Most countries in the subregion have in place legislation to regulate the flow of migrants and to control migration. A striking aspect of the migration policy of the South Asian countries as noted by Oishi (2005) is that the policies treat men and women on different scales. Despite the increasing presence of women in migration flows, especially as workers, the migration polices in both the countries of origin and the destination countries of the South Asia-Western Asia migration corridor tend to be gender-blind. Migration policies in the subregion are often formulated with women placed at the margins, reproducing existing gender stereotypes. Women are seen as victims of all sort of violations and thus, incapable of deciding on cross-border migration. The State intervenes to protect and control women, thereby curtailing women’s rights to make their own decision and earn a decent living. Kapur (2005) notes that, constructing women as “victims” delegitimizes women’s movement in search of work. In addition, women are left with no option apart from depending on informal and often illegal agents, increasing the probability of women ending up in trafficked networks.
Oishi (2005) explains the relevance of the concept of ‘social legitimacy’ to analyse women’s migration processes in South Asia. She defines social legitimacy as “a particular set of social norms that accept women’s wage employment and geographical mobility and that establish an environment conducive to international women’s migration”. The concept not only seems to mold society’s attitude towards women’s migration, but also influence State policies promoting, regulating and/or controlling their mobility. Kapur (2005) narrates how the categorization of migrant women by the State into groups—such as potential victims and those outside the scope of victimization; women travelling alone and those travelling with family—often leads to impractical solutions.
Most countries in the subregion have placed some restrictions on the age of women migrants, destinations and occupations (see table 2). For instance, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan have put a limit on the age of the women migrants, while Sri Lanka has a minimum age for domestic workers only.
Restrictive migration policies have reduced the possibilities for regular and legal migration for women, forcing them go through risky irregular channels. For instance, in Nepal, due to the alleged sexual abuse and death of a migrant woman worker in Western Asia, which made headlines in the Nepali media, women’s migration to that subregion was banned in 1998 through a Cabinet decision; it was restored only in 2003. Later, this was revoked and a new law, the Foreign Employment Regulation (2008), was introduced. One provision in the law stipulates that international migration from the country is possible only through Kathmandu airport. However, it is estimated that 30–40 Nepali women fly to Western Asia daily through India. Nearly 20,000 to 25,000 Nepali women are believed to be working in Saudi Arabia and most of them are irregular migrants (NIDS 2009). Similarly, a study from India found that as a result of provisions such as age restrictions, women migrant workers often misquote their age in order to migrate for employment (Centre for Labour Market Studies forthcoming).
International migration is best viewed as a process that offers immense scope for social and economic mobility. However, there is a need to incorporate gender sensitivity into the migration policies in South Asian countries in which the rights of women to migrate would be recognized.