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Safeguarding Malaysia’s women migrant workers

Dr Tim Freeman and Dr Lilian Miles report on their research into the rights of women migrant workers in Malaysia

Dr Lilian Miles and Dr Tim Freeman were asked to conduct a piece of research to inform Malaysia’s 12th National Development Plan safeguarding Women Migrant Workers’ Sexual and Reproductive Health and their protection from violence. Here, they outline their findings and recommendations for the future protection of these vulnerable women.

Who we are

In June 2019, UNWOMEN commissioned Dr Lilian Miles and Dr Tim Freeman from Middlesex University Business School to undertake policy development work addressing two specific needs of women migrant workers in Malaysia: meeting Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) needs and preventing Violence Against Women (VAW). We were commissioned for our expertise on policy development in healthcare, and labour regulation in developing countries.

Lilian is Malaysian, and is familiar with the local labour regulatory context. She had already previously worked with the UNFPA in developing a toolkit to support factory women migrants’ SRH needs in Malaysia. Tim is a health policy analyst, with extensive research interests in governance and experience of healthcare development projects in a former career with the Save the Children Fund.  

This time, we worked with UNWOMEN, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) over 10 weeks, to deliver a Strategy Paper on women migrant workers’ SRH and VAWMW needs which will inform the drafting of Malaysia’s 12th National Development Plan (2021-2025). This was an important opportunity for us, to combine our expertise and make a difference to women migrant workers’ health and working conditions in Malaysia. The adoption of recommendations in our Strategy Paper will also influence Malaysia’s progression toward meeting its obligations under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #5: ‘Gender Equality’.

Dr Tim Freeman (centre) and Dr Lilian Miles (right) with members of the research team

What we did

We travelled to Malaysia in June 2019 to conduct research to inform the writing of our Strategy Paper. Lilian had, in her previous research projects, worked with women migrant workers to document their experiences with SRH and VAWMW.  This time, we sought to share these experiences with key stakeholders to explore ways of bringing change for these women.

We met representatives from women’s organisations, migrant organisations, health care providers, employers and Government Ministries. We liaised with the ILO, UNFPA and UNWOMEN throughout. We were supported by local researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia and used questionnaires, qualitative interviews and Nominal Group Technique (NGT) to surface stakeholders’ views on the barriers and challenges to meeting women migrant workers’ SHR needs, and how these can be addressed.

We also sought to explore with these stakeholders how violence against women migrant workers can be prevented. Their views and insights were crucial in enabling us to make recommendations to tackle these two issues in our Strategy Paper.

Themes which emerged from our meeting with stakeholders include:

1. Specific challenges to meeting women migrant workers SRH needs include lack of knowledge on their part about SRH, language barriers, their inability to navigate the local care system and a workplace and regulatory framework which do not recognise such needs.

2. Specific barriers and challenges to preventing VAWMW include xenophobic attitudes toward women migrant workers, patriarchal structures and a lack of enforcement of trafficking legislation. 

3. Ways to address these problems include initiating legislative and regulatory reform to employment and trafficking laws, strengthening collaboration between ministries, and between ministries and civil society organisations, and providing platforms that enable women migrant workers to be part of the solution.

Creating Impact

Significant challenges exist in meeting the SRH needs of women migrant workers, who face wide-ranging problems (e.g. menstruation related pain, reproductive tract infections, lack of contraceptives and contraceptive counselling, unwanted pregnancies, need for abortion services).

In relation to VAW, these women contend with sexual violence in the workplace (a particular problem for domestic workers and trafficked women, who remain invisible). Further, they encounter physical and verbal abuse and psychological threats. These challenges make Malaysia’s 1.5 million women migrant workers a particularly vulnerable population with extensive unmet needs. Our Strategy Paper proposes a suite of practical interventions to address these issues, which require resources and expertise to be pooled in multi-stakeholder collaborations.

The Way Forward

Malaysia continues to be one of the largest importers of foreign labour.  SRH and VAW are ‘wicked’ issues for women migrant workers – requiring urgent responses. Women migrant workers contribute significantly to the Malaysian economy but continue to be marginalised and exploited. They are far removed from the reach of the law. There is thus both a moral and legal case for supporting their SRH needs and protecting them from VAW.

Ensuring their SRH rights and protection against VAW will take time as legal processes and cultural norms need to change. Yet, there are already renewed efforts among civil society organisations, academics, unions and healthcare providers to protect their SRH and guarantee their safety. The policy changes outlined in our Strategy Paper affirm and endorse the need for such change, offering the promise of sustained progress through collaborative endeavour on the part of ministries, civil society organisations and other advocates.

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