Migrant work as economic emancipation and social empowerment

As new avenues of income are open for women in post war economy, women in the East have found an answer to their age old problem of finding a dowry in migration.

In a community which frowns at a woman's decision to work outside of her house, women in the East have managed to bypass this by migrating to Middle East countries to earn their dowries. In a strange twist of fate, these women break through conventional barriers to economic empowerment, to meet yet another traditional requirement for a woman of marriageable age - entitlement for a handsome dowry.

As costs of dowries rise and divorces loom at every corner, women have found that foreign employment was a means to economic liberation as well as social empowerment.

Latheef Majeesa, 32, left for Riyadh at the age of 17 to work as a housemaid. She was the breadwinner at home and having returned home, she used the money she had saved to pay for her dowry and got married. The marriage, however, soon turned disastrous and her husband abandoned her having taken her money as well to travel abroad himself.

The Women Media Collective publication, 'Transforming Lives-listening to Sri Lankan Returnee Women Migrant Workers,' the majority of Muslim women interviewed had been abroad due to reasons related to marriage or to build a house for their family.

One of the researchers and Coordinator of the Women's Resource Centre in Kurunegala, Sumika Perera said, "Almost all Muslim women had no other alternative but to find goreign employment. In places such as Akkaraipattu, the issue of dowry was quite serious. They could go to work in garment factories like other women, but they wouldn't earn as much," she said.

She explained that the issue of the dowry was rampant amongst Muslim women more than others, especially since many also wanted gold in addition to other property.

"I spoke to a Moulavi about Muslim women migration. He said women were like roots, they are needed for a strong family, but should not be seen.

When I questioned as to why women are not allowed to visit a local shop alone, but travel to Saudi a lone, he said Saudi Arabia was the holy land and nothing would happen to Muslims there," said Sumika.

Migrant work has provided many victims of domestic violence, such as N. M. Maleeha, 28, an escape route empowering them economically as well.

Maleeha sits behind a weaving machine, busy at work to complete her quota of three sarongs a day. She also operates a shop from her home to add to her income. A single mother of two, her work in Riyadh and Damam as a housemaid, allowed her to collect Rs. 350,000, which was invested in her weaving business back at home.

"I was married at 17 and have two children. My husband was an alcoholic and constantly beat me up and never provided me money to survive. My only option to earn a decent living was to go abroad," she said.

Muslim women in the East seeking foreign employment have become the norm over the years. Kattankudy is the heart of the Muslim community in Batticaloa. According to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, a total of 4,110 women have left for the Middle East in 2013, the highest in the history.

More women in the East have migrated than women in other parts as Islam provided them with a bridge to countries such as Saudi Arabia, claims the Secretary, Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) M. Faizer Makeen.

"Though some would not agree with these women travelling abroad for jobs, at present, it is too late to stop them. It is their fundamental right to go and they have been going abroad since 1977. Around 97 percent are better off as a result, while only three percent suffer. But it is our duty to look after this three percent," he said.

According to Rahini Baskaran who was attached to a Non-Governmental Organization called 'Inayam,' focusing on 'safe migration' said many women in the East preferred Saudi Arabia as a destination of choice as it offered migrants an advance of Rs 1-3,000,000 unlike in other countries. K.N. Naspia, 43, from Kattankudy, had been abroad twice and on both occasions, she had been escaping an abusive husband and debt trap. After her last stint in 2013, she returned home to look after her children. She had also filed for divorce from her husband and also built a house for her family.

"People always talk about women going abroad, but none would help you when you are in difficulty. It is good that women go abroad. We go because we are faced with many difficulties here and to solve our own problems," remarked Naspia.

Economic conditions too have been one of the main factors leading to the Muslim community in the East being more partial of women leaving their homes unlike in many other parts of the country. The Batticaloa district has registered 7.5 percent of the total poverty level in the country. It also has an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, while only 24.9 percent of women were economically active (Department of Census and Statistics).

M.H. Mawfia, 35, who is an orphan had found out at an early age that foreign employment was an attractive means to become economically independent. She observed that there was a better system for women rather than men when migrating for work,

"As housemaids, our living expenses were looked after, but men did not have that option. They needed a higher salary to cover up their expenses. They were able to earn that amount here unlike us," Mawfia said.

The migration of unskilled workers has become a norm over generations. Almost all the women in Maleeha's family have been abroad. Her grandmother, Aliyar Marikar Fathima, 75, worked as a housemaid in Saudi in the 1980s and set the trend for the rest to follow.

Maleeha, however, observed that one's foreign experience depended on one's employers. "You have to be lucky to get a good house. I was lucky enough to get one. For an example, a girl was burnt by an iron rod because she did not wake up on time."

Having started her own business back home, Maleeha observed that the opportunity to migrate for work had empowered her and worked wonders on her confidence.

"Before I went abroad, I was always sad. Now I am happier and stronger. I make a living and look after my children and family," she said.

According to K.M. Zubeida Umma, 63, who worked in the Middle East as a housemaid for six years since 1982, the majority of residents in Kattankudy inevitably find themselves seeking employment in the Middle East.

Seeni Mohammed Fareeda Umma, 52, added that their foreign exchange earned at the time allowed them to educate their daughters so that they would not have to work as housemaids even if they were to go abroad.

Baskaran, however, was cautious about the outcome of migrant work.

"Statistics shows that Batticaloa ranked fourth in terms of the number of women leaving as housemaids to the Middle East. But it also had the highest number of women affected as a result of it," she said.

She said the lack of proper government support and limited public awareness of the issues are the main reasons for the harassment women faced abroad.

"Women are only told the attractive side of working as housemaids abroad. They are not informed of their contracts, salaries and where they should go to in case of a problem. Many are unprepared when they get there," Rahini said.

She said more often than not, Foreign Employment Agencies were to blame, while some made it a point to approach vulnerable families to convince them to send their women abroad, a claim flatly refused by the ALFEA.

Apart from the safety issues of migrant workers, she also requests the government to focus on the safety of the families left behind.

"Women have a right to work and also the right to go abroad which cannot be denied. Fathers too have a major role to play in their children's upbringing which has to be emphasised. Safe migration is essential as the use of a fake passport would make the matters worse in case of trouble," she said.

"However, by and large, it is a great achievement for a woman from these areas to go abroad, but it should be safe."

Foreign Employment Ministry Senior Assistant Secretary D. L. Channasuriya, however, said that the government had introduced a mechanism to monitor the families of migrant workers.

"From January 8 to 14, 2016, we had a week of registering all migrant workers and their families. We have registered 1,20,000 women", she said.

The information collected is to be used by Foreign Development Officers at every District Secretariat (DS) to monitor the families of migrant women.

"Women migrate because they are driven to it by the need to achieve some goals. It is either to educate children, get them married, or build a house. But the money they send back at times is not used for this purpose. Our aim is to help them achieve the targets the women have set. We have 25-30 officers at each DS to help us," said Channasuriya.

He said the ministry aims to train children of migrant workers in skilled labour so that they could migrate as skilled labourers in case they wished to go abroad.

Rahini observed that for Muslim women, social norms made it much easier to migrate compared to other ethnic groups.

"In the Muslim village of Viriththirachenai in Valachchenai, close to 90 percent of the women go abroad to earn their dowry before they get married as they do not wish to depend on anyone else to find their dowry for them.

There is more social sanction for Muslim women to go abroad than Tamil and Christians, she said.

In the stifling heat of Kattankudy, migration has certainly helped women to be proactive about their future, even if it only entails a happy marriage and a beautiful home. 


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