Women comprise about half the number of all international migrants today - a staggering 95 million of a total of about 191 million international migrants. And gone are the days when marriage was the only reason why women migrated. Today, women all over the world migrate not only as brides, but also to do a variety of jobs, including menial ones like waiting, cleaning and sex work. However, despite their numbers and the services they offer, their salaries are much lower than their male counterparts, who have more chances of getting highly skilled and paid jobs.
These figures were released by the UNFPA in the latest 'State of World Population' report, released in September 2006, which focuses on women and international migration.
Most migrate alone, with fellow migrants or with other women. According to the report, though the work of women often goes largely unrecognized, they send a larger share of their earnings back home than male migrants. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the report says that women contributed over 62 per cent of the over US$ 1 billion that migrants sent home.
Many of them also contribute new ideas, skills and attitudes that help boost development and promote greater equality between women and men in their countries of origin.
Tragically, despite their huge numbers and the substantial contribution they make to their families and countries, women migrants are mostly disenfranchised and vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence, says the report. It cautions that while migration can open new doors to a world of greater equality and opportunity, it can also lead to terrible human rights violations from the enslavement of trafficking victims to the exploitation and abuse of domestic workers.
The jobs that are available to a majority of migrant women are largely unstable, marked by low wages, the absence of social services and poor working conditions. Even when migrating legally, women are often relegated to jobs where they are subject to discrimination, arbitrary employment terms and abuses, says the report.
Marriage, which played a significant role in female migration, has taken on a different dimension in the globalized world. The phenomenon of international unions - including 'mail-order brides' and arranged and forced marriages - is growing. In parts of Asia, various factors are cited for fuelling the demand for potential brides. For instance, in many East and South East Asian countries, the increase in women entering the workforce, coupled with a trend towards delaying or foregoing marriage and childbearing altogether, is leading to a demand for more 'traditional' brides to maintain the household. This demand leads to the phenomenon of mail order brides.
The report observes that "in China and India, an estimated 40.1 and 39.1 million women and girls are 'missing' ", because they are eliminated through prenatal sex selection and infanticide due to a preference for sons; men are therefore scouting outside their borders to fill this gap. "In India, villagers approach brokers to procure Bangladeshi and Nepali women and girls, who are often discriminated against on account of being poor, ethnically different and paid for - a justification for abusive behavior by some husbands who may feel that they 'own their wives'." For some women and families, these arrangements offer an escape from poverty, but for others it is a one-way ticket to hardship, social exclusion and forced labor, the report notes.
Well known activist Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research (CSR), a Delhi-based NGO working for the protection of women against domestic and sexual violence, underlines that the alarms raised in the UNFPA report are very real. Referring to the chapter on 'Trafficking in Women and the Exploitation of Domestic Workers', she says the only way of stopping cross-border trafficking is by implementing the SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution. CSR is one of the NGOs lobbying with the Indian government to have a SAARC Taskforce set up at its Secretariat in Kathmandu, Nepal to oversee implementation and monitoring of the Convention.
The report estimates the number of Nepalese women and girls are trafficked into India every year at 12,000. And between 100,000 to 200,000 of them are forcibly held in Indian brothels. Roughly, 25 per cent of them are under the age of 18.
However, on a promising note, the report says that many governments, NGOs and UN organizations have embarked on awareness drives, including those that target poor rural areas, where girls and women are most likely to be trafficked. In Brazil, the government launched a campaign by putting up radio shows and posting signs at airports to alert women departing from states where the risks of trafficking are particularly high. In Cambodia, UNICEF supports community-based networks with volunteers conducting outreach to raise awareness of how traffickers operate and how to intervene. In Indonesia, the Asia Foundation has supported the Fahmina Institute to provide anti-trafficking training materials to Islamic boarding schools that have a high concentration of female students from impoverished areas.
In India, the Inter-Faith Religious Leaders Forum of Bihar, in collaboration with UNIFEM, brought together Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian leaders to educate their followers on violence against women. The Forum's 'A Fact Book on Human Trafficking' contains messages derived from religious teachings to mobilize their respective communities as a religious obligation. This initiative is now expanding to other states within India and into Bangladesh and Nepal, the report informs.
Lauding these initiatives, Kumari stresses that cooperation with NGOs and civil society is crucial to stemming the scourge of trafficking. She also emphasizes the need for legislation to support these efforts. "There is no repatriation treaty in the region and this raises the whole issue of victim protection protocol," she says. "In the absence of such a treaty, the fate of women or children arrested while crossing the border is uncertain - the host country does not want them and they are equally unwelcome in the country of origin."
"Women's right to mobility and work is a significant point in any discourse for women's empowerment," says Dr Lakshmi Lingam of the Tata Institute of Social Science (Mumbai). She lauds the report for addressing the lack of opportunities and the human rights violations that lead many women to migrate in the first place.
Terming globalization as 'a gendered phenomenon', Lingam says migrant women bring rich cultural resources not only to their host country but also to their country of origin. "Migrant women not only make monetary remittances but also social remittances," she remarks, citing the report's acknowledgement of millions of dollars in remittance funds sent home by "millions of women working in millions of jobs overseas".
For host countries, "the labor of migrant women is so embedded into the very fabric of society that it goes virtually unnoticed. Migrant women toil in the households of working families, soothe the sick and comfort the elderly.... (to) quietly support a quality of life that many take for granted," it asserts. The report exhorts governments and individuals to recognize and value the contribution of migrant women and promote and respect their human rights.