Migrant women and community leaders as key agents of change

Despite a global lack of agreement, a significant number of researchers and scholars have adopted the term “feminisation of migration” to explain the current trend that shows growing numbers of women leaving their countries to find work overseas.

Women represent 48% of the 272 million migrant workers globally, according to the International Organization of Migration (IOM) World Migration Report 2020 and several sources indicate that the rate of female migration is growing faster than the male. Either a new trend or a long existing one, migration has an increasing female face, a statement that is not only based on figures, but also on the characteristics of the current migration scenario. These characteristics make women, specially undocumented ones, more vulnerable to abuse in general and, in particular, more prone to become victims of modern slavery in the domestic and sex industry, and of forced marriage, finds IOM in its 2019 Migrants and Their Vulnerability report.

Cambodia is not an exception to this reality. According to Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW), a Cambodian leading organization in the field of migrant protection and legal assistance, “labour migration between Cambodia and Thailand is dramatically increasing from year to year. Female migrant workers form around 50% of this mobile population”. The journey between the two countries poses particular threats to women, and so does the whole migration experience. The vulnerabilities of Cambodian female workers are being well documented by MIG-RIGHT and RIGHT-TO-WORK projects, two EU co-funded initiatives that aim at promoting safe migration and protecting migrants’ human and labour rights. Project partners have identified women as more prone to abuse and inequalities than men in their overseas working experience, starting from the decision making process and the working and living conditions to the reintegration to the communities. “One of the main factors which contribute to this vulnerability is the gender discrimination practice that we see both in Cambodia and Thailand”, states LSCW.

Not a victim, but a key agent of change

The story of Teum Mom is a real example of abusive practices suffered by women within the migration situation between Cambodia and Thailand. This 41-year-old mother of two trusted some acquaintances who offered her a job in a Thai factory.  However, once there, she found out that the deal she was promised had turned into a completely different one: the job at the factory did not exist, “they wanted me to work as a cleaner for a family”, she recalls.

Teum Mom has decided not to keep her experience just for herself but rather share it within her community, as a way “to help others avoiding abuse and exploitation”, she says. It is also the case of Sarom Ouey (35), who, as a child, migrated several times to Thailand to support her family. She still recalls going alone through very tough working and living conditions. Her message is therefore very powerful and clear: “I am going to stay in Cambodia and give my two children the opportunity to study that I never had”.

Sarom Ouey (first left) during a capacity building for community mobilizers in Siem Reap province

Sarom Ouey (first left) participating in a capacity building for community mobilizers and Social Ambassadors in Siem Reap province

Strong voices from stronger women is what Teum and Sarom have in common. From “survivors to heroes”, former migrants are been given the opportunity to be trained to become messengers, as a mechanism of empowerment and awareness creation among potential or current overseas workers. Teum Mom is no longer just a victim. She is an active member of the Self-Help Groups established by the MIG-RIGHT project in the Battambang province, north-west Cambodia, and Sarom Ouey a “Social Ambassador” in Siem Reap province. Both are key agents of change within their communities. The latter is an example of an empowered woman who, despite her illiteracy, increased her knowledge and abilities to address her vulnerabilities and guide other women on how to strive the same goal. She is now sharing her testimony and contributing towards equality and female empowerment in decision-making processes. Her role is crucial, as Social Ambassadors also have the key responsibility of collecting cases and information among villagers to inform recommendations and action points for policy makers.

“I crossed the border and found myself in Thailand. Immediately after that, they put me on the back of a truck, so packed that I could barely breathe or move. I am small and so were many women within the truck. We were clearly struggling to survive, being less strong that men. I now realize I could have died”, explains a 28-year-old female migrant who has decided not to disclose her identity. Her name is not known, but her story is. She is a community mobilizer in the framework of RIGHT-TO-WORK project in the Puok district of Siem Reap Province. She is another key component of this initiative and another example of empowered women who are being helped to stand for themselves and change her life and that of her community. Most being women, community mobilizers are committed self-help group participants with a clear leadership role within the community. They are in charge of leading the discussions during the awareness and information sessions called “Labour Rights Corners”, where issues around labour rights are discussed and clarified. Additionally, community mobilizers perform the sensitive task of identifying victims of abuses and those migrants in need of assistance and refer them to institutions or NGOs in the district.

Community mobilizers of Siem Reap province during a capacity building activity

Touched by drama

MIG-RIGHT and RIGHT-TO-WORK projects also involve women who have not experienced migration drama in their own flesh but that witness cases every day and are therefore sensitized in a way that their communications and awareness creation skills are extremely valuable to increase knowledge and empowerment. “I was very touched by the story of a Cambodian woman of my commune that was exploited in China. I always use this story as a real example to create awareness, especially to avoid cases of abuse to women and children”, tells Vun Ponna, 62, MIG-RIGHT project focal point in the Somlot district of Battambang. She acts as the Self-Help Group referent at commune and community level, gathering relevant information and sharing it during the meetings. Her engagement in her area is not new, as she is the Commune Counselor for Women and Children (CCWC). As an example of the positive impact of the project, she highlights how information sharing and awareness creation have played a vital role in reducing undocumented journeys. “People now know well what they need to prepare before travelling, so they come to us well documented or just to clarify very specific issues”, she states. The meeting participants “are not any more afraid or shy to ask about the procedure for a safe a migration experience”.

MIG-RIGHT focal point Vun Punna (first right) addressing self-help group participants in Battambang province

Being a hero is not enough

Despite the efforts and commitment of these and many other women and men around the world fighting for improved conditions for those who search for a better future, migrant women continue becoming victims of slavery, trafficking, discrimination and abuse. The Second International Exchange Visit between Thailand and Cambodia, organized in the framework of MIG-RIGHT and RIGHT-TO-WORK projects in April 2019, brought to Siem Reap relevant stakeholders involved in the promotion of safe channels of migration, from governmental authorities from both countries to civil society organizations, UN agencies, private sectors and migrant representatives. The event highlighted several problems faced by Cambodian women during their working experience in Thailand: lower wages, discrimination due to pregnancy (and health problems linked to it), sexual harassment, discrimination based on the kind of work they can access to, etc. They also bear the burden of the children they bring with them. In many instances, women left behind, including grandmothers, have to raise children without enough resources. Once at home, migrant women frequently face stigmatization and difficulties in the reintegration.

At present, still more needs to be done in order to ensure that safe migration patterns are adopted and labour and human rights of workers are observed and respected.

In these days during which we celebrate women, we would like to reiterate to government institutions, policy makers, organizations and relevant stakeholders the importance of paying more attention to migrant women’s needs, improving their protection and ensuring that bilateral agreements and national laws and policy frameworks better address gender issues.

Cross-border cooperation between Thailand and Cambodia should be strengthened to support women’s issues and to increase a general culture of women’s rights at all levels, from the family to the community level and up to institutions.

The next International Conference between Cambodia and Thailand will be organized in Bangkok in the following months in the framework of MIG-RIGHT project. The event will offer further room for dialogue and exchange on these topics among key actors, in order to encourage the implementation of a more effective protection framework for female migrant workers.

EU co-funded MIG-RIGHT and RIGHT-TO-WORK projects are managed by WeWorld-GVC in partnership with Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW) and the Labour Protection Network (LPN)

Text and photos by Maria Jose Leon Puig, supported by the EUAV program