Bans Will Not Stop Women from Migrating

by Susan Thieme

PastedGraphic-2-1Kyrgyzstan’s parliament is currently debating whether to impose a ban on young women aged under 23 leaving the country without their parents’ written consent. While at first glance the government’s concern about their citizens abroad seems well-intentioned, experiences from other countries such as Nepal show that curtailing women’s mobility is not only discriminatory but has also failed to reduce the exploitation and trafficking of women.by Susan Thieme

PastedGraphic-2-1Kyrgyzstan’s parliament is currently debating whether to impose a ban on young women aged under 23 leaving the country without their parents’ written consent. While at first glance the government’s concern about their citizens abroad seems well-intentioned, experiences from other countries such as Nepal show that curtailing women’s mobility is not only discriminatory but has also failed to reduce the exploitation and trafficking of women.

Ongoing discussions about a ban are a response to a series of cases of physical abuse of Kyrgyz women in Russia (by Kyrgyz men), but also to the general vulnerability of women migrants abroad. Those in favour of a ban argue that it will protect young, and in particular unskilled women from physical and mental abuse, and prevent trafficking. While such violence against women represents discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, sexual identity, social status and age, some government actors are  reacting with further discrimination – namely by restricting their mobility.

Is this not akin to blaming the victims of violence for the abuse they have suffered?

Kyrgyzstan is one of the top ten remittance-receiving countries in the world (as a percentage of GDP -27%) and some 20% of the five million inhabitants work abroad, mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan (30% women, 70% men). Although income and remittances are commonly seen as the major drivers of migration, they are often not the only ones. Other major motivations to leave, particularly for young women (but also men), include early marriage, escaping from traditional norms, curiosity and independence from one’s family. Therefore, making a parent’s or husband’s written consent compulsory enforces patriarchal structures; women already often struggle much harder for emotional, as well as financial, support from their family members in their desire/effort to migrate. Though one cannot deny the risk of exploitation and abuse, many women also have positive experiences, enjoying greater independence from restricting family and community settings, along with personal advancement by earning a salary.

Nepal’s government restricts women’s international mobility, particularly for domestic work in the Gulf States. Migration and human rights activists and NGOS are negotiating hard to persuade the Nepalese government to lift these bans. This restriction not only contradicts women’s basic human right to mobility, but also Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act and Regulation, which permits foreign employment regardless of sex and age. Worse, an intention to protect women’s rights has in fact increased their vulnerability. A range of restrictions, from outright bans to various discriminatory constraints have been imposed, lifted and re-imposed many times. These restrictions did not halt mobility, but forced women to choose ever riskier paths to employment abroad, exposing them to even more vulnerable situations.

Restrictions and their irregular consequences also benefited middlemen and brokers, who then became the main means of circumventing legal restrictions. This was fostered by repeated changes to legal restrictions and widespread confusion about the legality of women’s migration. Little effort was made to educate the public about these changes, encouraging corruption among middlemen and even officials in letting women leave the country. As debt is one of the major factors that pushes women (and men) into exploitative labour, any additional costs and informal and non-regulated middlemen increase their overall vulnerability and multiplies the risks of trafficking and exploitation.

In circumstances in which labour migration remains, at least in the short term, a promising income source, the only effective way of preventing exploitation and abuse is to facilitate safe migration. If women migrate legally, governments can monitor their movements better and prevent or intervene in critical situations. Great efforts are required to disseminate information to the most vulnerable potential migrants, i.e. low and semi-skilled women in rural areas. Measures should be taken to facilitate easy contact with support institutions (officials, NGOs) abroad and at home so they are able to intervene before exploitation and abuse happens. Last but not least, awareness has to be raised in the places of origin and among migrants themselves that women have the right to migrate too, not just men.

In a nutshell: bans and restrictions on women’s migration are counterproductive and actually reinforce the vulnerability of women. Women should have equal migration rights, and governments, donor agencies and NGOs should work harder to ensure safe migration for all, both in the countries of origin and the countries of work!

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Susan Thieme is senior researcher and lecturer at the Department of Geography at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her areas of research are migration, labour and education with a regional focus on Central and South Asia and Switzerland.

Ongoing discussions about a ban are a response to a series of cases of physical abuse of Kyrgyz women in Russia (by Kyrgyz men), but also to the general vulnerability of women migrants abroad. Those in favour of a ban argue that it will protect young, and in particular unskilled women from physical and mental abuse, and prevent trafficking. While such violence against women represents discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, sexual identity, social status and age, some government actors are  reacting with further discrimination – namely by restricting their mobility.

Is this not akin to blaming the victims of violence for the abuse they have suffered?

Kyrgyzstan is one of the top ten remittance-receiving countries in the world (as a percentage of GDP -27%) and some 20% of the five million inhabitants work abroad, mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan (30% women, 70% men). Although income and remittances are commonly seen as the major drivers of migration, they are often not the only ones. Other major motivations to leave, particularly for young women (but also men), include early marriage, escaping from traditional norms, curiosity and independence from one’s family. Therefore, making a parent’s or husband’s written consent compulsory enforces patriarchal structures; women already often struggle much harder for emotional, as well as financial, support from their family members in their desire/effort to migrate. Though one cannot deny the risk of exploitation and abuse, many women also have positive experiences, enjoying greater independence from restricting family and community settings, along with personal advancement by earning a salary.

Nepal’s government restricts women’s international mobility, particularly for domestic work in the Gulf States. Migration and human rights activists and NGOS are negotiating hard to persuade the Nepalese government to lift these bans. This restriction not only contradicts women’s basic human right to mobility, but also Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act and Regulation, which permits foreign employment regardless of sex and age. Worse, an intention to protect women’s rights has in fact increased their vulnerability. A range of restrictions, from outright bans to various discriminatory constraints have been imposed, lifted and re-imposed many times. These restrictions did not halt mobility, but forced women to choose ever riskier paths to employment abroad, exposing them to even more vulnerable situations.

Restrictions and their irregular consequences also benefited middlemen and brokers, who then became the main means of circumventing legal restrictions. This was fostered by repeated changes to legal restrictions and widespread confusion about the legality of women’s migration. Little effort was made to educate the public about these changes, encouraging corruption among middlemen and even officials in letting women leave the country. As debt is one of the major factors that pushes women (and men) into exploitative labour, any additional costs and informal and non-regulated middlemen increase their overall vulnerability and multiplies the risks of trafficking and exploitation.

In circumstances in which labour migration remains, at least in the short term, a promising income source, the only effective way of preventing exploitation and abuse is to facilitate safe migration. If women migrate legally, governments can monitor their movements better and prevent or intervene in critical situations. Great efforts are required to disseminate information to the most vulnerable potential migrants, i.e. low and semi-skilled women in rural areas. Measures should be taken to facilitate easy contact with support institutions (officials, NGOs) abroad and at home so they are able to intervene before exploitation and abuse happens. Last but not least, awareness has to be raised in the places of origin and among migrants themselves that women have the right to migrate too, not just men.

In a nutshell: bans and restrictions on women’s migration are counterproductive and actually reinforce the vulnerability of women. Women should have equal migration rights, and governments, donor agencies and NGOs should work harder to ensure safe migration for all, both in the countries of origin and the countries of work!

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Susan Thieme is senior researcher and lecturer at the Department of Geography at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her areas of research are migration, labour and education with a regional focus on Central and South Asia and Switzerland.

 

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