Migration became a global occurrence with colonisation, industrialisation, and urbanisation. The Second World War gave an impetus to the feminisation of the workforce. With the advent of the global economy, the reasons for migration have diversified and so have the migrants themselves.

Migration is misconstrued as a predominantly male phenomenon. The diverging experiences of migration for women are left out of the migration discourse. Women are diminished to the status of dependants or are thought to be left behind. Hania Zlotik from the UN Population Division says otherwise. Figures in 2002 showed that female migrants have been almost as numerous as male ones. They actually form a larger chunk of the migrant population in developed countries. Women are the invisibilised data in migration statistics.

In conversation with UN Women, Donna Gabaccia, a speaker at a conference on Families on the Move, pointed out the failure of international policies to recognise female migrant labour. She observes that only 22 countries have ratified an ILO convention concerning the rights of female domestic labour despite the exploitative ramifications it has. Also according to her, “When women migrate in some countries they may be unable to seek work independently or report abusive partners’’. Female migration hasn’t yet fallen under the legal system.

Patricia Uberoi in Marriage, Migration and Gender observes that literature on migration insufficiently looks at the differential experience of men and women in the context of a gendered world. The social domain exerts much control over how and why people migrate. Migration patterns within South Asia are governed by structural factors such as the family, the agricultural modes of production and marriage. In order to gain a holistic insight into the female experience of migration, it is essential to locate their societal exigencies and constraints.

Reasons For Migration

The discernible push and pull factors for migration most often indicate an economic motive. Poverty is arguably the biggest push factor for rural-urban migration. It is the onus of the men of the household then to move to the city and send remittances back home. The women must wait patiently for their return and utilise the funds sent judiciously.

The woman’s role in the upkeep of the home then boils down to that of a passive spectator with no agency of her own. But for those intimately aware of kinship structures in India, this is a gross infantilisation. Marriage is a contract. It pledges the woman’s labour to her marital home, just as it does with the man. In actuality her domestic, agricultural and miscellaneous labour is just as valuable to her husband as are his earnings to her. Migration by association, therefore, is a conscious decision taken by the couple. Women are not merely dependants on their husbands – they are also workers.

Also read: Tea Gardens of North Bengal: A Hotbed of Human Trafficking

In a documentary produced by the United Nations Development Programme, the lives of internal migrants are raced. Through the example of Radha Krishna Prasad, a migrant worker in Kolkata, and his wife Meena Devi, it illustrates how the aspirations of the man are not his alone. Meena Devi profusely says, “I only go back to the village during my sons’ summer vacation. I don’t feel like staying there anymore”. She moved to Kolkata from a village in West Bengal itself and wants a better life for her sons in the city.

In actuality her domestic, agricultural and miscellaneous labour is just as valuable to her husband as are his earnings to her.

With the movement of the woman into the urban locale, the ambitions of the family rather than just the primary earner come into play. This brings attention to the constant dependence of a woman’s wants on the family’s needs. The documentary also points out that internal migration has about four times the volume of transnational migration.

Economic migration – despite being the most prevalent – is definitely not the only category for the mobility of people. Circumstances such as war leave no choice but to move out of the conflict-ridden zone. Forced migration is a dimension whose gendered issues are often missed.

The Rohingya crisis provides a grim look at the brutality meted out to female refugees. Not only are they being raped by the Burmese army but are also being deserted by their husbands. The BBC followed the sordid tale of a young Rohingya woman who recounted being gang raped over multiple days. She discovered she was pregnant in Bangladesh. As Rohingya women do not always have access to or the awareness of the choice of abortion, they often abandon their (mostly female) children. The Guardian reports that the spike in abandonments has led to its reclassification as gender-based violence.

The dimension of sex trafficking also falls within the ambit of forced migration, and needless to say, is a gendered phenomenon. Smugglers exploit refugees and migration aspirants and promise safe passage to the developed world. But the large sums of money demanded by them and the inability of the refugee to repay them leads to reimbursement through sexual assault and prostitution.

Snow White, a Burmese immigrant working in Bangkok says that her friends had set up a plan to enter Thailand with an agent and she joined them. “Sometimes we wouldn’t get food or water. I couldn’t breathe in the truck at times”, she recounts. Although not sexually abused, she was not allowed to take leave from work for two years and had cruel employers. The women who are smuggled into other nations must send funds back to their family to sustain them and that is what kept Snow White in Bangkok.

Another aspect of the sex trafficking nexus, that has been glorified by Bollywood, is the village girl’s incapacity to find work in the big city and her resorting to nefarious means to send money back home. What is missed here is the specific and uniquely gendered experience of the female migrant. Migration may seem like a purely economic, neutral and male concept but the aforementioned instances show its inherent inequality.

Equal Pay for Equal Work?

The media-play for the wage-gap between female and male actors has received immense traction. It then begs the question of how daily wage labourers and those women working in the informal sector are remunerated for their work. If such monetary differentiation exists within high-paying jobs then it is possible for them to be intensified as the economy trickles down. It is now common knowledge that there is a substantial wage-gap between the domiciles of a country and immigrant. With the influx of more immigrant women into the job market, it is only a matter of time before the gender wage-gap intensifies on top of the existing insider-outsider inequality.

Women are expected to not only work and earn but also complete household chores and look after the children.

Most female blue-collar migrant workers are employed as domestic help. There are no formal contracts or wage agreements. The lack of a trade union greatly hampers their ability to demand for their rights. In an unprecedented move, a Kolkata-based informal organisation for domestic workers was recognised as a trade union.

The factor of the double-burden also plays in here. Women are expected to not only work and earn but also complete household chores and look after the children. Vedika, a 32-year old maid in Mumbai, says, “It does get hectic sometimes because I have to pick my children from school in the middle of work”. Male privilege allows them to be exempt from their own immediate responsibilities. For lower-income groups, women may even be the sole earners of the family.

Also read: Domestic Workers In India Have No Laws Protecting Their Rights

The recognition of the trend of female migration and the gender-specific issues they face would go a long way in alleviating the discrimination they face at the workplace. The motive of the present article is to question structural discrimination exclusively within the realm of migration. Factors such as the kind of work engaged in, education level, transnational or internal migration and the reasons for migration intersect to create a nexus of disadvantages for women. What we must strive for are international policies that distance themselves from a male-centric view of migration and accept the susceptibility of women to be negatively affected by it.


Featured Image Source: The Indian Express

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