By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Gardner Center for Asian Arts and Ideas concluded its second Saturday University Lectures Series last Saturday. The lectures revolved around issues of health and women’s rights in modern Asia by local experts.
“Feminization of Labor in Southeast Asia: How Girls Feed their Families, Stay Healthy, and Cope with Exploitation” focused heavily on issues of displacement and migrant labor from Burma (Myanmar) and how it impacts neighboring countries.
The lecture was introduced and moderated by journalist Paula Bock, an expert on the Burmese civil war, who volunteers regularly at clinics on the Thai–Burma border. Talks by Therese Caouette of Seattle University and Kate Teela of the Gates Foundation further clarified the ramifications of displacement and its impact on health. Caouette and Teela have spent significant time in Southeast Asia.
Bock introduced the subject with a multimedia documentary she produced featuring the paintings of Burmese artist Maung Maung Tinn and interspersed these moving images with statistics from the Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The HRW believes that nearly two million people of the Burmese population has been displaced, one in 10 children dies before age 5, and one in 12 women die from birthing complications.
Caouette believes that there are several words to describe displaced people in Southeast Asia: migrant, trafficked, and refugees. “The terms are blurred … first and foremost, they are [considered] illegal and that voids basic rights,” she said.
“Many face contested citizenship in their own country, keeping them illegal their entire lives,” she noted.
Caouette said the majority of the displaced people are ethnic minorities.
Caouette has been seeing more and more women migrant workers in factories and service sectors. Many lack relevant life skills to deal with laws, she said. As a result, “there is a spectrum of violence surrounding these women,” she said, referring to their illegal status. Since the women are illegal and are not aware of their rights, they can be taken advantage of by bosses, border patrol, or police.
Since opportunities are in the city, Caouette sees the parents of these women as being supportive when their daughters leave. “They encourage them to do the best they could.” As migrant workers, their only opportunity is to go where there is work.
Caouette said, “Market pushes and pulls provide an endless labor supply … hundreds and hundreds of factories [are] along the borders.” While there are officially only 77 legal workers from Burma in Thailand, Caouette said she has witnessed thousands crossing over the border to work.
“These girls are the most daring, courageous, and determined … not the most vulnerable ones,” she says.
“[These women] identify their abusers and call for recognition and rights.”
Caouette works closely with domestic workers, which includes sex workers, to conduct research. She calls for creative ways to reach these unrecognized mobile communities, who are “limited in health knowledge.”
Teela, who spent more than a year on the Thailand–Burma border running the Mobile Obstetric Medics (MOM) project, which brings pre-natal, post-natal, and family planning care to women in displaced communities, noticed that “communities are learning there are ways to get access to health care.”
“The requests come from the community,” says Teela. She was one of more than 600 medics with the MOM project, the vast majority of which were Burmese women, she said.
With the Gates Foundation, Teela works with eradicating malaria and lymphatic filariasis, both caused by mosquitoes and highly prevalent among the mobile communities.
The World Affairs Council cosponsored the series and 8 Limbs Yoga offered classes prior to each lecture. A film series, “Guilty Pleasures: Popular Films of Asia” ran concurrently with the series on Sundays.
The Gardner Center was launched by Mimi Gates, wife of Bill Gates Sr. last fall after she retired as executive director of the Seattle Art Museum earlier in 2009. It is housed under the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. ♦
Irfan Shariff can be reached at email@example.com.