Women empowerment or say giving an authority to women is need of the hour, yet women – especially working women – continue to be deprived and marginalised.  They are often forced to participate in the labour markets on an unequal basis with men, suffering low pay, unhealthy working conditions and are deprived of the right to participation.

Asia Monitor Resource Centre’s Labour and Gender Programme, initiated in 2013, was intended to examine and address some of these issues. In this connection, a regional meeting with partners from 9 countries was organised in Siem Reap, Cambodia, during 23rd October-25th October 2018.  This three day meeting was held to discuss, reflect and share the current state of women workers in the region along with struggles and experiences.

Group photo of participants

Group photo of participants

Representatives of organizations from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, participated in this workshop and discussed on different issues such as political participation of informal women workers in South Asia, violence against women in Southeast Asia, social protection and women workers in the informal sector, women’s leadership and other issues crucial to women.

The three day meet started with a key note from Irene Xavier from Committee for Asian Women. She mainly focused on gender-based violence stating that we don’t talk about gender-based violence and measures to tackle gender-based violence – it is either not been considered as an important part of women workers life or it is a struggle to get a registration done for gender-based violence. Giving example of Cambodian women workers, she stated that she has worked with them but has not been very successful as they face lot of restrictions. She further explained by giving an example about a woman who approached her through Facebook. She worked as a domestic help but along with household chores she was also doing other works such as gardening, taking care of children, etc. One day her employer raped her and when he was asked by the agent he simply denied the allegations and continued to harass her in other ways. She wanted to leave the job but was helpless as she was under the debt.  She added that this is a very common story of women engaged as workers. 

As stated above gender-based violence is not being talked about we need to look at why gender-based violence is still considered as a private matter. We have institutions where women work but are not being taken into consideration. We need to think how we can address gender-based violence more effectively.

Talking about political participation of informal workers, Sujata Mody, Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam, India, shared her experience that how initially she struggled to meet women, they were always introduced by male members of the family. Later she decided to meet women on her own and know their problems. She was successful to form women workers union which deals with community level issues and issue of work, including local leadership which with people connect. The highlight of the talk was that we need to create a separate stage for ourselves.

On the other hand, Ou Tepphallin, Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, which works with restaurant workers, coffee shop workers and massage workers presented the condition and scenarios of the workers. The organization tries to mobilize workers at work itself. It has been successful in forming the union which plays an important role and together they have addressed 26 issues.

Arifa from Bangladesh highlighted the wage gap issue in informal sector, the ratio is 20:80. There are no fixed working hours or job security and the workers even deal with mental harassment. The labour laws have not been implemented properly.  However, they have formed cooperative with the workers of informal sector.

Coming to women leadership, Chitra from Sri Lanka shared that the trade unions mainly comprise male members. Politics is one major factor in every trade union along with a strong patriarchal society. The religious and social norms prevailing in the society is another reason which creates hindrance for women to occupy a higher space in the hierarchy.

Sharif from Indonesia talked about the concept of critical education. By critical education he meant that to educate women about daily living such as cooking, stitching and other basic day-to-day activity.

Being one of the participants, Environics trust presented its work mainly focused on social protection schemes and women empowerment mainly aimed at addressing the livelihood of women. I talked about how we started the sanitary napkin-making unit, process of creating awareness about health and hygiene in the different areas where we work, and what are our plans to move ahead.

We had few group activities which helped us in discussing the issues in depth and eventually to form an action plan. One of such activities was where we raised various questions such as how to empower or disempower male domination in trade union/s? What points should be considered while building an educational base in trade union on women’s issues? And what is the important element to encourage democratization of union? We were divided in three groups, based on these questions and were asked to hold discussions group-wise, however it turned out to be a collective effort. Some of the answers which came forward through this exercise were – giving equal role or space to women, hearing their opinions, creating awareness among them, etc. While discussing about what should be considered when we build education in trade unions, it emerged from discussion that different and innovative ways to impart education among and within the trade unions, like using audio-video clippings, flip charts, movie screening, etc. needs to be adopted.

To conclude, the three day meeting was indeed a good learning experience where we not only discussed, shared and articulated – about the women-centered issues, how we can do our best to work collectively towards making this world a better place for women, and also to examine if additions or changes are needed in our present plan. Such meetings are a helpful for a fresher like me to look back and understand the subject in detail, learn from the veterans and bring change in my own way.

Author Shefali Sharan