International labour migration in South East Asia has consistently increased over the past decades, with women making up almost half of the region’s 10 million migrants. However, women migrant workers often face a higher risk of violence, trafficking, and discrimination than men migrant workers. As part of the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, the Safe and Fair programme (implemented by UN Women and ILO in collaboration with UNODC) has partnered with Global Rights for Women (GRW) to provide gender-sensitive legal and policy advice and inputs to laws in the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam. Lori Flohaug, Director of Law and Policy at GRW, explains why the process of creating gender responsive and migration-inclusive laws is so important to ending violence against women, especially women migrant workers.

Interview: Taking a survivor-centred approach to protecting women migrant workers in South East Asia

Lori Flohaug, Director of Law and Policy at Global Rights for Women. Photo courtesy of Lori Flohaug.

What does it mean to make laws gender responsive and survivor-centred in the context of ending violence against women?

In simple terms, it means to ask survivors of violence about how a specific law would impact their daily lives and then draft laws with the input received. When drafting laws, it is important to engage with women, and the people that support them, such as those who work in shelters, and not just assume what the impact will be on survivors.

It is extremely important to speak to survivors and ask them frankly what would make their lives easier. We ask survivors what laws would make them feel safer, and hold the offender accountable, knowing that, especially in the case of domestic violence, the relationship between offender and victim may continue.

How are domestic violence laws relevant in the context of migration? Why is it important for domestic violence laws to protect migrant women as well as national women?

Of all the types of violence against women, addressing domestic violence is extremely complex, due to the relationship between the offender and the survivor. The parties may have children together, share a home, or a business, and that does not necessarily end just because an offender is being prosecuted.

Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable because they may be separated from friends and family. They may not speak the language of the country where they live and they may not understand the laws of the community that they are working in. If domestic violence laws do not protect migrant women, they may face increased violence and difficulty obtaining services or help. 

Why is it important to specify the needs of specific groups like women migrant workers in legal frameworks? Is it not enough to say, ‘all women’?

Women migrant workers are marginalized and often unprotected. The national laws in the countries where they are living may not apply to them, or protect them, due to their citizenship status. Because of this vulnerability, women migrant workers are particularly at risk of sexual and domestic violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect without consequence to their abusers.

Beyond citizenship status, are there are other barriers and challenges women migrant workers face when they are seeking help after experiencing violence?

Often, in a domestic violence situation, women may receive inaccurate information from their abuser, or his friends and family members, as a tactic to control her and keep her from reaching out for help. If there is also a language barrier, obtaining assistance or services to report the violence and seek help is even more difficult. Coercive controlling tactics leave many women unable to leave their abusers. 

How will changing the laws in Thailand, Viet Nam and the Philippines impact the daily lives of women in these countries?

The comments and inputs provided by GRW and UN Women aim to broaden the definitions of relationships between offender and survivor recognized within these laws. Definitions would expand to include the types of cohabiting situations that many migrant workers find themselves in. The current domestic violence laws limit definitions to spouses, divorcees, and unmarried couples who live together. This results in a lack of protection for migrant women survivors who are living with, and dependent upon, their employers or coworkers who can also be their abuser.

Additionally, by including all forms of non-consensual sex, the laws will be able to address situations where a trafficked or coerced survivor of sexual exploitation is currently not protected under the present law that defines ‘forced sex’ as prohibited conduct.