At 25 years, Nirmani Amarasinghe had packed her bags and left what some might call a promising job and migrated to Australia. She was not migrating out of desperation and neither was she a quintessential Sri Lankan housemaid looking for an opportunity to make ends meet. Amarasinghe is part of the growing number of professional Sri Lankan women who have made an independent decision to migrate, to further improve their careers or professional skills.
According to the Central Bank Annual Report, in 2015 overall labour migration under the skilled category, including professionals had increased by 12.5 percent compared to 2014. While the number of professional men migrating is significantly higher than that of women, the numbers of women are increasing.
The annual report from the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) show that while the peak of female professional migration in 1999 was at 15.55 percent, it declined thereafter but numbers have begun to grow since 2009. From 2012 to 2014, there was a six percent rise in the numbers of professional women departing the shores of Sri Lanka.
Despite these numbers however, very little research has been done to study this phenomenon. The little information available on the subject shows that either they migrate due to various job schemes sponsored by the government or due to better opportunities and more gender balanced work environments abroad.
“Very little study has been done on professional female migration. We are mostly concentrating on housemaids. What is more important is that these women unlike the housemaids, do not send money home and it is not often that they return home. Thus the impact of this brain drain is very crucial. But we don’t know much about this category of migration,” said Senior Technical Advisor on Law, Justice and Gender at the Asia Foundation, Ramani Jayasundere.
She also explained that though the SLBFE technically required that all women who have children under the age of five, handover a Family Background Report (FBR) before they migrate, women who did so under the ‘skilled’ or ‘professional’ category were exempted from the rule.
This allegation however is strongly denied by the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Employment, G.S. Vithanage who insisted that the FBR was common to all women who migrated temporarily for work.
On October 4, Cabinet appointed a Committee consisting of ministry and District Secretariat officials to evaluate FBRs.
“The Cabinet’s stance is that we have to continue with the FBR and that it has to apply to all women, regardless of their skill category. There can be no discrimination. A professional women cannot say that she will not submit an FBR report because she’s a professional and not a housemaid,” stressed Vithanage.
Job quotas making it easy for professional women
Despite the various hurdles for women who migrate, the government is pleased with its efforts to promote professional female migration. One of the main programmes recently introduced for female professionals is in the area of nursing and care giving, where government to government agreements yield job quotas for professionals in this field.
“Caregivers are going to be the biggest market for Sri Lankans in future. We are working to send nurses and caregivers to countries outside of the Middle East, such as the USA, Italy, Japan, Cyprus, Israel, Singapore, and Hong Kong,” explained Vithanage.
Increasing the number of female professional migrations also works well for the government in terms of better foreign exchange earnings and according to the Deputy General Manager of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, Mangala Randeniya, the earnings can be quite significant.
“We earn very little when we send housemaids compared to professionals. For housemaids it is simply the registration fee which is minimal but if we send nurses or caregivers, we can charge up to Rs 200,000 per person for a two year contract,” said Randeniya.
Vithanage in the meantime observed that even though the country in general needed a policy to address the brain drain due to the migration of these professionals, most left because they found better education and employment opportunities abroad.
“A woman has a right to find employment within the country or outside. We cannot stop that,” added Randeniya.
Job quotas however are not the only reason professional women migrate. According to Mallika Margaret D. Bandara in her thesis, ‘The Feminisation of Global Migration: Professional Sri Lankan women in New Zealand’ in 2011, the connection between the feminisation of higher education has led to an increase in professional female migration.
“In 2000, 935 female professionals from Sri Lanka migrated to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. By 2005, this number had increased to 2,678. The new type of migration shifts agency to the women as decision-making actors, and encourages research into who these women are and what their experiences are, given that they have greater control over their lives than those in the larger category of uneducated/lesser educated domestic female workers,” stated Bandara in her research.
It is greener on the other side
In terms of primary, secondary and tertiary education, girls far outnumber boys and this has proven to be particularly true when it comes to tertiary education. In 2010/2011, 60 percent of the total undergraduate admissions to local universities were females. The labour force participation rate of women within Sri Lanka however, has remained at a dismal 36 percent over the years with female unemployment rates too on the rise. According to the Central Bank report in 2015, ‘female unemployment rate increased notably to 7.6 percent compared to 6.5 percent in 2014, while male unemployment rates declined from 3.1 percent in 2014 to 3.0 percent in 2015’.
Delani Fonseka, 27 chose to sit for the London A/L exams in her final years in school and thus did not have an opportunity to enter a local university. She thus chose to move to Australia.
“Private universities in Sri Lanka did not offer the degree I wanted to do and the opportunity to live and work in Australia after graduation was attractive,” said Fonseka who stayed on to work and apply for a Permanent Residency (PR) in the country.
Venusha Premaratne, 28 too chose a similar path having found no local university to follow the sociology course she wanted. Premaratne migrated as a student to England and then later to Sydney to gain a PhD in sociology. She now plans to live there as the opportunities for work in her chosen field was minimal in Sri Lanka.
“I had good exposure and had the opportunity to interact with people of many nationalities and cultures. I also got hand on experience and work in my studies which was practical and better than the spoon feeding or extensive theoretical work done in Sri Lanka,” said Premaratne.
Fonseka and Premaratne are not alone in their decisions to migrate. According to Bandara’s research, this is the ‘First time in history that large numbers of single women from developing countries with relatively traditional societies are travelling without their families and moving to developed countries to study and take up professional employment’.
Gender bias at home
These women have a great impact, both social and economic implications on the country they leave behind as well as for the new host countries which accept these young professional women into their labour force.
“At the level of individual experiences, the women themselves undergo change as they find a place in the globalised knowledge labour market. The changes occur as the women negotiate along a paradoxical path of opportunities and restraints,” stated Bandara.
According to Bandara’s research, the women also portray changing attitudes towards religion, have increased ethnic fluidity (many marrying out of their ethnic group) and change their views on traditional gender roles and family.
“Unlike poorly educated female migrants who seek to maintain their traditional ways in the new country, the young well educated professional woman is rational and instrumental in her approach to the migration experiences and the dilemmas within these experiences,” stated Bandara.
For Kisara De Alwis, 27 who moved to Australia to follow her Masters degree in the field of construction, working and living in Australia proved to be more rewarding than returning home,
“In my experience in Sri Lanka, it is very hard for a woman to be in the construction field, given the restrictions in our society. Over here (Australia) everyone is treated equally. If you have the skill, you can work in that profession. In Sri Lanka, the jobs are divided based on gender. But here, it is not like that. If you have the ability, then yes you can work in any profession. Everyone is paid equally and at the end of the day everyone is the same. Being an international student, it was very hard for me to stay in a foreign country, but after a month, I was more comfortable than when I was in Sri Lanka,” said Alwis.
Amarasinghe who now works for a Fortune 500 Company in Australia too echoed similar sentiments.
“I have always thought that women and men should have equal opportunity but I know that this does not take place much in Sri Lanka. Here I personally feel women have more opportunities than men at the workplace. There is also more exposure and ability to progress further here,” said Amarasinghe.
The gender inequalities which push more professional women to migrate from the country thus is having a significant impact on the ‘brain drain’ of the country. This phenomenon however, is not limited to Sri Lanka but is common across South Asia where opportunities and freedoms for women are limited.
According to a report, “Harnessing knowledge on the migration of highly skilled women”, released by the IOM and OECD Development Centre and prepared by an Expert Group Meeting on the Migration of Highly Skilled Women held in Geneva in April 2014, ‘Between 2000 and 2011, the number of migrant women with tertiary education in OECD countries has increased by 80% which is twice the growth in the number of tertiary educated native-born women. Over the same period, the number of migrant men with tertiary education increased by 60%. One third of the tertiary educated migrants in OECD countries are from Asia (34%)’.
The report also highlighted that the majority of these women who come looking for work do not wish to return to their home countries; a worrying aspect to developing countries facing a ‘brain drain’. Sri Lanka however has not focused much on reducing gender inequalities within our own societies so as to convince these women to stay and contribute to their own national economies. Hence women like Amarasinghe, Fonseka, Alwis and Premaratne who have had first-hand experiences of the difference in quality of work environments for women locally and abroad, have thus chosen to remain abroad due to reasons other than economic.
“The best part about working abroad is the independence and freedom; both social and financial.
We can go anywhere at any time over there, travel alone etc…and no one would say anything. We don’t automatically become “loose girls” because of it,” said Fonseka, who has become part of a new generation of young professional Sri Lankan women who are reaping the benefits of the choice to migrate.
Names have been changed to protect the identity of the person.