Half the WorldWomen and migration [Archives:2005/873/Culture]

September 1 2005

By Nisha
Arab youth! Well, you were absent and your absence was felt. And pointed out. In case you are wondering, I am talking about the conference, Arab Youth Strategize for MDGs, which was held from 22-23 June 2005 by the UNDP and UNDESA in Sana'a. The inauguration was as usual – speeches and reiteration of commitments to instil confidence in youth, to give them a right to have a say in their countries' development, and encapsulation of achievements. While all these things were going on, a colleague from a neighbouring country quipped, “Where are you from?” Expected question at a regional conference with participants from the Arab countries as well as other parts of the world. I replied, “Yemen.” “Oh! I thought you are from India,” he sounded surprised. “Yes, I am an Indian citizen but,” before I could complete the sentence, he interjected, “So you are married in Yemen.” I was about to say, “bandhu, I am meeting you at a conference that has participants from different parts of the world working in this region with governmental and international organizations. Shouldn't you link my presence in Yemen with work rather than marriage?” But his sincere appearance stopped me. “Oh no, I am working here,” I answered. Mercifully the inauguration related preliminaries were short and the plenary on youth, globalization and media started. My colleague was an enthusiastic participant.

While listening to the presentations about how media contributes to globalization and how it is affecting Arab youth, I couldn't stop thinking about my brief conversation with my colleague. I was asking myself if he would have linked my presence in Yemen with marriage if I were a man. Most probably he would not. Women are participating in public life like never before and have come up on their own in different areas yet their identity derived from family relationships holds primacy. A large number of women are globetrotting but majority migrate upon marriage – one of the reasons behind the tendency to link women's presence outside their parental home place to marriage.

This thought motivated me to think about an important aspect of globalization that affects youth, specially young women all over the world – migration. If we do not take into account slavery, bonded labour, trafficking in women, and migration as domestic servants, historically, migration for work has been the preserve of men. Most women from communities other than nomadic were not very mobile. Even when married to expatriate men, culture expected women to stay back in the marital household and take care of the family. Those who migrated supported their husbands by managing households. Even now when there are greater opportunities across borders, cultural and traditional expectations from women force women to choose between marriage and career, especially if the career involves migration.

That means while the number of women in transferable jobs and jobs outside home place is growing, significant barriers and challenges remain and continue to obstruct women's movement in the public space, specially if the concerned public space happens to be outside the boundaries of home place. Traditional stereotypes, unjust work divisions, reproductive functions, cultural barriers on mobility and mixing up with men, and overt and covert discriminatory factors continue to prevent women from entering the mobile public space in large numbers. These discriminatory factors caused and conditioned by the traditional gender relations, prevent women from taking up work involving travel and stay outside home place. These factors support attitudinal barriers leading to marginalization of women from the public space and strengthen the belief that public space should be governed by men. The traditional gender relations are based on the public-private divide and keep women's labour engaged in reproductive and unpaid work within the private sphere to allow men to concentrate on paid work in the public sphere.

The map of the private sphere is under tremendous transformation from being s sphere of unpaid work to an area offering opportunities of paid work. The private sphere, which is usually considered static or immobile, has undergone far-reaching changes to encompass households within and outside the boundaries of home place. Women are a major migrant labour force in this sphere. A large number of women are moving across borders within this private sphere in hope of improving their families' and their own lives. Inequitable growth and distribution of wealth has brought about changes in lifestyle of a large number of household without significantly altering gender relations. So in many financially well to do families instead of family women doing household chores, poor women are being hired to take care of those chores. And since the emphasis is on cheap labour, import and export of women who are willing to migrate due to economic distress has turned the private sphere too into an international commercial space. Poor women in this private commercial space are trying to make best of the situation. Growing physical mobility has helped women gain confidence and it has motivated women to increase the standard of living of their families and improve their lives.

But because this space is private, it remains unrecognized and linked to marriage and family. And as such also a space of growing exploitation of cheap labour. Also, cultural norms continue to look down upon women's migration and it is seen as an outcome of men's failure to provide for the family and their inability to keep women within the boundary. The social disapproval obstructs open discussion about women's migration and difficulties and harassment that women face in the private commercial space. These factors also make women more vulnerable to trafficking.

Migration can have a positive effect women's status. It opens up new possibilities of social, cultural and economic benefits. It helps women acquire new skills, greater confidence and broader worldview. But unless is migration is balanced in both public and private spheres, and there are changes in the gender relations, its benefits will remain shadowed by its negative consequences. Given the challenges arising from globalization and increasing unemployment, women's migration is only going to increase. So it is vital that governments, nongovernmental organizations, and communities work together to change perceptions about women's role in both spheres. It would help ensure recognition of the realities of women's migration and their presence in and contribution to the public space. This is a prerequisite to ensure women's safety in the private commercial space and greater gender justice in the public space.