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Occasional Paper Gender Policy 11: Feminized Migration in East and Southeast Asia: Policies, Actions and Empowerment

21 Mar 2006



By the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than two million migrant women were estimated to be working in East and Southeast Asia. Most work in domestic work and sex services, in private households and informal commercial sectors. Despite the great need to protect their welfare and human rights, governments of the destination countries view migrants as merely a workforce to meet labour shortages, and often ignore protective measures. And labour-source countries, under pressure to increase foreign revenues, encourage their women to migrate and remit their earnings from abroad. In the face of global competition, governments of source countries have also shown little interest in their migrant women’s welfare. In the context of these countries’ bleak records of human rights practices, non-state actors have assumed increasing importance in advocating migrants’ rights, which they have done through local and transnational networks.

Feminized, and therefore gendered, migration in East and Southeast Asia has its roots in the region’s rapid but uneven economic development, which is characterized by the inequality and conflict that differences of gender, class and nationality can produce. The transfer of foreign women within the region from the low-income economies (the Philippines, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Pakistan, Bangladesh among others) to the high-income ones (Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China (Taiwan Province), South Korea and Japan) intensifies existing gender inequality, economic injustice and ethnic discrimination. International migration is, however, a contradictory process: while it subjects many migrant women to abuse and exploitation, it may also provide them with opportunities for social mobility. These women may be empowered by their everyday resistance to the dominant power structures, and by the opportunity to accumulate individual and collective resources.

Migrant women differ from one another in the conditions of their border crossing, employment and legal protection, and they therefore differ in the ways in which they resist the unequal and discriminatory practices they may encounter at their destinations. The governments of labour-importing states vary in their political tolerance of civil-society activities, and there are thus significant differences in the capacities and resources that their civil societies have for collective action to challenge oppressive policies and practices affecting migrants. Although many legal and institutional barriers to social justice remain in labour-importing countries, civil actions by citizens and migrants comprise significant steps toward the realization of migrant workers’ rights. The growing presence of a transnational advocacy movement throughout Asia facilitates the efforts of civil organizations to enhance migrants’ rights and welfare.

Keiko Yamanaka is Lecturer in the Department of Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley, United States. Nicola Piper is Senior Researcher in the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Order from UNRISD; 45 pages, 2005, $12 for readers in industrialized countries, $6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.