Nepal presents a different trajectory. Migration before the 1990s often meant male migration in which women accompanied their spouses, parents or relatives. Patriarchal attitudes coupled with a lack of reliable and available networks as well as money to support migrant initiatives hindered the independent movement of women migrant workers (Adhikari and others 2006). One significant development in the 1990s was the change in the political organization of the country from that of a monarchy to a democracy.
The failure of the agricultural economy and the resultant poverty after the 1990s prompted many women to go to India to search for non-farm jobs, while a few migrated to other countries (Bohra and Massey 2009).7
As in the cases of Sri Lanka and Nepal, widespread poverty, unemployment at home, and wage differences at the destination country triggered international labour migration from India to Western Asia. Academic literature on international labour migration in India is largely focused on male migration. This complements the near invisibility of women migrants in data. This seems ironic in the case of the Indian state Kerala which records high levels of labour migration of women, particularly nurses, to Western Asia. However, the experience of female labour migration in the category of low-skilled (domestic workers) and semi-skilled (health-care workers) is increasingly receiving attention (Bindhulakshmi 2010, Percot 2006). The study conducted by IOM (2010) among labour migrants from the Indian state Andhra Pradesh indicated their decision to migrate was driven by economic benefits. Studies on women’s labour migration to GCC countries also indicate that their choice (particularly as nurses) was also guided by a desire to migrate to a better destination (Percot 2006).
Though female migration from Bangladesh continues to be low, there has been a gradual uptrend from the less than 1 per cent share of females in the annual labour flow that prevailed until 2000. It is ironic that the social situation that inhibits women’s migration also tends to be a major factor pushing female migration. As indicated in studies by IOM and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) (2000) and Siddiqui (2001), women who face unhappy social situations, including difficult marriages, harassment and violence, are lumped in a socially disadvantaged group and see migration primarily as a quest for independence and a means of realizing their self-worth.
While migration can be a source of economic empowerment and progress for women migrants and their families, the existing system of migration poses many challenges for women who want to benefit from migration and the potential employment opportunities. Some of the possible consequences under this system are cases of physical violence, sexual abuse, withholding of passports, restrictions on mobility and communications and even death while trying to escape (Migrant Forum in Asia 2004). Notably, migrant women who escape a exploitative work setting and bring legal action against their employers rarely succeed. The lack of access to legal services and redress systems by appropriate authorities leads them to be deported and/or lose their employment income, jeopardizing the livelihood of their families back home. As such, many women migrant workers choose to continue to work in their places of employment no matter the level of abuse and exploitation in absence of a better alternative. Despite these challenges, recent trends suggest that more women workers will go overseas in the search of better employment opportunities in the future.
7 Migration from Nepal to India dates to the provision of free movement under the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950 and is facilitated by the long and open border between the two countries, which allows travelling through land routes where cross-border movements often remain unrecorded.