by Ms. Monika Biswas,
former SCM Bangladesh Women Coordinators
and 2nd Vice Chairperson, Bangladesh SCM
Migration is a common scenario in third world countries, including Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, women works in the garment, domestic and industrial sectors.
Nari poacher, also known as trafficking of women, has attracted tremendous amount of attention from the Bangladeshi media and civil society groups during recent years. Sources state that as many as fifty women and children are reportedly taken out of Bangladesh every day, and sold into forced prostitution, organ trade or slave labor. All this media attention has prompted the Bangladeshi authorities to enact restrictions, often an outright ban, on the international migration of women. For example, since 1976 the government of Bangladesh has barred certain categories of unskilled or semi-unskilled female workers from working overseas. This ban was relaxed in 1988 to be re-imposed in 1997.
Female migration has consequently been pushed underground and has become an illegal practice. This policy restricting female migration is remarkable given the fact that Bangladesh is a labor-exporting nation. It is one of the densely populated countries in the world and the remittances that migrant workers send home is a large source of income for the country. Therefore, the government of Bangladesh has always been a great supporter of labor migration. Taking into account the economic disadvantages of such a ban, this restriction was taken in an attempt to protect Bangladeshi women from exploitation and trafficking. But the question can be raised whether this policy achieves the intended result and made Bangladeshi women less vulnerable for trafficking?
There is in fact little known about female migration in Bangladesh. Recently, however, an extensive study has been conducted where it became apparent that far more female migratory movement takes place than official numbers suggest. This study also made clear that female migration is larger and more varied than suggested by the trafficking scenario on which the media and NGOs have focused so much of their attention. Often the preconceived notion exists that migratory movement takes place predominantly under coercion, or when women loses control and other people take advantage of them, whereas this is not always the case. While risks of exploitation are considerable, the earnings women make abroad are impressive as well. Many female migrant workers have returned to Bangladesh with substantial savings, an enhanced sense of well being and greater confidence in their ability to take decisions and cope autonomously.
It is important in this context to understand the concept of ‘trafficking’, and how women become targets for traffickers. It is also essential to make a distinction between ‘trafficking’ and irregular female migration. The difference between irregular migration and trafficking is repeatedly a matter of perception and the generalizations in identifying the two concepts can be misleading. Often if the migratory process goes well, people consider it to be migration and if it does not go well that it is trafficking. In addition, it is generally assumed that if a girl wanted to migrate herself, she cannot be trafficked, whereas this is not necessarily true.
A working group of various civil society organizations within Bangladesh have defined the concept of human trafficking as “a wide range of crimes and human rights abuses associated with the recruitment, movement and sale of people into exploitative or slave-like situations.” This means that trafficked women do not necessarily need to be involved in the sex/entertainment industry, as often assumed. One can say that the fundamental problem of trafficking is the loss of control, “where women lose their freedom to control what they want to do because they fall under the influence of dept bondage, coercion, force or threats”,.
Most often people are of the perception that trafficked girls are kidnapped, taken away from their homes completely against their will. Although this sometimes happens, in most of the cases a girl will decide to go along with the trafficker herself or under pressure from her family. Traffickers will look for girls from poor and vulnerable families in villages and tempt them and their parents with offers of lucrative jobs, a good marriage or a comfortable life in neighboring countries. Only when they have taken her over the border and reach her final destination will she find out what kind of circumstances she is forced to work in.
Cultural belief and practices in society is a big factor in the vulnerability of women to become a trafficking victim. In Bangladesh, the migration of women, especially unaccompanied by guardians, is often regarded as suspect, for the reason that a woman moving independently is socially not accepted. “This can lead to a exploitative situation for women in which the slightest sexual deviation or social dislocation makes them ‘polluted’ and the object of social degradation.” In many cases, women migrating independently will lead to loss of honor for her family. This places women in Bangladesh in a very difficult position. On the one hand, they cannot work outside the house, because this is not their role and because their sexuality needs to be protected. As a consequence she cannot earn money. But at the same time she costs her family a lot of money due to the dowry system. Therefore, if a woman does not get married soon, her reputation has been damaged and she will do more harm to her family than good.
Due to this situation immense pressure will be put on the girl to find a good husband and be able to pay her dowry. In poor families girls will sometimes not see any other solution other than to look for their fortune abroad. And then once these girls have migrated, they often become outcasts at home. Because their move brought shame to their families it will become difficult to go back to their village. Furthermore, the girl feels tremendous pressure to work hard to compensate for her loss of honor. Regardless of her bad living conditions, the social pressure will make it very difficult for her to abandon work.
Despite the fact that trafficking needs to be fought, a ban on female labor migration will not help these girls. As long as their social position is not improved, it is not realistic to assume that women would stop looking for better labor opportunities abroad. Given the demand of effective labor along with women’s willingness to sell their labor, a government policy that bans female migration will force women to push the whole process of female migration underground.
“Fifty women and children are reportedly taken out of Bangladesh every day, and sold into forced prostitution, organ trade or slave labor.”
As a result of these circumstances, created by the government, going abroad for opportunities, even for proper or legal jobs, can only be done through informal or illegal channels. The illegal nature of migration makes these girls easier prey in the hands of traffickers. Thus, instead of banning female migration, both civil society and the government should realize that migrated women are not necessarily victims and that trafficking and irregular migration are not the same.
If the government would acknowledge that female migration is not necessarily harmful, it could help women to look for a better future and to make them less easy prey for traffickers. Instead of restricting women to work abroad, it could support them and help them to find safe and legal job opportunities. Concrete steps like skill building education and creation of networks could be taken. Additionally a change is needed from within Bangladeshi society, whereby it becomes socially acceptable for women to work abroad and social illegal practices like dowry are abandoned, in order to prevent women getting into desperate situations where they become easy prey for traffickers. An important reason for women to migrate is often empowerment. Migration can give women a chance to have more control over their own life, and not be completely dependent on the maintenance of her family or husband. Unfortunately, such changes do not occur from one day to another.
In the meantime the government needs to pursue an active policy that will lead to empowerment of women instead of doing the opposite. At present, a vicious circle has been created wherein civil society has victimized female migrants by emphasizing trafficking in such a manner that the government decided to restrict female migration. Instead of improving their social situation, this policy makes these women more vulnerable and as a result they have become easier targets for traffickers.
If we want to break up this we should be aware of social censuses. Governments might take some initiative to change this situation, like education sector, poverty reduction and implementation of labor law. We should respect social law and human right so we can overcome this.