Must Women Migrate to Survive?

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By Petronella Sibeene WINDHOEK Inevitably, for one to survive you need bread, so the sage once said. Indeed, between survival and bread lies the source- which is found in different places. Continued human existence can only be achieved if other basic needs are met. Basic needs include shelter, food, water, and others. Last Wednesday saw the launch of UNFPA State of the World Population Report 2006 focusing on Women and International Migration. The report discusses some ways that human beings today, particularly women, have resorted to, as they strive to meet these basic needs. In the past, men – and not women – were proudly in charge of providing for the family but, given the socio-economic problems in the world of today, things seem to have taken a different form. Women today leave what was once regarded as their rightful place – the kitchen – and go to look for what should be in the kitchen – food. Unfortunately, this comes at a price for some. According to the recently-launched UNFPA report, unlike their male counterparts, women’s quest for a better living and support for their families have exposed them to various vulnerabilities. Women’s plight is various indeed: from being discriminated against in job-seeking ventures to the problems of caring for children and supporting the entire family. Women are reported to be on the move. They just do not only move within their towns and countries, but even go beyond. “Women now constitute almost half of all migrants and dominate in migration streams to developed countries searching for better economic opportunities,” the report states. While women historically migrated for marriage purposes or for family reunifications, the past decades have seen an increase in migration of both married and unmarried women drawn by the opportunities and forced by circumstances. The report shows that “women make the decision to move (to other towns or) abroad because of a host of “push” factors. These include family obligations, unemployment, low wages, poverty, limited social and economic opportunities and the desire to expand their horizons”. The women on the move tend to possess certain demographic and socio-economic characteristics and, in terms of age, it ranges between 15 and 30 years. “It is also widely believed that most migrants come from the poorest populations. Many people are increasingly looking to migration as a way to provide for their families.” They work behind the scenes and their efforts usually go unrecognized. This could be attributed to the characteristics that have been attached to these jobs. The kinds of jobs they usually land are, in most cases, regarded as dirty, difficult, demeaning and dangerous. This is also true of the Namibian set-up where domestic work offers Namibians – mainly young women migrating to urban areas – the path to a better future and an escape from poverty, as well as improved health and education for their children. Due to the nature of their work, which is usually outside the public sphere, these women are dependent on their employers for basic needs and in the process become vulnerable to abuses by their employers without recourse to justice. According to the Governor of the Khomas Region, Sophia Shaningwa, men migrate to ascertain their manhood, while women largely migrate due to socio and economic conditions such as lack of services. “Many of them end up living in more poverty than the ones they left in the rural areas. Given their position, they are likely to be exploited”, she said. Young people – especially those who failed grades 10 and 12 – tend to migrate to the cities to look for employment opportunities. These usually tend to take up new lifestyles and behaviours, which usually put them at the of contracting diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Today, human trafficking is the third lucrative illicit business in the world after arms- and drug-trafficking. Though trafficking in Namibia could be regarded as ‘different’ from the rest of the countries in the region in the sense that it is more internal than beyond the borders, the fact remains that women are exposed to many vulnerabilities as they search for a better life. UNFPA Country Representative Nuzhat Ehsan supported Shaningwa but added that, although Namibians are not migrating to other countries in big numbers, internal migration, mainly to the capital city and the Erongo Region, is a serious challenge the country faces today. In any case, she says, those migrating internally are doing it for the same reasons as those who are migrating internationally and they face the same challenges faced by international migrants. Given the unemployment rate among the youth which stands at 37 percent in the country, many of these young women’s economic activities are in the informal sector. This is also due to the historical background that women have always been discriminated against in the formal job market. As they migrate in search for work to support themselves and their families, they often fill jobs at the lowest end of the labour market. For those who do not manage, they fall prey to the prostitution industry. According to a recent study: “Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation: Adolescents in Namibia”, conducted by Merab Kiremire, although the public perception has been that Namibia is a transit country for prostitutes and trafficking, the country is actually among the 45 African countries where the problem is considerably large. Recently, it has surfaced in the capital that prostitution and trafficking are rampant, visible, unashamed and unembarrassed. About 84 percent of these workers operate in bars, shebeens, streets, highways and riverbeds, while two percent operate in hotels and homes. This shows that these are youths or young women who are not employed in the formal sector. Unfortunately, the study reveals, quite a number of these females in this industry have fallen prey to sexual trafficking. They are taken to different towns and sometimes out of the country where a lot of bad things are likely to happen to them. “This trade is very closely tied to sexual exploitation and abuse, and many victims are forced into sex work against their will and held as virtual sex slaves,” says Ehsan. She emphasized that, although awareness and action against trafficking is growing, there is an urgent need to do more to end this terrible crime. Trafficking victims need safety, support and care while undergoing social and economic reintegration once their ordeal is ended. Not only do victims have to deal with the depression that often ensues, but also the social stigma especially in cases of sexual exploitation. Although most countries seem to have started supporting survivors, the lack of rights afforded to women also serves as the causative factor at the root of both women’s migration and trafficking. The report recommends that to fight trafficking effectively, underlying causes such as poverty and the lack of equal opportunities need to be addressed. While the Namibian government has made efforts to address some of these problems such as unemployment, Shaningwa urged the government to intensify its activities. Most people, especially those in rural Namibia, have a perception that the city is better while in reality it has little to offer. Decentralization remains one way of fighting migration. Ehsan hopes this report’s message, which is to recognize the contributions of women migrants and to protect their human rights, will be heard and acted upon soon. “We hope the Namibian government and other partners will initiate programmes and improve existing ones to provide employment opportunities to reduce internal migration and to protect the rights of those who are migrating from the rural areas to urban areas, especially from HIV infection, gender-based violence and other forms of abuse.”