Pulling Back the Curtain: Confronting Gender-Based Violence in the Global Care Economy

In late October 2018, tensions rose between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia over the state-ordered execution of Tuti Tursilawati.

A mother in her early 30’s, Tursilawati was one of an estimated 1.5 million documented and undocumented Indonesian domestic workers who are living in the Gulf state today. She was convicted of murdering her Saudi employer in the city of Taif, despite counter-claims by migrant rights groups that she was acting in self-defense against an attempted sexual assault. 

Tursilawati’s death came just weeks before 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an annual campaign beginning November 25th that is focused on raising awareness and galvanizing action to end violence against women and girls globally. This year’s observance of 16 Days follows the rising tide of #MeToo and #TimesUp, as well as regional movements like #NiUnaMenos (“not one [woman] less”), which started in Argentina and has caught on across Latin America. The theme this year is “Orange the World: #HearMeToo,” where the color orange has come to signify the campaign’s goal to bring an end to gender-based violence (GBV) worldwide.

The 2018 campaign is focused specifically on exposing abuses and other forms of GBV within institutions and workplaces–including the UN system, civil society organizations, private sector companies, government agencies and education institutions around the world, many of which have come under criticism in recent months for incidences of sexual harassment, misogyny and sexual assault. 

Noticeably absent from this list is one of the most dangerous, yet consistently overlooked workplaces where GBV occurs: the home.

Posted by National Domestic Workers Alliance on Thursday, October 4, 2018

The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines care work as activities carried out in households or communities, such as preparing food, cleaning, caring for children and the elderly or delivering newborns. Sometimes referred to as reproductive work, these tasks are essential to the welfare of our communities. For centuries, this type of work has been done disproportionately by women, and played a key role in the historical confinement of women to the domestic sphere, but more and more women in wealthier economies are entering the formal workforce, and new deficits are surfacing in the fulfillment of traditional care roles.

This trend in the modern care economy has led to an emergence of transnational care “chains” importing primarily poor, female workers from the Global South into wealthier regions like Europe, North America and the Gulf states to work. Today, the recruitment of migrant care workers like Tursilawati has evolved into an industry employing millions of women, and demanding even more, in the face of increasing labor shortages.

11.5 million people are employed as international migrant domestic workers today. Of these workers, an overwhelming 73.4 percent are women. And while paid care work does present an opportunity for economic empowerment, it also comes with a number of challenges, particularly for domestic workers like Tursilawati who migrate cross-country or across borders to do their work. 

In a 2012 survey of domestic workers in the United States, 19 percent reported being threatened, insulted or verbally abused by an employer, and 42 percent said they feared this abuse escalating into violence. While the execution of domestic care workers like Tursilawati is an anomaly, her experience of violence at the hands of an employer is an all-too-familiar reality.

Over the past decade, the efforts of activists and advocates for migrant workers have resulted in heightened awareness within the international community, especially the United Nations and the ILO. The latter, in particular, has proposed new measures ahead of next June’s International Labor Congress, in which members are urged to adopt specific regulations for vulnerable industries like domestic work, yet violence against migrant care providers persists–often behind closed doors and shrouded in secrecy.

Despite rising demand, care work remains largely under-valued, with little recognition of the skill and energy required to provide these key services. Low wages, scant legal protections and poor working conditions are common; add to that the vulnerabilities associated with migration–including social isolation and the uncertainties regarding legal status–and migrant care workers are at high risk of exploitation and abuse. This is especially pertinent to home-based care workers, who may fall even further outside legal protections, given the near invisible nature of their work within private residences. 

Perhaps one of the most jarring examples is the kafala system, a legal framework institutionalized in multiple states of the Gulf region like Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Under kafala, all migrant workers must be sponsored by their employers in order to remain in a host country legally. If migrant workers want to switch jobs, they either must receive the consent of their current employer to leave or face consequences that include fines, retraction of visas, deportation and reentry bans. For migrant domestic workers, this systemic abuse can also lead to physical and sexual violence within the confines of the home, hidden from the public eye.

The hierarchies of power instituted by the kafala system and the overall lack of protection mechanisms for care workers globally only reinforce the harrowing silence when instances of abuse do occur. In the United States, for example, domestic workers are not allowed to file complaints under federal sexual harassment laws, which only apply to companies of 15 or more employees. For those interviewed in the 2012 National Domestic Workers Alliance survey, 91 percent of workers reported that they did not complain about working conditions to their employers or outside parties for fear of losing their jobs.

During this year’s 16 Days of Activism–and in the days, weeks and months to come, we must call on states to recognize, reduce and redistribute the burdens placed on the world’s care workers and provide the protective resources they desperately need. Migrant domestic workers must be provided safe, accessible avenues for reporting abuse so that they can do the jobs they set out to do free from fear and retribution.

Care workers globally are calling out: #HearMeToo. Let us answer by pulling back the curtain on gender-based violence and holding perpetrators and governments to account.

Hannah Bloom is currently pursuing a B.A. in International Affairs at George Washington University, with concentrations in International Development and Conflict Resolution. She recently worked as an advocacy intern at the International Center for Research on Women, supporting efforts to advocate for stronger U.S. and multilateral policies for women and girls globally, and as a Research Assistant with Good Neighbors Chile in Santiago, specifically focusing on measures of education and respect for children’s rights.

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