The Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) is a non-profit women’s NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that has been working since 1993 to advance women’s health, affirmative sexuality and rights, and empower women through information and knowledge, monitoring of international commitments, engagement, advocacy and mobilisation. We work with national partners across the Asia-Pacific region and with regional partners from the Global South as well as allies from the Global North.
We welcome the focus on the theme “New Trends in Migration: Demographic Aspects” in the 46th session of the Commission on Development and Population.
Migration is a key aspect of population dynamics, and has become one of the key facets of this globalised world, spurred on by transport and communications technology and increased interdependence on goods and labour. According to the UN Population Division, in 2010, Asia and the Pacific accounted for 32% of the world’s migrant stock; of these about half are women. Migration in the Asia-Pacific region has primarily been for employment, although migration due to other factors, such as for education, marriage, conflict, natural or climate change-induced disasters, famine or development projects.
Migration can be a positive force. Migrant remittances can improve the lives of migrant workers’ families and communities, and are a major source of income for many sending countries. Destination countries also benefit economically and socially from migrant labour, as migrant workers provide skills critical for their societies and economies to run. Destination countries also collect a considerable income from levies on and higher taxes paid by migrant workers.
However, migration raises challenges related to human rights, particularly to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Migrant workers, particularly those who are undocumented, or working mainly in sectors that are lower skilled, unregulated and in the private domain (majority of whom are women), are among the most vulnerable social groups that are missed out by policies and interventions.
Sexual and reproductive health concerns and violations of sexual and reproductive rights include the following:
Migration and labour policies in both origin and destination countries prevent migrant
workers from enjoying and realising their full sexual and reproductive rights.
Policies often prevent less-skilled workers to come without their spouses and children, and prohibit them from having relationships, getting married to citizens, keeping the pregnancy or delivering a child. Professionals and higher-skilled migrant workers are often exempted from these policies.
Even where sexual and reproductive health and rights are not an issue for heterosexual individuals and couples, in majority of destination countries, the rights of gays, lesbians, transgender and other people of sexual diversity remain unrecognised. Bringing of their families are not allowed, same-sex or transgender behaviour may be prohibited or be a cause for termination.
Female migrant workers undergo mandatory pregnancy testing throughout the migration process. Pregnancy is an exclusionary condition in many destination countries, including in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia. Pregnant women are found unfit for work and are either rejected from the beginning, or face automatic termination of employment and deportation. Because pregnancy is a condition for rejection and deportation, many female migrant workers are forced to seek abortion, often times in unsafe conditions. Unsafe abortion is one of the leading causes of maternal deaths and disabilities. The lack of rights of women prevents them from accessing maternal health services, and also leads to “stateless children” of women migrant workers.
International conventions and guidelines, policies against mandatory testing, and ethical standards of practice are disregarded in migration situations. CARAM Asia research in 16 Asian countries reveal that HIV mandatory testing practices for migrants at all stages of the migration cycle are discriminatory, dehumanising and results in the violation of basic rights.
HIV positive migrant workers are subject to rejection or deportation. This raises issues of HIV and STI transmission risk to partners and others. Migrants are also often not provided with counselling, access to referral and treatment in either the host country or the country of origin.
Higher user fees for non-citizens or permanent residents make access to health care even more difficult for less-skilled migrants, and virtually impossible for undocumented migrants for fear of deportation. For domestic workers, accessing health care depends solely on employers, not only because of prohibitive costs, but because migrant women’s mobility are limited.
Few countries offer health insurance for migrant workers. When available, it is often minimal—inadequate to address serious illness or injury and excludes contraception, pregnancy-related services, screening for cancer such pap smear, treatment of STIs, or other sexual and reproductive health concerns.
Women migrant workers are not allowed menstruation leave, even in countries that offer them.
Most migrant women have little or no access to sexual and reproductive health information, and to sexuality education. Very few of the pre-departure orientations address human rights, SRHR or sexuality issues. This lack of access combine with and interact with social factors, such as peer group influence, and structural factors, such as lack of protective policies and lack of access to services, to make migrant women vulnerable to sexual and reproductive health problems.
Access to contraception is an issue, increasing vulnerability to unwanted pregnancies,
as well as STIs and HIV infections.
Lack of access to services notwithstanding, migrant workers experience a variety of
sexual and reproductive health concerns. For example, a 2002 survey by ACHIEVE of domestic workers in Hong Kong reported various sexual and reproductive health concerns, including genito-urinary infections (44%), pelvic inflammation disorder (17%), unintended pregnancy (13%) and abortion (10%). These revealed limited access to health information and services, as well as stigma attached to seeking them.
Migrant women, especially those in domestic work or sex work which are often excluded in national labour legislations, commonly experience gender-based or sexual violence at the hands of authorities, agents and employers, at all stages of the migration cycle. The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, in its General Comment No. 1 on Migrant Domestic Workers, noted that women and girls are particularly at risk of being subjected to physical and sexual abuse by agents and intermediaries. They also experience psychological, physical and sexual abuse and harassment from their employers, as well as from recruitments or intermediaries. Many migrant workers also become victims of sexual trafficking.
In view of the above challenges, we call on governments and the international community to fully ensure that migrants, particularly women migrants and undocumented migrants, can freely exercise their human rights, including their sexual and reproductive health and rights. All these should be in line with existing international commitments and conventions, such as the ICPD Programme of Action, MDGs, CEDAW, CRC, ILO Conventions, as well as human rights instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
More specifically, we call on governments and the international community to:
For more information, please email:
Maria Melinda Ando
Programme Manager for Information and Communications Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW)
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Email: [email protected] Website: www.arrow.org.my