The economic contribution of female migrant workers is indispensable to their families, so to the country at large. But they are not well-accepted by their societies upon return home. Many of such returnees portray their experiences of return as potentially worse than that gathered in job-destination countries, mainly because of social stigma they face for going abroad.
Rights groups and migration experts term this attitude towards women migrants a reflection of discrimination caused by patriarchal societal structure in Bangladesh.
Shilpi (not real name) says the evening she reached home, her in-laws suggested her husband to check her body and see if there was any mark that could prove whether she was still a good woman or not. "That was the most embarrassing moment for me," adds Shilpi (38).
Another returnee, Jamila by pseudonym again, said her husband went to receive her at the airport. She was so happy seeing him after four years. But, to her dismay, he was sitting very far when they were on the auto-rickshaw.
"When I was talking to him, he was responding curtly by 'yes' or 'no'. At night he was late to bed. I had never imagined that he wouldn't be happy about my return," rues the woman, who did so much in support of her family and a bit for the country, too.
"To my shock, he then said he had begun an affair with another woman and he just wanted to live with her," she says.
Bilkis Aktar, 28, has a little different tale to tell on migration of female workers. A good number of marriage proposals were rejected when bridegroom side learnt she had gone abroad for work. "The man whom I married was okay with my migration history. But, to get his family's approval for the marriage, he had to hide it from them," says Bilkis.
Every year, about 100,000 women of Bangladesh find job abroad, mainly in the Middle-Eastern countries as domestic helps. Over 1.0 million Bangladeshi women have gone to different job-destination countries since 1991, according to data available with the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET).
Majority of the women aspirants go abroad to gain economic solvency. Economic factors mostly relate to financial hardship driven by the inability of male members to meet all the family expenses. Underemployment and unemployment are also a major push. For the betterment of their family and children, women decide to leave the country for overseas employment.
Besides, a good number of women migrate due to social factors. This refers to domestic violence, divorce or abandonment by the husband, and social stigma.
'Gender Dimension of Remittances, a study of Bangladeshi Women Migrant Workers in Lebanon, conducted by Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), shows women migrants remit home about 83 per cent of their monthly wages.
On the other hand, BMET data show male migrant workers send nearly 52 per cent of their income to family.
These statistics point out that although Bangladeshi women earn less than the men, they contribute maximum of their hard-earned money to the family and the national economy. Despite the contribution they make, they face bitter realities. The family relationships of married women change when they return. Women's independent migration overseas is viewed as immoral and 'sexually impure'.
Women migrants who are separated from their partners upon return face aggressive dishonours and harassments for their failing marriage and decision to migrate. Many others live with their parents or brothers and are socially isolated. The resulting situation is so extreme for most women that they plan to migrate again.
When Jakia Aktar, 38, came back from Saudi Arabia, the neighbours, the shopkeepers or even any passers-by kept asking her how much money she had made. Some people even insinuated that it was very easy to make money abroad in 'various other' ways. "People were unnecessarily concerned about my savings," Jakia says.
"When I returned from Lebanon for the first time, I brought gifts for everyone. They were all so happy and went to the airport to receive me," says Sakhina Begum, at her 40. "But the scenario was the opposite when I lost job last year. As I was empty-handed, my family members did not even talk to me nicely when I reached home."
Families generally pay attention to women migrant workers until they send money from abroad, Shakirul Islam, chairman of OKUP, a grassroots migrants' organisation, draws the conclusion from the ground realities.
In social perspective, they also do not receive due honour. Moreover, if they earn handsome money, and bring solvency to their families, neighbours raise their eyebrows at the source of their income, he says. The women who return home being abused or unsuccessful are just abandoned by their society, adds Shakirul.
The rights campaigner suggests community-based intervention to change such discriminatory culture.
Bangladesh Nari Sramik Kendra (BNSK) executive director Sumaiya Islam says because of the views of patriarchal society, women usually face discrimination in every stage. Women migrant workers are more vulnerable to gender discrimination and mistreatment at home and abroad. The government should take steps to recognize their contribution formally, and ensure due dignity and security, the BNSK ED says.
The migration experts also underline the need for policy recognition for the women migrant workers. They also recommend partnership with development organisations to extend counselling, and awareness campaign against discriminatory culture towards to them.
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