Sunday, September 26, 2010

From ‘Let your Father Come …' and ‘Let Your Son Come …’ to ‘Let My Brother Come … ’ and ‘Let My Son Come …’

Many have heard mothers say this to their erring children, ‘let your father come … ‘ and many of us have heard of family violence where daughters-in-law tell their ailing-and-not-liked and sometimes troublesome mothers-in-law, ‘let you son come …’. Is it that these women are not able to speak in a straight language or they lack the confidence to say what they are any way doing, parenting and being a party to discrimination against or abuse of the elderly? Why do they need to speak through their spouse? We have also heard of sisters-in-law threaten their brother’s spouse with a statement beginning ‘let my brother come …‘ and mothers-in-law tell their daughters-in-law, ‘let my son come … ’. Why these women cannot sort out their issues on their own instead of waiting for the brother or the son to come and teach a lesson to his spouse? Does it have anything to do with economic value attached to the person or to their ability to own their actions? Why all of them have such a high level of dependence on the male family members? Why do they compete with one another to establish a greater claim to the male family members?

Let me jump off to one of the possible reasons. An understanding of multiple forms of violence against women and girls – in intimate relationships and from strangers in their daily lives – show how they have been institutionalized and affects every aspect of a woman life from infancy to death. These aspects include citizenship, reproduction, health, sexuality, employment, entrepreneurship, culture, poverty, social care, property, crime, status in family … the list is unending. All these, in my opinion, contribute to the situation that I described above, which makes women’s existence dependent on the wishes of the male family members and makes women compete with one-another in order to exist.

Another reason for such a situation is economic. Yesterday, I was in a seminar on the issue of women and land with women many of whom know the relationship among women land and violence first hand. Experiences of these women established (not suggest) that violence against women and girls and poverty among women is an ‘engaged relationship’. The former being a tool to keep women in state of poverty and poverty is one of the key reasons for women’s servility. While high probability of violence in the domestic and public sphere, in general, affects women’s ability to be present in the public sphere, use opportunities and develop their human capital, ritualized and institutionalized forms of violence create a sort of ‘genetic-cum-collective’ lack of confidence among women that keeps them silent about the beatings, rape and emotional abuse, makes them internalize male supremacy, compete with one-another for a greater dependency stake, and prevents them from questioning the status quo in which men’s labour is recognized but women and girls’ labour is not. The overall impact of violence keeps women poor in all senses and economic poverty increases the risk of exposure to violence enormously.

Murder of women by their spouses alone or in complicity with the family, in particular, murder of widows by the marital family members more than often have roots in land and property. Sometime, the reasons for murder are such that a direct relationship between poverty or economic deprivation and violence cannot be established as a prima facie fact. It is true that poverty or economic deprivations are not the only reasons for women’s vulnerability to violence but poverty or economic deprivation are key factors. These are important factors that must be examined when trying to understand and address scale of violence against women.

Let me discuss here some of the  ritualized and institutionalized forms of violence that are used to keep women economically impoverished and dependent on men of the household or community:

Halitza[1]: In Jewish tradition, according to the Torah, if a man dies without leaving children, his brother must marry his widow in a ceremony called yibbum or levirate marriage. A widow in Sephardic Jewish communities cannot remarry till her husband’s brother relinquishes all claims to own her. In Halitza ceremony, that is a public event, the woman kneels before her brother-in-law and removes a special handmade shoe from his foot. She is then required to spit on the ground next to him and recite several verses from Torah. The ceremony is humiliating for both and mocks the brother for not taking on the sister-in-law. Though yibbum is on decline and most widows go through the Halitza ceremony now, it is practically an institutionalized practice to keep the family wealth within the family.

Widow/Bride Inheritance[2]: This is a form of yibbum among the Luo of western Kenya and many other tribes like Luhya (Kisa sub-tribe). The widespread practice of widow inheritance establishes the male ownership of women’s reproduction, her labour and property and wealth that may be created through the woman’s unpaid labour. Through widow inheritance the dead and alive husbands and their family continue to demand reproductive and productive capabilities of women against the bridewealth paid at the time of marriage with the deceased brother. Luo widows are known as ‘wives of the grave’. Because they do not cease to be the wife of the deceased rather through inheritance widows remain obligated to their husbands and their family and in exchange they are promised social and economic support for themselves and their children. Refusal by the widows often includes disinheritance and being thrown out of matrimonial home. This practice in one or the other names continues to exist in Nigeria, Uganda, India and many other countries.

Lattha Odhna or Chaadar Daalna[3]: Many Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi speaking audience of Hindi cinema would be able to recall a film titiled, 'Ek Chadar Maili Si' which came to the cinema halls in 1986. Directed by Sukhwant Dada, the film  is an adaptation of Rajinder Singh Bedi's Sahitya Akademi Award winner Urdu novella, 'Ik Chadar Adhorani'. The story is about a woman , Rano, who is forced to marry her brother-in-law, 10 years younger to her, whom she regarded as a son, through the ceremony of chadar daalna. such levirate marriage or niyoga between a widow and an unmarried younger brother in law continues to be alive in certain parts of India (Punjab and Haryana). Re-marriage of widows was never a norm in India and the possibility of going back to the parents' home has not been an option for the Indian women. They are taught to leave their marital home only on their death-bed. The practice ensures that any land or property owned by the deceased husband stays in the family.

Adoption of a male child from the husband’s family[4]: More in the past than now in India and many other parts of South Asia and Asia , if the widow did not have any male child from her deceased husband, she is made to adopt a nephew of her husband.

Widow Cleansing[5]: This practice also dates back centuries and is, till date, widely practiced in Zambia, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, Angola, Ivory Coast, Congo and Nigeria. A widow is expected to have a sex with a male relative of the deceased husband in order to maintain access to family property and land. In practice, this custom any man from widow’s marital village or the deceased husband’s family, usually a brother or close male relative of the deceased husband, to force her to have sex with him. This is also linked to a belief that that if the widow does allow ‘cleansing’ her husband’s spirit will not be free. This practice established the woman as being haunted by spirits, as unholy and mentally ill and in some communities this is further extended to say that a widow who has not been cleansed can cause the whole community to be haunted. Now there are professional 'cleanser men' to rape widows because in many places, a widow must go through cleansing ritual before she can be inherited.

The above practices are not directly linked to the state of affairs described in the first paragraph in all contexts but they exemplify the modus operandi of patriarchy that instils a deep sense of dependence among women. A deeper examination of some of the apparently non-economic motives shows the inter-breeding of economic and non-economic issues. For example, such a large number of women are being killed, tortured and mutilated for bringing shame and dishonour to the family. But consider why women and girls are burdened with the safekeeping of family honour. Women's vulnerability to violence derives not only from the poverty but also from the potential they hold to be empowered individuals. One of the ways that potential can be crushed is by employing tools that socially disempower and disfranchise them. Making women and girls’ symbols of family honour puts on them the burden of keeping the honour, as it has been defined by patriarchy, intact. The definition of family honour invariably has its roots in historic political and economic exclusion, sexism and other discriminatory practices that keep women outside of social, political and economic empowerment opportunities. The definition of family honour leads to socio-cultural conditioning of women and girls that prepares them for marriage as accepted by the patriarchal system of a particular place, child-rearing, house-keeping and other unpaid care and economic roles. This conditioning creates a façade that women have an important role in the family in maintaining the family honour themselves as well as by scrutinising other women’s conduct, and it keeps the sense of empowerment far from women.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Women Crossing Borders


Migrants and migration long back ceased to be a venture of the select few looking for better avenues. One can safely say that since medieval period it has become a compulsion for farm workers, domestic workers and small landholders workers who are simply looking for a source of income to survive. It is estimated that 1 out of every 6 persons, that is, more than 1 billion persons, are migrating within countries and internationally, in search of employment. Of these 1 billion, 72% are women[1]. This is even more so when it comes to women migrant workers, whose numbers have been increasing, now constituting 50 percent or more of the migrant workforce in Asia and Latin America[2]. According to a study that focuses on women’s migration labour from and between six countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region[3], the numbers of women who undertake migrant labour in Southern Africa have been increasing significantly over the past decade. Most people when they think of migrant labour, usually imagine a male face. But over the years, due to several socio-economic and political changes the face of the African migrant labour is changing into a twin woman-man face. Women now make up almost 50% of migrants in the SADC region.

Globalization of labour:

Globalization has contributed to an increasing flow of migrant workers from countries with limited economic opportunities to fill gaps in nations with a dwindling labour supply, for eg, from Somalia to Canada, or in nations which may offer better remuneration for the same work, for eg, from Afghanistan to Iran. Globalisation has also opened up markets for skilled workers and the decrease in traditional labour employment areas such as mining and agriculture. This has provided new entry points for the migrant labour into economies, for example in the service sector. Women are increasingly participating in the trans-national informal sector (for eg, as construction workers in countries other than theirs), and cross-border trade (for eg, between Tanzania and Kenya). This said, since globalization of labour is also characterized by increasing demand for skilled workers and is, therefore, leading to job losses and further impoverishment of unskilled workers. Globalization, in this sense, has created a complex tension between the demand for skilled labour and constraints imposed on unskilled workforce.

Globalization pushes the States to open up the borders for economic transactions. This is leading to increasing number of free trade agreements between countries, emergence and growth of multinational corporations and common markets such as the one mooted and promoted by the East African Community (EAC) for the free flow of products. While the borders are opened for the free flow of products, the borders remain closed for the labourers. Globalization, in this sense, has created another kind of tension between the rich and the poor countries. The developed countries, more than ever before, are banging their doors shut on those seeking refuge or work. Since global concept of production is based on comparative advantage, production sectors within developing economies are losing the diversity of production and labour employed in subsistence production, which benefitted from the diversity of production, is forced to cross borders hiding in trucks and boats or clinging to lifeboats adrift in the oceans.

Within Africa both rural to urban and cross-border migration has been significant due to domestic economic reasons as well as due to colonization. Colonization crated new boundaries, divided communities and separated families and clans. These separations had the effect of increasing cross-border movement. Since the end of colonization, intra-regional migration in SADC includes temporary migration, including workers and seasonal migrants, permanent migration, forced migration and refugee or asylum-seekers. Refugees/Asylum-seekers usually come from politically unstable countries such as Angola, Mozambique and more recently from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, as well as countries that do not belong to SADC. In the East an Horn of Africa, the movement is from Somalia, Southern Ethiopia, Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan. Kenya is a major recipient country of the refugees/asylum-seekers in this region.

Recent trends in migration are increasingly marked by movements linked to cross border-trading and related businesses and street vending, and less by formal employment because, as mentioned earlier, formal employment opportunities are becoming more and more demanding on skills.

Women as migrant labour:

The migrant labour endeavour is a double-edged sword for women. On the one hand, becoming a migrant labourer can mean the acquisition of new skills and uplifting one’s family and community financially, but on the other, women migrant workers expose themselves to several risks during this process.

While globalization may foster the acceleration of trade and investment, it does not create an environment that protects migrant workers’ economic, social and physical security. By creating new economic opportunities, migration can promote economic independence and status for women workers, who provide safety nets that sustain communities at home. But here’s the flip-side of the story: Many of the smugglers of human-labour are part of a growing ring of sex-traffickers. Huge numbers of poverty-stricken girls and women accept the promise of a good job or forced into so-called marriages with financially well to do husband but find they have been tricked into sex work as has been revealed from several cases in the South Asia. Cases noted from Nepal and Philippines suggest that some girls are even sold to smugglers by poverty-stricken families who see them as their only hope for an escape from poverty. Most women trafficked for sex work come from Asia, but increasingly Eastern European women are also getting into ‘international sex trade’ due to the hardship created after the erosion of the social safety nets in their countries.

The chain of exploiters for migrant workers, especially those seeking unskilled jobs include the brokers who facilitate passport, etc, recruiters who find employers and help obtain visa, employers who secure work-permit, and migration officials. Migrant workers are often illiterate or semi-literate and often have limited knowledge about and access to information regarding their rights. Women migrant workers are vulnerable as women, and like the rest, as foreigners and as unskilled labourers, and are exposed to possible abuse and exploitation such as physical and social isolation, and sexual and physical violence. Countries, where the migrant workers migrate to, also resent them when they have to pay for medical and legal services required by the migrant workers.

Marginalization, racial discrimination and suspicion are all too well known to the migrant women workers. Some countries do racial profiling on grounds of suspicion of a threat to security or sex work. Many women, unable to understand the bureaucracy around migration, find themselves declared ‘illegal’ and in detention centres for months or even years at a time, imprisoned for reasons not known to them. Women and girls going for either domestic work or sex-work, are usually left high and dry by the brokers, recruiters or employers who take their passport and a large chunk of their income. It is not unknown to find cases of women migrant workers being kept imprisoned, unable to escape. When the police of the receiving country reaches them, women migrant workers are usually hesitant to speak out about abuses they suffer because of the fear of deportation or greater sense of economic insecurity.

Combinations of poverty, gender discrimination, abuse, armed conflict, HIV & AIDS and climate change push women to seek employment in other countries. Though there is no data to establish, migrant women have been noticed to be more likely to be divorced, separated or have been abandoned. Similarly, migrant women are also more likely to be widowed than men. The study of migration of women from SADC countries suggests that increasingly, women migrant workers are primary economic providers and heads of households. They often travel alone and need to return to migrant occupations repeatedly.

Key sectors in which women migrant workers are involved:

As far as unskilled of semiskilled women are concerned, women and girls from all over the world are recruited to be domestic workers. In Africa and Asia girls from rural areas are often expected to move to urban areas and become domestic workers in order to help support their families financially. In North America and Europe, women from South America and Asia and in the Middle-east, women and girls from Ethiopia, South-east Asia and South Asia work in the homes of the rich sending money back home to their families abroad. Common experiences of domestic workers include low wages, long working hours, no time off, loneliness, verbal and sometimes physical abuse, being forced to wear uniforms and act in roles of servitude, heavy work demands, homesickness, the denial of a family life of one's own, racism, and vulnerability to sexual abuse and HIV/AIDS[4].

Many women are involved in cross border informal businesses, crossing borders for small periods of time or even daily. Their daily life, therefore, is marked by daily saga of exploitation and abuse.

Migrant women in SADC region, usually find employment as domestic workers or entertainers, or other fields that are not regulated by labour laws. The agricultural sector absorbs a large amount of migrant workers, but its seasonal nature does not make for a stable year-round income. In the East and Horn of Africa, migrant women struggle for daily wage work, small trade of goods, including smuggled goods and as domestic workers. Thus a combination of elements, such as local conflicts and global restructuring of work, result in an array of migration patterns in Southern and East and Horn of Africa.

Women migrant workers and economic development:

Studies indicate that migrant women workers contribute to the development of both sending and receiving countries — Ethiopians in diaspora sent a total of US$591 million to Ethiopia in 2006, which is nearly 4.4% of Ethiopia's GDP and Eritrea received US$411 million in remittance money, which amounts to 38% of Eritrea's GDP[5]. In Somalia, remittances are regarded as the ‘lifeline to survival’. In 2008, remittances were estimated by the World Bank at US$305 billion. These monetary investments — used for food, housing, education and medical services — along with newly acquired skills of returnees, can potentially contribute significantly to poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals[2].

Some women acquire new skills through their migrant occupations, which they use to contribute to both the host and their own countries’ economies. The sending and receiving countries benefit from the remittances women send and the productive investments they are able to make with their earned income. In households, which receive remittances, the bulk is utilized to cover basic needs and services, with differences depending on the country. Most remittances are spent on education in Zimbabwe (57%) and Mozambique (57%), while a significant portion is also spent on medicine in Zimbabwe (40%), Swaziland (39%) and Mozambique (31 %). Recipient households reported having contracted loans to purchase food, etc also use the remittance to pay-off debts. These examples suggest that the households of migrant women workers are highly dependent on external sources of income. In general, remittances seem to be protecting human development because they allow families to pay for education, health, electricity, water and other services, when they are not provided by the State. It can be said then that poverty reduction and community development could be aided by these remittances. Examples from Kerala in India shows that these benefits include improved local physical infrastructure, growth of local commodity markets, development of new services, changes to cultural practices that harm girl children and generation of local employment opportunities.

1. Enaskhi Dua. "Beyond Diversity: Exploring Ways in which the Discourse of Race has Shaped the Institution of the Nuclear Family" in Enashki Dua and Angela Robertson. Eds. Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-Feminist Thought. Toronto: Women's Press, 1999. pp 237-260. Quoted in Helene Moussa "Global Surge in Forced Migration Linked to Colonial Past".
2. United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM - now part of UN Women).
3. United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW - now part of UN Women) and the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). “Gender, Migration and Remittances in Selected SADC Countries: Preliminary Findings”.The study focuses on cross-border migration to and from Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland, although it refers to other countries when there are notable trends, particularly related to the relatively unexplored subject of gender
4. Abigail Bakan and Daiva Stasiulis. Not One of the Family: Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
5. UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

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