|Weak Bargaining Power Heightens Risks for Women Migrants|
by Qurratul Ain Tahmina
DHAKA — Shefali Akhtar, a teenage girl from Gazipur in Bangladesh, did not know that she would end up as a domestic worker with an Arab family in Kuwait.
All her agent — who charged 65,000 taka (1,100 U.S. dollars) to find her an employment in the Middle East — told her lower-middle class family was that it would be a "good job".
In February 1998, the teenager from the district town of Gazipur, found herself in an alien land, placed with a family speaking a language she could not understand.
"They were not good people," Shefali recalled. "They made me work very hard and would beat me often." She points to her right calf, describing how once the master of the house bashed it with a toy pistol and it remained swollen and painful for months.
Shefali had to give her letters for home to her employers for posting, but she never got any mail from Bangladesh. She also never got paid for her work either. Five months went by.
Then one day, fearing sexual advance from the master, she fled. Luckily, the police took her to the Bangladesh Embassy and she could return home.
Kumari (not her real name) from Sri Lanka, spent eight months with a Lebanese family, suffering physical and psychological abuse, working nearly 20 hours a day, half-starved because she demanded her pay.
Eventually, brutally mutilated by the mistress of the house, she fled to a shelter home for Sri Lankan workers. She was bleeding and could not urinate for days, because her mistress had kicked at her stomach with high-heeled shoes.
Kumari looks scared when she talks about the home and guardedly says something about the home being run as a brothel, and then refuses to say any more.
Shefali and Kumari may now be over their ordeals, but they say many other women — Asians make up most of the foreign domestic work force in several Middle Eastern countries — are suffering physical, psychological, emotional and also sexual abuse.
This is what they told the 8th Regional Conference on Migration in Dhaka, Bangladesh in October. The conference was organised by the Philippine-based Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), the Hong Kong-based Asian Migrant Centre, and the Dhaka-based Welfare Association for Repatriated Bangladeshi Employees (WARBE).
Experts say that the violence that Asian women migrant workers experience is linked to issues like reproductive health, which is not always discussed enough in relation to migration.
Caridad Tharan of Ford Foundation Philippines, explains that reproductive health after all refers to "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being...in all matters relating to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes".
When it comes to violations of reproductive rights, said Tharan, "women are more at risk". Reproductive rights in the context of advocacy for migrant rights take on the perspective of human rights and "basic human needs are basic rights", she said.
"People who face discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexual orientation, also experience manifold problems related to sexuality, and those belonging to more than one oppressed group often face double discrimination," observed Tharan.
In short, the subject cannot be discussed without bringing in concepts of sexuality and "the cultural sensitivity attached to sexuality makes it difficult to deal with it", she added.
"Reproductive health is a much neglected area in both the sending and receiving countries," commented doctor Malay Kranti Mridha.
The sending countries' not having any bargaining power with the receiving ones increases the workers' vulnerability. This vulnerability is obvious in cases where the receiving countries use the health issue as a controlling tool, Mridha explained.
Their insistence on mandatory tests for HIV and other infections, mainly sexually transmitted ones, and pregnancy tests, compromises the position of migrant workers in many ways.
In Bangladesh, the majority of the known HIV-positive persons are migrant workers, because they are systematically tested as part of requirements for working abroad. "This has a dangerous impact," Sayed Saiful Haque, executive vice president of WARBE, said.
"We are against any such mandatory testing but if we can't negotiate with the receiving countries to stop it," said Haque, "we urge that the workers who have to go through the test have access to proper counselling."
Very little effective counselling is provided in Bangladesh and most migrants leave without proper information about protection against the infection and risks of overseas work, and get deported equally unaware if they are found positive in their countries of work.
"All they earn through the process is a stigma that they have to carry on for the rest of their lives," said Haque. "We should focus on high-risk behaviour instead of focusing on a particular group such as the migrant workers as being high risk," Tharan adds.
Women migrant workers need to take pregnancy tests every six months in countries like Singapore and Malaysia. If found pregnant, they are deported. Pregnancy, forced or risky and unhygienic 'illegal' abortion, sexuality and lack of proper help and information create all sorts of complex problems for women migrants.
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