Sunday Magazine -- September 17 2006
THE OTHER HALF
BY KALPANA SHARMA
When women, of whatever class, are forced by circumstance to migrate, they expose themselves to new forms of violence and exploitation.
Tough transition: A Somali woman at a refugee camp in Yemen. Photo: Reuters
EARLIER this week, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 and the terror attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, the world's media focused on the event and its impact on the lives of people and on the rest of the world. But terror, perhaps of a different kind, is a constant in the lives of millions of women a daily reality that is rarely reported or even acknowledged.
The State of the World's Population 2006, the annual assessment of population-related issues prepared by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), has focused this time on women and international migration. The report would have contributed to the High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development that was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York on September 14 and 15.
A variety of reasons
When women are compelled to leave their homes and their countries, for one reason or another, they lay themselves open to new and old forms of violence and exploitation. Women move from village to town, from one country to another for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they join a husband who has gone ahead to look for better prospects; sometimes they go on their own to earn more; sometimes they are forced to move because of war, famine, poverty or political persecution. Whatever the compulsion, the choice is not an easy one. The move is often dictated by circumstances that are beyond the woman's control. Today, half of all international migrants are women.
We hear of the success stories of migrants, those who have done well for themselves. But most of the migrants from developing countries to industrialised nations end up doing what the UNFPA report calls the four D's dirty, difficult, demeaning and dangerous work. They work in low-end jobs as garbage collectors, street cleaners, construction workers, miners or in sex work.
An area that draws in millions of women from poorer countries is domestic work. They work alone, hidden from view, in homes where they can be abused, even raped, and would have no recourse to law or justice. There are few accurate records about the extent of such crimes but the few stories that do emerge and are reported suggest that the problem is fairly widespread.
These women work so that they can support their own families in their native countries. They become, as the report points out, part of the "global care chain". They leave their own families to be looked after either by hired help, who they can pay through their own enhanced earnings, or with female relatives.
Often promises of jobs as domestics lure women, particularly young women, away from their homes. Instead, they end up in the sex trade. This happens within countries and between countries. Even as borders open up in the age of globalisation, the nature and extent of trafficking has also grown. And women of all ages are the victims. The report terms trafficking as migration "gone bad" and the "underside" of globalisation.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are 2.45 million trafficking victims working in exploitative conditions and another 1.2 million are trafficked each year both within countries and between countries. The majority of these are women and up to half are children. "Human trafficking is the third most lucrative illicit business in the world after arms and drug trafficking," claims the UNFPA report.
What about the women who do have a choice before they migrate, those like the hundreds of young Indian women who agree to marry men living in foreign lands without really knowing them? They land up in an alien environment where they have no support from friends or their natal family. And if things go wrong, they are often left completely helpless, unaware of their rights or of the laws of the land. Sometimes their immigrant status does not allow them to work in legal jobs to support themselves. So they have to choose between working as illegal aliens and risk being deported, or staying on in an abusive relationship. According to the UNFPA report, a study of highly educated middle class South Asian women in Boston, United States, found that nearly 35 per cent had been victims of physical abuse and 19 per cent had to deal with sexual abuse within their homes from their husband or male partner.
Some things don't change
Another aspect of international migration or migration within nations is war or famine. Refugee women are often victims of the worst kind of violence in the camps where they are forced to seek shelter. In 2005, roughly half of the 12.7 million refugees in the world were women. These women have to deal with violence and rape in the camps where they have to live for years. Even going to the toilet is hazardous as these are located at the edge of the camps. Stepping out of the camp can often mean laying yourself open to sexual assault. The report states that 90 per cent of the rapes reported by Somali women, for instance, occurred when they were out gathering firewood or looking after their livestock.
Even as the world moves ahead, there seem to be certain factors that remain immutable. If you are poor, and a woman, then your range of choices do not change much. Even if you overcome poverty, you will still be straddled with the reality of being a woman in an imperfect world.