Friday, October 17, 2008

Women and Migration in Asia: Volume IV ; Migrant Women and Work edited by Anuja Agrawal;Series Editor: Meenakshi Thapan

Geetisha Dasgupta

Familial gender based division of labour has been produced and reproduced even after women migrated out of the private spaces and tried joining the mainstream workforce. While states have benefited from the remittances sent by women migrant workers from across the globe, they also continued blaming the “absent mothers”, and never actually acknowledging the economic benefits effected by women on the same scale of regard as that sent by men. A woman’s dilemma continues to be one of earning a good livelihood for her family and her children and that of being present there for taking care of them personally by remaining with the family.

In the series introduction, Meenakshi Thapan begins by familiarizing us with the theme of the Conference, from where this book series comes up. She comments, it is time that we go beyond characterizing women as a part of the baggage when men move and reckon the fact that women can, and all over the world, do move from one place to another as independent migrants. Even when women move in tandem with the principal or male migratory in the family, they have a completely independent set of experiences to share and their coping mechanism is also unique to their gender identity. They are individuals with characteristic subscriptions and judgments, and that is evident from their adjusting processes.

Movement opens up a plethora of choices. With the challenges of settling and setting up in a new land, there definitely comes chances to explore, there come encounters that could make life better or worse. Therefore, migration, though generally conceived of as a misfortune, is often taken with the hopes of a better life in an unseen world altogether. Thapan quotes from Jolly Bell and Narayanswamy to remind us that Asia sends out the maximum number of international migrants and every year the number of women migrants have been on a rise. Despite that, women have not been given equal status as migrants; let apart the recognition of their individual agency. Visa policies and work permit rules bear this contention out.

Women migrate both associationally, i.e., for marriage or with the family; as well as independent agents, i.e., for work etc. In the volume introduction, Anuja Agrawal picks up from that point by commenting that when studying in terms of destination and work options, the individual mode of migration sets off interesting patterns of societal displacement in course of the transition from the parent to the host community. For example, one of the papers shows, the global increase in demand for domestic labour is a major factor in the feminization of migration. Sexual division of labour, hitherto restricted more or less within the private quarters, is thereby carried forward to the public space. It becomes paid work, but only when the requisite amount of displacement in terms of work station has occurred. Agrawal quotes Ehrenreich and Hochschild and says that there comes about a revival of domestic work for women, but is responsive only to a ‘care deficit’ in the developed countries, which in turn gives birth to a similar kind of deficit in the parent communities. Back home, these women might hire domestic workers for themselves. In the process, ethnic and class divisions merge as certain occupations become the mark of some ethnic identities.

There are interesting viewpoints, especially about cases of countries like Philippines, Japan, Singapore, the Middle East or Bangladesh that prefer sending or receiving for particular purposes. For example, Japan had a steady demand of women entertainers, specifically for filling up as prostitutes or courtesans. Philippines offered its women for these professions, which later drew much criticism from both the sending and the receiving countries. Filipino women went to Japan under tourist visa to provide such services. Gulati, in her chapter explains, this kind of demand sprung from a decay in the Japanese tradition of ‘geisha’s and Japanese men’s age old habit of seeking release from work pressure by indulging in sexual entertainment; so much so that, Japanese embassy in Philippines came up with the idea of introducing a special short term entertainer’s visa. Gulati further pints out that certain states take exporting workers as an industry altogether. For example, the Governments of Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka encourage migration of women workers for the same reason for which they encourage male migration, viz., source of foreign remittances and maintaining a pressure valve internationally.

Parvati Raghuram, in her chapter called “Gendering Medical Migration: Asian Women Doctors In The UK”, says, while most Asian women labour migrants move to take up jobs as domestic workers, sex workers and nurses, professions that are defined by notions of feminity, there are many who move to take part in the less feminized sectors of the labour market, such as Information Technology, where gender exclusivity and male domination are the standard norms. Such highly skilled migration has received much less attention than its other counterparts. Collating and analyzing secondary data available from the Department of Health, The Medical Workforce Standing Advisory Committee and the General Medical Council, the British Medical Association and several other individual sources, health consultants and international recruitment consultants, she reveals that in spite of increasing feminization of labour force and women forming sizeable section of UK’s medical force, women never came up to be a recognized as such in the current literature, for it falls between the interstices between the debates on female migration, women and medicine and medical migration.

In a very interesting chapter, Anuja Agrawal discusses the case of the Bedia community in north India. She explains how prostitution is one of the pivotal preconceptions of women’s migration for work. Women engaged in flesh trade have had to move away from their families. While the family would not acknowledge the kinship relation with the prostitute, economic benefits are accepted, often in a camouflaged manner. Agrawal discusses familial factors in the Bedia community that facilitate the women to go for prostitution. This community is largely dependent on the earning of the female members who make a living out of prostitution. Commercial prostitution is an accepted way of survival and even the entire family is seen to migrate to urban areas temporarily for that purpose. The Bedia community that Agrawal studies, show a classic case where the family members reside in situ of prostitution is carried out by the female members and therefore bears evidences of critical conditions of familial adjustments.

The book provokes interesting thought bubbles for both first time encounterers with the theme of women’s migration as well as those who would like to have an overview studies into women’s migration for work. However, there is an over focus on some countries like Philippines or Thailand while some others also needed to be discussed in more detail, like Bangladesh or Pakistan. The book is a pleasure to read for its quality of propelling the reader to study in greater detail about women in migration.


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