The Costs of Migration Hit Women Hardest

Human Rights

Carla Danao is hit by guilt and pain every time she comes home to the Philippines for a visit. This was especially true in August, when she returned to realize that she had been far away and unavailable for her 12-year-old daughter when she had her first menstrual period.

"She said there was no one she could confide in so she talked to her female teacher for advice on what to do," she said of her daughter. "How I wish I was here that time to ease her difficulty and to listen to what she wanted to ask me."

But Carla, whose recent visit was just the third since she started working as an entertainer in Japan in 1999, also feels her daughter is so distant. Definitely, she was no longer the toddler who cried and clung to her at the airport the first year she left the Philippines, one of the world's largest exporters of human labor.

She feels disrespected because her daughter is glued to her mobile phone and iPod. When Carla asked her one time to stop her texting and to remove her earphones for a while so they could talk, her daughter disobeyed her. "You're leaving again anyway, and we talk on the phone often, so don't worry," she told Carla, sulking.

Carla will be flying back to Japan in a week, just after this week's international conference that saw more than 400 delegates from 42 countries discussing similar stories of migrant women and their families.

The two-day International Conference on Gender, Migration and Development, which ended Sep. 26, concluded with the adoption of the 19-point 'Manila Call to Action 2008'. This reiterated the urgency of addressing the issues of seizing opportunities to enhance gender equality and benefits of migration for women and their families, and upholding their rights, ahead of a global conference here on migration and development in October.

It is also time for an honest assessment of migration policies in labour-exporting countries, not just for their protection but for the preservation of their families, said Delia Domingo-Albert, Philippine ambassador to Germany and former foreign affairs secretary.

She echoed new calls from the conference for governments to look at ways on how to reduce the push factor in overseas migration for work, so that families and societies are sustained. "The separation of children from parents is the most painful and most recognisable social cost of migration," she told the conference.

Carla says she is aware of government and private sector efforts to help workers like her, but does not feel they affect her life. The paperwork alone in processing her next travel papers takes her entire vacation time in the Philippines, she says. The immigration staff at the airport looks down at her. "I have my own pains, so if possible, I don't want to have anything to do with government," she pointed out. "It is not helpful."

There were 8.73 million Filipinos in 193 foreign countries as of December 2007, 10 percent of this being irregular migrants. Of this number, 3.69 million reside abroad and 4.13 million are temporarily overseas.

Experts, officials and non-government groups working with migrants also asked that the Call for Action's concerns be taken up at the Second Global Forum on Migration and Development, which will be held from Oct. 22-30 also here in Manila.

Jean D'Cunha, regional adviser for the East and South-east Asian Regional Office of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), called on governments, organizations and civil society to concentrate on women at the lower end of global migration work -- those in entertainment, domestic work and even prostitution -- because they are not adequately protected.

"There are policies that are gender-blind, protectionist and disempowering," she said of countries that do not remove hurdles for women who undergo difficult credit procedures when applying for loans, and do not provide proper pre-departure programs to help protect their citizens from exploitation and abuse.

Albert added that illegal recruitment, trafficking, undocumented work, violence and abuse and other problems have made concerns related to overseas workers a major component of diplomats' work today.

"Diplomats now play a role in the global drama involving the national interests of countries -- they become instant legal advisers, marriage counselors, investigators and even forensic officers," she said.

In fact, the growing magnitude of migration issues owing to the increasing number of Filipinos going abroad is a key factor in the government's efforts to increase its consular presence in all the continents.

Participants saw the conference as an improvement from the last one held in Berlin, where the issue of host government's provision of health care to migrant workers was not taken up. This time too, discussion also touched on a new issue - the prospect of bilateral partnerships in handling migrant workers.

The conference also noted the calls to unite women migrant workers in organizing themselves and strengthening their networks to facilitate learning and experience sharing.

As for Carla, she says that her imminent return to Japan will be for her last work contract in that country. She is now 35, still fortunate to have work as an entertainer at that age and lucky that she has not been harmed or killed, just "sexually harassed by male clients on many occasions". She is also proud that she no longer "entertains" in Japan's night venues, but trains new women to work there instead.

After coming home for good, her savings and that of her husband's, a bus driver, should be enough put up a small business so the couple can continue saving for the education of their 12-year-old and her nine-year-old son, and for the purchase of their own home.

She says life will continue to be difficult for couples like them and cited other options, such as looking for a new job abroad as a domestic worker or office assistant in case their plans do not work out. What prevents her from leaving again, however, is her husband's, and family's, incessant complaints about her absenteeism and warnings that her family is falling apart.

"It's terrifying," she cried, "because our family is indeed already broken.

Carla's plight is repeated everyday in the lives of over 2,000 Filipinos who leave their country daily to work abroad, most of them opting for migration as a way out of poverty.

Sixty percent of overseas Filipino workers are women, reflecting the increasing global need for more women workers rather than men. The trend has prompted many to recognize the "feminisation of migration" with the attendant acknowledgment of women's vulnerability to abuse while working in foreign countries.

Japan, where Carla has lived and worked for almost 10 years, is the third top country of destination for Filipino workers. The first two are Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia, according to the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW), the government body on women's advancement and one of the organizers of this week's conference.

*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on gender and development, with the support of UNIFEM East and South-east Asia Regional Office.

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