MIGRATION for work has become an enduring phenomenon in the country to the extent that the government has hailed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) as the “new heroes” for the billions of dollars they remit — considered as the lifeline to the country’s economy in these difficult times.

The administration could look at migration this way; after all, its aggressive labor export policy has succeeded in its target of deploying one million Filipinos every year. But essentially, migration has always been a double-edged sword, having both gains and pains, chiefly on women migrants.

With over eight million Filipinos working abroad, the country suffers a great loss in its productive manpower, a vital sector in the society. About 60 percent of the total OFW population are women, leaving children, for a time, to grow up without their mothers. And while migrant workers contribute significantly to their families’ finances, they in turn make sacrifices and face the risks entailed in working for foreigners. Women migrants make up the majority of those working in low-skilled, low paid jobs, making them vulnerable to various forms of abuses and maltreatment.

Hence, the critical role women play in migration and development needs to be recognized further. Speaking at the International Conference on Gender, Migration and Development last week, chairperson Myrna Yao of the National Commission of the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW) said that applying a gender lens to migration patterns can contribute to enhancing the positive effects and mitigating its negative effects.

According to a study done by the International Labor Organization (ILO), more Filipino women in the country are overworked and underpaid than their male counterparts. The study indicated that about 26 percent of Filipino women workers remain in low paid jobs with roughly 11 percent for men. These women also tend to get jobs that are low in productivity.

The lack of decent jobs in the country has contributed to the growing “feminization” in migration. Yao explained that many women decide to leave the country, seeking for “a better job or just a job.” For some, migration can lead to enhancing their careers. But many experience de-skilling, which results to the proverbial “Catch-22” where tradeoffs, or the risks entailed in working abroad, weaken its positive intentions.

Protectionist policies

The key trends and problems in women migration, according to Dr. Jean D’Cunha, regional programme director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women-East and Southeast Asia Regional Office (UNIFEM ESEARO), are caused largely by policies that often tend to be protectionist and disempowering.

Despite women constituting about half of overseas migrant workers in the world, D’Cunha said that mainstream interventions on migration are not normally gender-responsive.

Some countries, for example, ban women from outmigration as a safeguard against trafficking. This is an unreasonable discrimination against women, said D’Cunha, because the same measure does not restrict male mobility. “If women must move out, they will use illicit channels and so the measure too would not have reduced trafficking.”

Another concern is lack of a “rights-based sustainable development orientation” on policies and interventions. While some policies are framed by national sovereignty, security, morality, and market-oriented values, D’Cunha said that these also tend to discriminate against migrant workers, including women migrant workers.

“Both countries of origin and employment do recognize migration as a necessity. But countries of employment see it as an inconvenient necessity,” she said.

Public discourse on migration is replete with stereotypes, reinforcing nationality, ethnic and racial marginalization. Many migrant workers in various contexts are constructed as drug runners, thieves or threats to national security. Women, meanwhile, tend to be constructed as morally reprehensible, as sexually available, and as vectors of disease.

“The migrant worker is constructed as this dangerous, polluting, menacing threat to the host country’s pristine and pure sociopolitical fiber and thus, this inconvenience is handled by placing the migrants in the margins of existence, governed by an old battery of controls and discriminatory policies,” D’Cunha lamented.

Gender stereotypes of women migrants as domestic helpers and entertainers, she added, will be reinforced as long as countries of origins are unable to address the root causes of migration, and as long as these countries do not upgrade skills and associate better terms with countries of employment.

D’Cunha also explained that bilateral agreements between countries of origin and employment often tend to focus on labor management rather than rights protection. “I do know of countries that signed agreements wherein domestic workers’ travel documents are kept with employers, and that they are banned from marrying locals and from forming associations and unions.

Another problem cited by UNIFEM is that there is much focus on post-trafficking or post violence assistance rather than prevention of rights violation or addressing the root cause of migration.

Reinforcing CEDAW

To address these issues, Dr. D’Cunha noted that various articles in CEDAW or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women must be put to use.

CEDAW, also known as the international bill of rights for women, came into force on September 4, 1981 through the United Nations General Assembly. The Philippines signed CEDAW on July 17, 1980 and ratified it on July 19, 1981.

As one of CEDAW’s 185 State Parties, the Philippine government recognizes that discrimination against women exists and that there is a need for state action. State parties are bound to respect, protect, and fulfill women’s rights.

This convention, said D’Cunha, is extremely unique and potent. The CEDAW has at least 16 substantive articles that address discrimination. “It focuses not just on formal equality, but it also talks about substantive equality between men and women in terms of access to results and benefits.”

“We need to use all the articles, or clusters of articles, in CEDAW or the entire convention to address concerns of women migrants which we need to locate within the larger context of discrimination and the State obligation to respect these rights,” she explained.

D’Cunha also recommended that migration needs to be disaggregated into its various spaces — predeparture, onsite, return and reintegration — in order to identify what rights are violated at what stage in the migration cycle and by whom. “We need to use the various CEDAW articles to address each of these rights violations,” she said.

UNIFEM also pushes for governments to undertake gender research and statistics in order to create more gender responsive policies.

More importantly, D’Cunha emphasized the all stakeholders — state agencies, non-state agencies, civil society groups and family members — are responsible to women migrant workers in upholding their rights.

2 Responses to ‘Gender-blind’ policies infringe on women migrants’ rights



October 7th, 2008 at 10:37 am

hi, ms. ilagan!

i read your article hoping to find examples of gender neutral policies that lead to relatively more abuse of women’s human rights.

I didnt find any. It seems that the problems stated above are problems that all share (stereotyping, de-skilling, etc.). Moreover, no policy was tagged as the culprit.

Also, the ILO statistics on relative underemployment of women is interesting. But which country is the ILO referring to? Or is this a world average? Furthermore, you didnt explain how gender neutral policies lead to this state of affairs.

The only example i can read is the ban on migration as a safeguard for trafficking. You give the impression that the ban responsible for the abuse in the black market. I am sympathetic to this argument, but how do we know that the alternative — no ban — is better? again, many arguments can be brought to bear to make the case, but i don’t see it in this blog entry.

thanks! Maybe a follow up post to clear things up? :)


Karol Ilagan

October 7th, 2008 at 3:11 pm

Thank you for your comment, outinfour.

Dr. D’Cunha also mentioned about reintegration policies that urge migrant workers to apply for loans for business investments. The loan procedures and rules however often ask the applicant to pledge collateral. D’Cunha sees a problem in this because migrant women often have no assets or fewer assets than men to pledge as collateral.

And if I’m not mistaken, there are policies in some countries where women undergo mandatory pregnancy tests every six months. If the test is positive, the women are sent back to their countries of origin.

As for ILO’s study, you may read more about it on their website. Search for Global Employment Trends for Women 2008. Hope this helps.

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