Long road ahead for Asian women workers' struggle for equality

Lucia Victor Jayaseelan
Executive Coordinator, CAW
International Women's Day, 8th March
While much achievement has been made in the past decades, women workers across Asia still struggle for more rights and equality. They need to find more ways to make their voices heard, such as engaging in politics, speakers at a seminar in Bangkok said in the run up to International Women's Day (March 8). "Women found their voices. Power must come from within," Jurgette Honculada of the Committee for Asian Women (CAW) said about the gains made in Asia. But obstacles in gaining rights remain, she emphasized, 'from companies, state and men in our lives'. "Politics is the name of the game. Women should not simply wait for the crumbs falling from the table of the master, but try to take their place at the table of decision making," Honculada said, stressing that if something is not written in a law 'it is here today, gone tomorrow'.

"If we keep ourselves out of politics, we won’t have access to the government. And if we won't have access to the government then the women are withdrawn from politics. It is very much linked," said Binda Pandey, chairperson of the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principle Committee of Constituent Assembly in Nepal. She pointed out that in South Asia there are on average 18.3% women in parliament, varying from 33% women in Nepal to 5.3% in Sri Lanka.

Pandey said that despite great gains made in the past decades, many issues and challenges to fight for remain, such as discrimination, low pay, gaps in pay between men and women, glass ceilings at workplace and union movements, difficulties to implement gender policies and difficulties to bring feminist groups together for a common cause.

Keeping women informed and aware of their rights is crucial, according to Pheareak Ly of the Women Information Center in Cambodia. Especially in countries, such as hers, where the women workers movement is relatively young: "The education level of women in Cambodia is very low," Ly emphasized. "They say that knowledge is a weapon, but how can you fight if you don’t have a weapon. We have to keep women informed and educated to build up strength, and start the movement for any struggle."

"Economies constantly create a labor force that has less and less power to resist," says Lucia Victor Jayaseelan, executive coordinator at CAW in a separate interview with CNS. Around 35 years ago young women 'with nimble fingers, docile, who won't form unions' started to be the labour selling point in Asia. Nowadays migrant workers are the selling point, Jayaseelan says: "Migrant workers are the labor force that is up against the wall. They have taken away all their rights. They have the lowest possible wages. Their governments don’t support them but want the remittance they’re bringing in. We can't look at migrants workers as 'something new'. It is a phenomenon that cuts across Asia and across the world."

Improving the lives of women migrant workers is one of the tasks and challenges women worker movements around Asia will face in the coming decades. The International Organization for Migration (ILO) estimates that among the 250 million migrant workers worldwide, 1.5 million are Asian women workers. They are even more vulnerable than their male counterparts, Jayaseelan stresses. "The issue of sexual harassment and abuse is constantly there. To leave her country or region, she needs to provide money to pay agents, she often needs to provide sex. They are told they can travel and have good wages but then they end up in the sex industry," she cites as an example.

CAW, a regional network of 46 women workers member groups in 14 Asian countries, organized the seminar as part of several activities to celebrate 100 years of International Women’s Day (March 8). A march will be held on International Women's Day in Bangkok, expected to attract at least a thousand participants.

Babs Verblackt - CNS
(The author writes for Citizen News Service (CNS) and is based in Thailand. Email: babs@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)





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