Chapter 04: Markets - Field Stories
The Weakest Voices: Women Migrating in a Globalized World

"My name is Shamima, I am from a remote village in Bangladesh. My husband was a farmer. He had a piece of agricultural land. He used to cultivate rice and vegetables on that land. We had a hardship to run our family. My husband discussed the possibilities for him to work [abroad]. My relative suggested sending me instead… He said if I go abroad the cost will be less than that of my husband. I used to work hard from dawn to dusk. I was not allowed to rest and had no leave. I decided to run away. When I came back to my country I was offered training from a migrant organization. There I met many women with different stories of exploitation. Now we are more than 200 women working together so that no more women face the same conditions."

Almost 100 million of the world's migrants are women, and as Figure A shows, they form nearly half the total migrant population. Evidence shows that women now dominate the categories of migrants with tertiary education (Figure B), and this represents a feminised brain drain that can undermine the female leadership base of affected countries. For some women, whether migrating for domestic or professional work, migration offers the chance of economic independence and empowerment. But for many, migration can involve loss of means of holding abusive employers accountable or demanding redress for violations of their rights.

Figure A: Women are Half of the World's Migrants

Figure B: Women Lead the Brain Drain

World Bank estimates for 2004 indicate that remittances received by developing countries amounted to US$ 126 billion, almost twice the amount of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and approximately 75 per cent of the total foreign direct investment. There is no sex-disaggregated data to show women's contribution to these remittances, but there is evidence that in some countries it is significant. In the case of Dominicans working in Spain, for example, as much as 78 per cent of all remittances were sent by women, even though they accounted for 61.4 per cent of migrants In the Philippines, 97 per cent of migrants send at least some money home, with women sending about 45 per cent of their income on average.

Since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, governments have addressed international migration at various United Nations conferences, but provisions for the protection of the human rights of women migrants remain inadequate. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which came into force in 2003, is the most comprehensive instrument for protecting migrant worker's rights; however, as of 2007 only 37 countries had ratified the Convention, none of them among the top 10 migrant-receiving countries in the world.

Legislation and policies on migration rarely take into account the specific problems encountered by migrant women. For example, labour legislation rarely considers domestic employment. To address this challenge, UNIFEM in the Arab States has worked with 19 recipient and labour-exporting countries to support legal measures to prohibit exploitation of women migrants.

Trade unions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also worked to support the rights of women migrants. The Asian Domestic Workers Union (ADWU) in Hong Kong was formed to fight for stronger protection and accountability. Filipino women have established NGOs linked to transnational networks, including the United Filipinos in Hong Kong, which monitors the working conditions of foreign domestic workers and has helped workers from India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka to establish their own unions. NGO activity to support women migrants, however, is an insufficient substitute for national accountability. While no one state can contain the negative consequences of globalisation, including the abuse of the rights of women migrants, each has responsibilities to ensure that the rights of those under its jurisdiction are respected.