How thousands of migrant women lose their money and children every year

There are about 370,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Lidia's son turned nine this month in Sri Lanka, but she did not have the chance to sing him a birthday song. From Hong Kong, where she works as a domestic worker, Lidia cries over the distance that grew between them.

"My husband does not allow me to talk to my baby boy. He just wants my money," she says.

Lidia - not her real name - has been the breadwinner of the family for about 20 years. Every month, she sends money that has been used to build a house, set up a grocery shop and buy a taxi. She has not been allowed to see her son since 2015.

She is now in fear of losing everything she built there - and her son - as she is getting a divorce.

Lidia's struggle is not an isolated case. Thousands of women in Asia leave their homes and their children behind every year to work overseas and provide for their families. Many face abuse and betrayal, are left with little money and even stripped from their children.

In the era of #MeToo - a movement focused on women's rights - migrants and experts say the issues that these blue-collar workers face have failed to garner international attention. They say it is about time for source countries of migrant workers to revise laws and cultural rules that punish women, while setting up nationwide services that support female migrant workers.

I built the house, the grocery shop and now he is taking everything from me, including my son.

Lidia, who is in her mid-30s, never had a loving family. Her parents died when she was young and she was brought up by grandparents who abused her. When she met a man who promised to help her get a job, she did not look back.

That man took her to his town and announced to his family that they were getting married. They didn't date. Three months into their marriage, he started beating her. She was 15.

Lidia felt there was no one she could seek help from - neither her family nor the authorities.

She went abroad to work as a domestic worker in Lebanon in 1999, the year she got married. "He did not want to work. He just stayed home ... We needed money," she says.

Lidia worked in Lebanon for about 10 years. She returned to Sri Lanka in 2008 and soon after she had her son.

"My husband was always drunk and often went with other women. When I was three months' pregnant, he beat me up so badly I had to go to the hospital," she says. "I tried to be patient because I did not want to destroy the family. And I thought that with a child, my husband would become better."

She eventually came to work in Hong Kong to give her son a brighter future.

But the problems have worsened in recent years. The last time she spoke to her son on the phone, he feared for her safety. "My child told me: you better not come back because Dad will kill you."

Lidia is currently considering legal measures to fight for her son, as she undergoes divorce proceedings. Among her worries is that later this year, she may be required to get a signature from her husband to renew her insurance in Sri Lanka - a requirement imposed on women who work abroad.

"This is all too painful ... The rules in my country need to be changed, because husbands keep killing wives and they don't take proper care of the children," she says.

"I built the house, the grocery shop and now he is taking everything from me, including my son. I miss my child so much ... And maybe he thinks that I am no longer helping."

Mary, 42, from Indonesia, shares Lidia's pain. She has not been able to see her daughter for over a year.

Mary - also not her real name - left to work as a domestic worker in Hong Kong when her little girl was just a baby. Her daughter is now 15 and they have little contact.

"I started having serious problems with my husband in 2010," she says. "Of course you don't want to divorce. But I was working so hard and sending all the money. And he was so bad at managing it ... so lazy."

Mary was able to get divorced after a year-long court fight. "It took a really long time. And you can only do it if you have money."

After their problems flared up, her husband took their daughter to his village without her knowledge. He turned their child against her, she says. "The last time we spoke ... she blamed me. She thinks I was the one who caused the problems. As a mother, of course I want to talk to my daughter. But I don't know what will happen."

Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance, says the welfare of women migrant workers and their children "is one of the biggest issues in Asia and the governments are not addressing it".

"Policies on women and children's well-being have been left behind," Lestari says. "The governments do not have proper mechanisms, only isolated programmes to which most people don't have access to. The issues end up being handled in a familiar context and many children are left unattended."

Due to either laws or traditional norms, women in Asia often face discrimination and divorce is still a taboo in many societies.

The #MeToo movement is very western-centric. In Asia and Africa, the issues women face are different. Our fight is about poverty and survival, about supporting our children.

The Philippines, for instance, is the only place in the world, other than the Vatican City, where divorce is not allowed. The House of Representatives approved a bill that would legalise absolute divorce in March last year, but the Senate version of the law remains pending. The Catholic Church has been one of the bill's loudest opponents.

In countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka, getting a divorce is often a slow and demeaning process for women. "In Indonesia, a man can simply say, 'I don't want you', but it's very hard for a woman to get a divorce. And you need quite a lot of money, something like HK$8,000 (S$1,376) to HK$10,000 to get a lawyer," Lestari says. "There should be a free legal mechanism to support these women."

The issues are likely to grow in urgency, as demand for female migrant workers in Asia and the Pacific continues to track upwards.

The UN Women group says an increasing demand for workers in highly feminised sectors - such as health care, domestic work, entertainment and manufacturing - in many destination countries, particularly Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, are leading a record number of women to work overseas.

A recent study by the International Labour Organisation found that some 21 million people across Asia and the Pacific are employed as domestic workers - and 80 per cent of them, or 16.8 million, are women.

Hong Kong alone has more than 370,000 domestic workers - most of them women from the Philippines and Indonesia. The local government predicts the city will need an estimated 240,000 more domestic helpers over the next 30 years.

Tri Tharyat, Indonesia's consul general in Hong Kong, acknowledges that the services provided to women migrants by his government aren't "optimal", but that efforts have been made.

The Indonesian government has set up vocational centres in villages with a high number of migrants and launched initiatives to support returning migrants, namely through subsidies for small businesses, he says.

The consulate has noticed a rise in the number of registered divorces in recent years, says Tri - although he declined to share specific figures due to privacy reasons.

David Bishop, a principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, says that it is about time for new policies and laws to be introduced in source countries of migrant workers.

"They should ensure that the people who are, in many ways, elevating their economies are also able to share equally the benefits that come from it," Bishop says.

"That includes things like parental rights, especially if there is a divorce. It should also be taken into consideration whether females are required to have the consent of other male in order to go abroad," he says.

"It should be ensured that banking regulations allow for gender parity, so women are not restricted from having access to bank accounts without their husbands' signatures."

Migration and remittance policies are part of the overall development strategy of many countries in Asia.

"Women particularly across Asia are increasingly the high wager for their families," Professor Bishop says. "So I think it's time for the laws to catch up with that and the local culture start defending that."

Eni Lestari of the International Migrants Alliance hopes that the growing global conversations around women's rights and gender equality, sparked by movements such as #MeToo, will expand to include the plight of migrant women workers - who remain strongly under-represented.

"The #MeToo movement is very western-centric. In Asia and Africa, the issues that women face are different," Lestari says.

"They have to do with poverty, religion, social restraints, corrupt governments that don't invest money on women and children's issues ... Our fight is a lot about poverty and survival, about supporting our children," she says.

"I support the emergence of these movements - but it's hard for us to embrace a campaign like that as it is. I hope that these international movements start to pay more attention to issues like ours."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post