In the past several decades globalisation, unequal development between and within countries, and conflict and environmental degradation, have prompted unprecedented levels of international migration. It is estimated that there are currently nearly 250 million migrants worldwide, half of whom are women. In developed countries, demographic changes, such as aging societies, a larger female workforce, and labour market shortages prompted by a move towards service-oriented economies have created a demand for (low-wage) female workers, especially in the hospitality and care work sectors, and the entertainment sector. In developing countries, economic restructuring and industrialisation have led to the loss of traditional livelihoods, with a disproportionate effect on women, pushing many to seek work outside their communities. At the same time migration policies have not responded to this change in labour market supply and demand, leading to increasingly precarious migration and work for many women, especially those with lower education and social status.
In the past 20 years, feminists, including GAATW, have tried to bring attention to the violence, abuse and exploitation that women experience in the process of their labour migration. GAATW has tried to stress women’s perspectives, and had detailed the unintended consequences of protectionist policies like the anti-trafficking initiatives undertaken by states in ‘Collateral Damage’ back in 2007. However, the conversation about trafficking has backfired and contributed to further violating the rights of migrating women. Governments of destination countries have restricted migration opportunities, especially for low-wage workers, and increased border controls, while origin countries have placed restrictions on women’s mobility, to ‘protect’ them from trafficking. However, instead of protecting the migrant women workers, these restrictions have led to a market for clandestine and debt-financed migration, leading to the very vulnerabilities including risk of violence and trafficking that they were intended to prevent.
Access to Justice has been one of GAATW’s three thematic priorities since 2005. Through this programme, we try to understand how migrant women themselves view ‘justice’ and what factors enable and hinder their access to justice. We’ve learnt from them that justice should not solely be seen through a legal prism, which is often male oriented and focused on prosecutions. Rather, justice should be viewed comprehensively to include gender and social justice that is rooted in a right to dignity and in state accountability, that values the indivisibility and interdependence of political, economic, social, legal, and cultural human rights, and sees all of these as cumulatively leading towards the greater goal of justice.
Justice for migrant women workers needs to be embedded into migration governance mechanisms. The international community has recognised and responded to the urgent migration and refugee crisis that exploded in 2011, prompted by European and indeed a global lack of empathy towards migrants, by initiating the process of drafting Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees. They are intended to provide countries with an international roadmap on migration, which sets enforceable human rights-based standards for states in dealing with migration and its resultant impacts. At the same time, the Global Compacts need to include strong, binding protections that allow women to access justice, when their rights have been violated.
At GAATW, we are excited to be among the civil society organisations that will come to bear on this process and to bring our expertise in working with women migrant workers. If women migrant workers are able to access dignified employment opportunities, it would facilitate sustainable development and inclusive growth throughout the world. At this momentous time in history, we laud the Commission on the Status of Women 61st session and UN Women International Women’s Day, 2017 theme of ‘Women in the Changing World of Work’. The issue is pertinent in the context of the Global Compact on Migration as female migrant workers make up approximately 90% of all female migrants worldwide.
We are heartened to see the voices raised on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2017 and we lend our voice in support and solidarity with civil society and women across the world.
Across South Asia women leave their homes in the hope of improving their economic and social status and securing better lives and livelihoods. South Asian countries actively promote migration as an employment option and a foreign exchange earner but at the same time they fail in their responsibility to protect the rights of their migrant workers and citizens. Both countries of origin and destination have weak labour laws with many female-dominated jobs falling outside the purview of labour laws and regulations.
The media play a crucial role in shaping public perception about migrants and influencing migration policies. In South Asia migration is a hot topic for the media, however, most reports tend to be unbalanced and sensationalised. While men are portrayed as workers and active agents seeking to improve their lives, women are too often presented as vulnerable, passive victims of abuse. Migrant women’s immense contribution to their family and society, as well as their strength, courage and resilience in the process of migration, are rarely highlighted. In response, many South Asian countries enact protectionist restrictions on women’s mobility rather than measures to protect and strengthen their rights.
What are the factors that propel women to risk their lives in order to seek better opportunities in the Middle East and elsewhere? Are these motivations merely economic or are they also an attempt to escape oppression in families and communities? Have we ignored success stories of migrants who have made a better life for themselves and their families? Who and where are the heroines of migration rather than only ‘survivors of trafficking’? How can these narratives of journeys, adventures, and courage be told in ways that validate the women and their lives?
With some of these questions in mind, in October 2015 GAATW-IS organised a four-day workshop with print journalists from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, to discuss how the media can report on women’s labour migration in a rights-based, strength-affirming way. In 2016 we provided a small stipend to selected journalists to produce and publish several articles that highlight the positive side of women’s migration or, where abuse and trafficking had occurred – women’s strength in overcoming these obstacles. Throughout 2016 GAATW-IS and our advisors provided guidance and support to the journalists. In total 33 articles were published in local print press in the four countries in English, Nepali and Odia.
The articles highlight how migration, although often prompted by dire economic need, can be an empowering experience for women. Migration helps them send children to school, buy a piece of land, build a house or leave an abusive relationship. In some cases, migrant women become the main breadwinner in the family, which gives them more respect and power in decision making both in the family and the community. However, as some of the articles show, governments need to do a better job at providing predeparture orientation and training, as the current system leaves many women unprepared for the job and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The patterns of women’s migration are changing too. Although media reports usually focus on women who migrate to the Gulf as domestic workers, there are other life trajectories that need to be told. Women also work abroad in manufacturing, retail or as technicians, where they have more labour protections and earn better. Other women migrate to developed countries to study or improve their professional skills, but also to escape the confines of patriarchal attitudes and gender inequality in their home countries. Upon returning home, migrant women have different needs that, unfortunately, are often not met by governments. NGOs play an important role here in offering reintegration assistance to returnee migrants, as well as psychosocial support and skills building to trafficked women.
Here we would like to share some of the published articles in the hopes that they will inspire others from South Asia and beyond to look past the sensationalistic stories of abuse and trafficking and see the potentially transforming effect that migration can have for women.
Zahrah Imtiaz, The Daily News, Sri Lanka
In a community which frowns at a woman's decision to work outside of her house, women in Eastern Sri Lanka have managed to bypass this by migrating to Middle East countries to earn their dowries. In a strange twist of fate, these women break through conventional barriers to economic empowerment, to meet yet another traditional requirement for a woman of marriageable age - entitlement to a handsome dowry…
Adil Sakhawat, The Dhaka Tribune, Bangladesh
Women from Singair are successfully employed in different countries, mostly in the Middle East, working to turn their lives around and making hefty contributions to the country’s foreign exchange earnings every year. Once, women in Singair could not even go to their neighbouring village without their husband’s permission. Now, they contribute at least as much as their husbands — if not more – to their family income. They are not just contributing financially, but also actively taking part in the decision-making process with their male counterparts…
Kunal Purohit, The Hindustan Times, India
As the battle over reopening dance bars in Maharashtra continues, far away from the arc lights of Mumbai’s bars is a community feeling the greatest impact of the eight-year ban. The bars gave women from the Nat community an opportunity to quit sex work. Many women came to Mumbai and started earning well enough to ensure their sisters and daughters got a good education and never had to enter the trade. Their families started living better too — bigger homes, not the kaccha mud-thatched houses they once lived in. And the income meant women had control over their own life…
Roshan Sedhai, The Kathmandu Post, Nepal
Countries in crisis like Iraq have been attracting a growing number of Nepali women in recent years because the working conditions and wages are better than in the Gulf. Balu Maya returned to Nepal having had worked as a caregiver in private households in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital. She says that she accepted the job as the salary and perks that came with it were better than other opportunities in the Gulf. If things go as planned, Maya intends to go back to Kurdistan after a well-deserved break in Kathmandu…
Zahrah Imtiaz, The Daily News, Sri Lanka
As a single parent, foreign employment provided Kumarihamy with an income to buy a plot of land, build a house and also buy half an acre of paddy to cultivate when she eventually returned home. Most women who migrate, according to the Bureau of Foreign Employment, are in their late 20s and early 30s, are married and are driven by a desire to build a house, educate children, to overcome poverty or to escape an abusive marriage…
Arafat Ara, The Financial Express, Bangladesh
If the government ensures safe migration, migrant women’s contribution may be double the amount earned by their male counterparts, as they do not misuse their remittances. Women are investing in education and family maintenance, which contributes to human resource development. However, there should be proper skill training for them and reduction of fraudulent activities so they don’t become victimised during their migration…
Zahrah Imtiaz, The Daily News, Sri Lanka
Amarasinghe is part of a growing number of professional Sri Lankan women who have made an independent decision to migrate, to further improve their careers or professional skills. ‘I have always thought that women and men should have equal opportunity but I know that this does not take place much in Sri Lanka. There is also more exposure and ability to progress further here,’ says Amarasinghe…
Roshan Sedhai, The Kathmandu Post, Nepal
Kala works as a general technician for a private company based in Abu Dhabi. Her days are spent fixing ACs and general home appliances for a girls’ school. More than 90 per cent of the 13,000 women going aboard in the first 10 months of 2016 had taken up jobs other than domestic help. Today, a majority of Nepali women are primarily seeking employment in manufacturing, retail, hospitality and service sectors. Women employed in the industrial and service sectors work in a relatively open environment…
Rakhi Ghosh, The Daily Pioneer, India
Among other women workers in her slum, Radharani gets more respect and importance in decision making both at home and at work. She has created her own identity as a mason in the city and has broken the gender norm. She has been in the profession for the last 20 years and now things have changed and people accept her as a paint mason. Earlier, it was not so easy, sometimes they did not entrust such work to a woman…
Raksha Kumar, The Hindu, India
Since 2009, soaring costs and labour paucity has been pushing textile companies away from Bengaluru into smaller towns. The trend has been so widespread that the garment workers’ trade union believes the industry may all but cease to exist in Bengaluru in a few years. The workers are happy to be back home, but there is also the fear that the industry’s geographical diffusion might weaken the labour union, which has been responsible for ensuring a minimum wage and addressing sexual harassment at the workplace…
Arafat Ara, The Financial Express, Bangladesh
Every year a significant number of women migrants return home. Some of them have deposits and working experience. They want to do something for financial solvency but in the absence of opportunities they can’t utilise their hard-earned money in an effective manner. Banks want women to have land or other assets as collaterals, while private money lenders charge high interest rates. The only opportunities for reintegration of returning migrant women are provided by NGOs…
Tsering Dolker, The Nepali Times, Nepal
Shakti Samuha has set up a nationwide network to help bring victims of trafficking together and facilitate their reintegration into society by providing legal and psychosocial counselling, livelihood and skills development training, and support in income generation. The organisation provides information about safe migration and trafficking to women wishing to go abroad. Sunita Danuwar: ‘We don’t want to stop women from migrating, we just want them to do so in a safe and legal manner.’…
International Migrants Day 2016
18 December, International Migrants Day, comes towards the end of what has been a particularly difficult year for migrants’ rights. 2016 broke a number of devastating records, and has seen the growth of some worrying trends. There are more people on the move now than ever before. The number of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people hit a record high of over 65 million people, or one in every 113 people on Earth. Across the globe, anti-migrant, xenophobic rhetoric has been espoused by a growing right wing political establishment, finding new strength in Europe and in Trump’s election in the US. 2016 was the deadliest year yet in terms of number of deaths in the Mediterranean, while new EU agreements with Turkey and Afghanistan see the EU renege on commitments to asylum seekers and refugees, and aim to deter and return migrants at risk. The international rights protection framework appears to be weakening.
It has been called a ‘migrant crisis’; however, the ‘crisis’ can be more accurately attributed to the response to migration that we are seeing from governments. ‘Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around’, wrote Milton Friedman. What a policy response to the current ‘crisis’ will look like is at the moment up in the air.
This year has already seen some shifts in the international governance of migration. The ‘New York Declaration’, agreed at the UN in September, set out a plan to create two ‘Global Compacts’ - one on Refugees, and another on Migrants, over the course of two years, to be negotiated by governments and concluded by the end of 2018. These Global Compacts aim to set out responsibilities to international migrants, and are an important element of framing what international migration policy will look like in the future.
Thus 2017 will be an important year in which civil society must find a way to advance humane migration policies in the Global Compacts. Last week, GAATW, along with hundreds of civil society representatives from across the globe met in Dhaka, Bangladesh ahead of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, an annual international, state-led meeting on migration. Though the GFMD refuses to allow the meaningful participation of civil society in their discussions, the days preceding it were an important opportunity for migrant rights organisations to discuss what migrants need from the Global Compacts, plan our collective advocacy efforts towards states and build alliances across borders.
A number of key points emerged from five days of engaged, fruitful discussions between CSOs:
On this International Migrants Day, GAATW expresses her solidarity with all migrants and her intention to work across borders and across social justice movements throughout 2017 to ensure that the current ‘crisis’ can produce humane, rights-based responses to the needs and desires of all migrants.
Dear UN Women,
Thank you for the opportunity to submit a contribution to your ‘Consultation seeking views on UN Women approach to sex work, the sex trade and prostitution’.
This submission is made by the International Secretariat of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) and the member organisations listed as signatories at the end of this document.
The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) is an Alliance of more than 80 non-governmental organisations from Africa, Asia, Europe, LAC and North America. The GAATW International Secretariat is based in Bangkok, Thailand and co-ordinates the activities of the Alliance, collects and disseminates information, and advocates on behalf of the Alliance at regional and international levels. Member Organisations include migrant rights organisations; anti-trafficking organisations; self-organised groups of migrant workers, domestic workers, survivors of trafficking and sex workers; human rights and women's rights organisations; and direct service providers.
Our Alliance was established over twenty years ago to respond to the needs of people, in particular women, whose rights have been violated in the process of their labour migration. As feminists from both the global South and the global North, we share a deep concern for the rights and well-being of women who are trying to make a living for themselves and their families in a world increasingly characterised by inequality, globalisation, conflict, environmental degradation and precarious labour. In these constraining circumstances we have seen how women show extraordinary resilience and ingenuity in resisting oppression, claiming their rights and asserting their agency. Listening to women and trying to understand their aspirations and the complexities of their life journeys has been at the core of our work. We hope that in this consultation, UN Women will similarly be guided by the desires and experiences of the people whose lives will be directly affected by the policy you are developing – those currently working in the sex industry.
Since the establishment of our organisation, we have made a clear distinction between sex work (or ‘prostitution’) and human trafficking. While sex work is an income-generating activity and viewed as labour by those engaged in it, human trafficking and sexual exploitation are criminal acts and severe human rights violations. The conflation of sex work and trafficking trivialises trafficking and victimises, infantilises and patronises sex workers and creates a hostile atmosphere against them. It further weakens the legal, social and labour conditions of sex workers, making them more vulnerable to abuse from clients and law enforcement. These circumstances facilitate their dependency on pimps and managers and exacerbate their vulnerability to trafficking in the context of sex work. The conflation of sex work and trafficking ultimately blurs the understanding of human trafficking and impedes the identification of victims and prosecution of the criminals.
In response to the specific questions posed in your call for submissions:
1. The principles of universality and ‘leaving nobody behind’ mean, in relation to sex work, that sex workers – women, men and transgender people – are able to take equal part in all areas of civil and political life, including in the development of laws and policies that affect them. Unfortunately, the criminalised status of sex work in many countries and the persistent societal view of sex work as ‘immoral’ or as ‘violence against women’ mean that sex workers are left behind politicians, academics and activists who claim to know better how sex work should be addressed. Sex workers have been particularly left behind in the development of anti-trafficking policies and measures, despite their contribution to addressing abuses and trafficking in the sex industry. These measures have led to violations of their rights as ‘Collateral Damage’, as GAATW documented almost 10 years ago. But sex workers from all walks of life and working in all sectors of the industry are the true experts on the impacts of policies concerning the sex industry, including its regulation. We know from them that the decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual adult sex work is the only policy that helps them be recognised as rights-holders, as workers and as citizens and take active part in the political and social life of their communities. We have learnt this from listening to sex workers and walking with them in their struggle for rights and freedom from oppression.
2. The empowerment of women and girls begins with their equitable access to education, healthcare, property and work opportunities and removal of the patriarchal norms and attitudes that limit this access. In this sense, gender equality can be achieved through legislative and social measures that promote respect for and recognition of girls’ and women’s potential, as well as their contribution to economic and social life, including through their unpaid and care work. In terms of policies on sex work, we do not condone the participation of girls (children) in the sex industry. As for adult women, there are examples how the removal of criminal sanctions empowers women who sell sex. For instance, the decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work in New Zealand has been successful in empowering many women in the sex industry to report violence against them and has increased their trust in the police and justice system. Similarly, in the Netherlands the government runs campaigns encouraging sex workers and clients to report suspicions of trafficking and forced sex work to an anonymous hotline. These campaigns lead to increases in reports of such instances and the identification of victims and apprehension of suspects. Such initiatives are not possible in countries where sex work is criminalised and pushed out of sight or where it is framed as ‘violence against women’. Thus the decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work contributes to the elimination of violence against women, including human trafficking.
In the current economic regime, sex work is for many women the best option to earn money to secure their livelihoods. Many engage in sex work only temporarily in order to pay for their education, raise their children, or make investments, which allows them to move on from sex work and pursue other life goals. In this way, sex work can contribute to women’s ownership of land and assets and their economic empowerment. While we agree that the current global economic and social systems need significant change, so that no person feels that sex work is her/his only or best option to make a living, until this change comes, people engaged in sex work need to be able to work in an environment that ensures their safety and protection and recognises them as workers.
3. Stigma and discrimination are pervasive in the lives of all women as a result of patriarchal attitudes in society. Women in the sex industry are particularly affected by these attitudes which consider them as ‘immoral’, ‘loose’ or ‘fallen’ women, but also by some supposedly progressive attitudes that, ironically, consider them subdued, non-agential ‘victims of male violence’. These views marginalise and disempower sex workers and impede their access to health and social services and the justice system and empower those who seek to exploit and harm them. As long as women are considered inferior to men, and as long as women in the sex industry are considered inferior or less equal to other women, they remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The removal of stigma and discrimination against any group of people is a long process that takes time and requires concerted legislative and social measures. The decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual adult sex work can be one part of such a process, combined with social measures to promote acceptance of sex work as work and respect for the rights and dignity of sex workers. Such a process is a requirement towards building peaceful and inclusive societies. Also importantly, the decriminalisation of sex work and removal of stigma has the potential to significantly reduce the number of HIV and STD infections among sex workers, according to leading experts in the field, including UNDP, WHO and the medical journal The Lancet. Thus, decriminalisation of sex work is important for the realisation of the right to health, including the reproductive rights of sex workers.
Finally, we would like to stress again the need for UN Women to meaningfully consult with sex workers and the organisations representing them in the development of this policy that may affect their lives, including their income, health and wellbeing. The policy should respond to the current needs and best interests of the people who sell sex and be grounded in sound evidence. In addition, UN Women should also take note of the extensive research on sex work and the rights of sex workers already done by other UN agencies and human rights organisations, such as the ILO, UNDP, UNAIDS, WHO, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women – International Secretariat, Bangkok, Thailand
La Strada International, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
LEFÖ – Beratung, Bildung und Begleitung für Migrantinnen, Vienna, Austria
Associação Brasileira de Defesa da Mulher, da Infância e da Juventude (Asbrad), Sao Paolo, Brazil
Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer, ‘Elisa Martínez’, A.C., Mexico City, Mexico
Action for REACH OUT (AFRO), Hong Kong, SAR
Human Security Policy Studies Centre (HSPSC), Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Durbar Mahila Samanawya Committee (DMSC), Kolkata, India
Women's Rehabilitation Centre, Kathmandu, Nepal
Buhay Foundation for Women and the Girl Child, Manila, The Philippines
Colectivo Hetaira, Madrid, Spain
Ban Ying, Berlin, Germany
ASTRA – Anti-Trafficking Action, Belgrade, Serbia
Animus Association Foundation, Sofia, Bulgaria
International Public Association ‘Gender Perspectives’, Minsk, Belarus
Association for Action on Violence against Women and Trafficking in Persons, Skopje, Macedonia
La Strada Foundation against Trafficking in Persons and Slavery, Warsaw, Poland
La Strada Czech Republic, Prague, Czech Republic
International Center for Women Rights Protection and Promotion ‘La Strada’, Chisinau, Moldova
International Women’s Rights Protection Centre ‘La Strada’, Kyiv, Ukraine
FIZ – Fachstelle Frauenhandel und Frauenmigration, Zurich, Switzerland
Pro-Tukipiste, Helsinki, Finland
GAATW-Canada, Victoria, Canada
Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network (SWAN), Vancouver, Canada
GENERA - Associació en defensa dels drets de les dones, Barcelona, Spain