At airports, they stand out in emigration queues - clusters of young women clutching their passports and contracts of employment, off to Malaysia, Singapore or United Arab Emirates (UAE) to become domestic workers, caregivers and nurses. They step out of their homes and countries with the hope that they can earn more to supplement their family incomes, send siblings to school, pay for a dowry or go up a notch in status in the matrimonial market.
Now, the government has imposed a ban on emigration for women under 30 going abroad to work as domestic help and caregivers. But this move will not stop women who want to migrate. Instead, it will drive them into clandestine migrant mobility regimes, putting them at greater risk to trafficking and exploitative treatment - the very concerns that have driven the ban.
Behind the ban is a patriarchal State asserting itself to 'protect' its 'helpless' and 'ignorant' young female citizens. Undeniably, the horror stories Minister for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury heard in Kuwait - about confiscated passports, arbitrary changes in terms of contract, physical torture and sexual abuse - has prompted a renewed concern about the vulnerability of women migrants to exploitation.
Official decadal estimates state that 550,000 Indians migrate for work annually, of which 360,000 head to the Gulf, contributing to a migrant stock of three million there. Statistics of women migrating for work have shown a sharp increase, as evinced in figures from the major migrant producing state of Kerala. Female migration has gone up from 9.3 per cent in 1999 to 17 per cent in 2004.
In the Philippines, two thirds of all contracts for employment abroad are for women. In Sri Lanka, nearly 70 per cent of migrants are women, and remittances, largely from domestic workers, are next only to tea and tourism. India tops with remittances at US$21.7 billion. The earnings of 40-50,000 Indian nurses in the Gulf, 90 per cent of whom belong to Kerala, has contributed to pushing the state's per capita income from negative to 41 per cent above the national average.
Against this image of the migrant as an economic unit is the social reality of the migrant as an 'alien', especially in the Gulf, exploited by citizen agents and non-citizen sponsors. At risk are women working in isolated circumstances with no witnesses to their ill treatment, physical torture and sexual exploitation. The 1990 Gulf War and the Lebanon war (2006) exposed the plight of domestic workers locked up by their employers who fled to safety. Stories abound of girls duped by agents promising legitimate jobs but who end up in sweatshops or in forced prostitution.
What has made paranoiac the anxiety about young women migrating for work is its inter-sectionality with trafficking. However, legal researcher Ratna Kapur has challenged the contemporary discourse that links migration to human trafficking. In her essay, 'Travel Plans: Border Crossings and the Rights of Trans-national Migrants', she argues that "the conflation of trafficking in persons with various
manifestations of migration and mobility" and with forced prostitution and sex work lies at the very core of this confusion.
This is reflected in the definition of trafficking in the UN Protocol on Prevention of Trafficking (2003) that fails to distinguish between trafficking and consensual migration. Anti-trafficking initiatives, Kapur argues, tend to address women as victims, incapable of rationally choosing to migrate in a legal (or clandestine) fashion and, therefore, in constant need of state protection.
As for the State, it finds itself in a cleft stick: at one end is its responsibility to protect and at the other, the need to enable a flow of remittances. The result has been policies that juggle with age restrictions, insistence on male guardian's consent and temporary blanket bans. In the early 1990s, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia imposed a minimum age restriction. Currently, Indonesia's minimum age requirement is 22 years, but in Pakistan it remains 35 years. In 1998, Bangladesh banned women from migrating as domestic workers; four years later, the government was urged to remove the ban.
The Indian government's balancing act between protective considerations and economic imperatives is mapped in the annual report of National Commission for Women (2006-07). In 2001, NCW was asked by the Labour Ministry and Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) to consider greater "flexibility and fewer impositions of age restrictions". NCW's concern was that minors not be allowed to migrate for work, as young adolescents (15-16 year olds) could easily pass off as 21 year olds. It recommended the above-30 age restriction.
In 2004, the Labour Ministry requested reconsideration for granting emigration clearance for 54 countries in the ECNR (emigration clearance not required) category. (Section 22 of India's Emigration Act requires obtaining clearance from Protector of Emigrants. Some 17 countries are listed as ECR.) MOIA opposed it. Subsequently, though MOIA urged that the age be brought down to 21 years as it was adversely affecting employment opportunities of women.
Legal and administrative restrictions on migration or immigration in destination countries will only foster clandestine migration mobility regimes. Trans-national migration is integral to the global pattern of economics and trade. A UN study (2004) has noted the trend towards feminisation of international migration, with 49 per cent of all migrants being women and girls. Globalisation has fuelled the development of economic sectors with women-specific demands for cheap labour in certain sectors. Moreover, ageing populations in the developed countries are producing an expanding and sustainable demand for cheap domestic workers and care givers.
The emigration ban denies women their agency, equal status as citizens and the opportunity for economic and social empowerment. Moreover, it is too blunt a protective instrument and will further drive women's migration underground.