Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 17, July 2008

Deciding to Migrate:
Factors, Influences, and Processes in the Experiences of Indonesian Women who Migrate to Malaysia as Domestic Workers[1]

Zakiah Hasan Gaffar

    Introduction and methodology
  1. Since the early 1990s Malaysia has become the major destination for Indonesian women migrant domestic workers. This trend arguably relates to the relative success of Malaysia's economic development program which has resulted in more job opportunities and higher salaries than are available in Indonesia. In addition, the close proximity of Indonesia and Malaysia ensures that travel between the two is relatively cheap. On another level, the assumed cultural and religious similarities make women feel that migrating to Malaysia is a 'safe' option.[2] When discussing the movement of women between these two sites economists and demographers have largely focused their attentions on economic determinants. Existing research indicates that economic necessity is one of the fundamental issues that affect women's decisions to migrate.[3] However, studies of this nature overlook and critically fail to question the specific gender issues which operate in the case of Indonesian women who work as domestic servants overseas. This paper seeks to expand the limitations of research which examines only the economic factors which impinge on Indonesian women seeking domestic work in Malaysia by providing insights into other more nuanced gender factors that prevail in this process.
  2. Existing studies on Indonesian women's migration note how a lack of education limits the income earning capacity of women thus resulting in the need to find work outside the country.[4] This is consistent with the findings of investigations into women's migration in places other than Indonesia.[5] However, studies of overseas domestic workers from the Philippines indicate that significant numbers of Filipino women migrate for reasons other than economic necessity.[6] This paper demonstrates that other factors often related to gender influence migration decisions made by Indonesian women also. In fact, the in-depth interview data collected for this study indicated that women's decisions are a complex amalgam of economic necessity and problems caused by the gender ideologies which pervade Indonesian society. In other words, economic motivation is only one of many complex reasons behind decisions made by women to migrate as domestic workers to Malaysia.
  3. I begin the body of the paper with a discussion of the methodology of the project giving particular attention to the need to dismantle the social hierarchy which can operate in research of this nature. I then discuss a number of factors that operated in tandem with economic necessity in motivating respondents to migrate. These include the relative powerlessness of girls in family structures and how this can impact on education, limited employment opportunities for educated women, and the need to become a bread winner to support a family following the death of a husband. In the case of at least one respondent in this study it emerged that sexual harassment forced her to leave her hometown of Pontianak to look for work in Malaysia. The experience of this woman is discussed in some detail.
  4. Qualitative interviewing based on feminist principles was conducted in my hometown,[7] the city of Pontianak in West Kalimantan which rates as the third poorest province in Indonesia.[8] In Pontianak, there are three major ethnic communities: Malay, Chinese, and Dayak. The area of the province of West Kalimantan is 146,807 square kilometres, making it larger than the islands of Java, Madura, Bali, and Lombok combined. The significant natural feature of the province is the Kapuas River which stretches for 1,140 kilometres. Locals use this river as the main medium of transport in the province. Another significant characteristic of West Kalimantan is that since the area is only 400 kilometres from Sarawak, East Malaysia, it takes a mere six to eight hours to drive from Pontianak to Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak.[9] This geographical proximity, which results in low travel expenses, is a major reason that Pontianak is a key provider of domestic labour for Malaysia.
  5. Pontianak was an ideal locality for my data collection since there were large numbers of returning local migrant workers as well as a diversity of respondents with a range of social, educational and cultural backgrounds from other provinces in Indonesia. Six in-depth personal interviews were conducted of approximately 1.5 hours duration using a mix of open and closed questions. In addition to taking extensive notes during these interviews, I made field notes and maintained a journal throughout the project.
  6. In projects of this nature, interviewers often have a middle-class, white-collar background while many respondents have working class or blue collar affiliations.[10] This social distance and the resulting hierarchical research situation can create an acute distrust in the research subjects who may also feel that they are being interrogated.[11] Distrust of this nature can prejudice the data provided with, for example, respondents sometimes giving 'expected responses' rather than genuine or open information.[12] Moreover, social distance is also believed to affect rapport-building between researcher and respondents. In Pontianak, it is an accepted norm for people to treat others according to their educational, social and economic status. Therefore, my tertiary education background made some respondents rather reserved when I met them for the first time. Although none of my respondents were reluctant to give frank accounts of their migrant experiences, a number seemed to think that their experiences were inconsequential and therefore not worth telling. When I asked them to discuss the decision-making processes leading to their migration to Malaysia, some responded with 'Oh...nothing! There's nothing special about my experiences!'
  7. In order to bridge the social distance between respondents and myself, I sought to establish an open, honest and responsive relationship with my interviewees. Orthodox research methods emphasise that under no circumstances should the researcher answer any personal questions or inquiries from 'the research object' since this may bias the research result.[13] However, Ann Oakley argues that this formality is likely to build a greater gap and entrench a hierarchal relationship which is disadvantageous for rapport building.[14] All of my respondents inquired about my life.[15] Furthermore, they had a great curiosity regarding my research and its outcomes. I openly discussed both my personal and academic background with respondents. Prior to commencing interviews, I also allocated time to becoming informally acquainted with my respondents and their community in order to reduce any apprehension they might have had concerning the project.[16] In addition, as a Malay, my knowledge and understanding of Malay tradition and culture proved to be greatly advantageous in building rapport. In fact some of the women from the local Malay ethnic group who I interviewed were so excited when I talked to them in a Malay accent using Malay colloquialisms that they praised me by saying, 'You surely don't forget your roots.' They were reassured to think that, even though I have travelled and lived overseas, I have not forgotten my language or culture. I also used humour during the initial meetings and the interview, which proved to be an effective means of lightening the awkward atmosphere and helping both the respondents and myself to relax. These strategies enabled me to build rapport thus ensuring that my respondents were keen to provide open accounts of their experiences.
  8. As noted above, all respondents were driven to migrate to some extent by economic necessity. However, various other factors relating to gender almost invariably intersected with economic issues. In the remaining section of the paper, I will discuss how the fact that my respondents were women often exacerbated the economic contingencies to which they found themselves subject.

    Early marriage and the powerlessness of girls and younger women
  9. The family units of some respondents featured multiple asymmetrical power relations between husband and wife, mother and daughter, and father and daughter. According to Lourdes Arizpe, 'within such complex structures...young girls and young women are among the least powerful.'[17] In Indonesian cultural and social contexts of filial piety, a girl is expected and encouraged to obey her parents' decisions, especially on major issues such as marriage and education. This expectation had impacted heavily on one of my respondents, Sri. At 13, Sri's parent's decision to marry her to a 20 year old young man whom she did not really know forced her to quit school just a week before the national exams that would have enabled her to continue to middle school.[18] Sri's recollection of the event was a mixture of sadness and regret at her lost education, a feeling of powerlessness over her parents' decision, shame at the realisation that she was too young to be married, and fear of married life and its consequences:

      I was afraid of them [her parents]. Yes, it [the marriage] was more about my parents' wish, I myself, I still wanted to study if I were allowed.

      ...of course, I knew that my friends were looking for me. I did not ask my teacher's permission because I was so embarrassed. I realised that I was still too young to marry, that was the reason why I did not tell my teacher. I just disappeared.

    Sri said that she could not refuse her parents' wish because she was just too young and consequently was powerless:

      I did not know what to do, you know. My parents had made a decision. They said it was difficult to guard a daughter. Well, they were old people. But now, such a thing won't happen. Today's parents want their children to get as high an education as possible so the children will have a future but old time parents opted to marry their daughters off as soon as possible. They did it for they thought the daughter would have a good future. That was old time parents.

    She continued:

      I was a kid, stupid and naïve. I did not know how to do it. I did not know what was going to happen to me later, whether it [the marriage] was going to be happy or sad. I did not know how to live a married life. turned out to be difficult like this. It was difficult, if it was not difficult, I wouldn't be a maid.[19]

  10. Sri saw a direct connection between the difficult economic situation which gave her no other option than to become a maid and her parents' decision to deny her an education and to marry her off at such a young age. Tired of working in various low-paying jobs in Pontianak and wishing to escape a difficult marriage, Sri decided to accept her broker cousin's offer to find her a domestic job in Malaysia. She argued that, as a family member, her cousin would have her best interests in mind in term of safety and salary when looking for a position for her. Sri's decision to work as a domestic worker in Malaysia was based on two basic reasons. First, she knew that her educational background would limit her options in Indonesia. Second, she calculated that the job would enable her to save more money since, as a live-in domestic, she would not need to pay for food or lodgings.
  11. Sri's premature marriage diminished her chance to finish a basic education and this consequently robbed her of the opportunity to secure a well-paid job in Pontianak. Without an adequate education, the only option for Sri was either to stay and continue working in a low-paid job in Pontianak or to migrate to Malaysia and work as a domestic worker with a better salary.
  12. Sri's experience of disrupted education is a sign of the gender-bias that exists in Indonesian societies—a feature that is especially strong in rural areas. Available data indicate that while there is no strong son preference in most Indonesian cultures, girls nevertheless face certain discriminatory practices, especially in education. A 1991 case study in Cilincing, North Jakarta, indicated that parents with limited financial resources opted to educate their sons over their daughters.[20] In Indonesia, there is also a popular saying that 'no matter how high a woman's education, she ought to and will work in the kitchen.' This reveals that certain elements in Indonesian society take the position that a formal education will not significantly change a woman's life since her natural position is in the domestic domain. Therefore, it is sometimes considered a waste if a woman spends her time on formal education.
  13. Sri's parents, too, clearly regarded education as an inconsequential issue for their daughter's future, an attitude shared by many in their local community. Mulatsih's field survey in East Kalimantan found that many girls attend school for only nine years, even in villages with a high school.[21] On the other hand, the village parents are willing to offer their sons the best possible education. This unequal treatment is based on two key factors; first, girls are burdened with household chores at a younger age than boys; second, parents consider a boy's education as a better future investment, since boys are their future heirs.
  14. As Sri's experiences indicate, the practice of young marriage also limits girls' education opportunities, especially in rural areas. In 1970s Indonesia the minimum legal marriage age was 16 for women and 19 for men. In the 1980s the National Family Planning Coordinating Board raised this minimum age to 21 years for men and 19 years for women.[22] Unfortunately, in many rural areas the legal system failed to change the existing norms and social customs which force women to marry as soon as they begin menstruating. Those who refuse are condemned and experience a loss of social prestige as they become older, a trend validated by research in rural areas in East Kalimantan[23] and West Java.[24] The practice of early marriage for girls also relates to the belief that a woman is more prone than a man to sexual temptation. Hence, to marry off a daughter as soon as she reaches puberty is to protect her from going 'astray' or becoming 'damaged goods'. As Sri mentioned, one of the reasons why her parents arranged for her to marry at such a young age was because 'it was difficult to guard a daughter.' Although less widespread than it was two decades ago, the practice of parents marrying daughters at a young age still exists among a number of ethnic groups in Pontianak.

    Limited work options for widows and single women with education
  15. Mariam is a widow who worked as a part-time domestic worker prior to her migration to Malaysia. She was a housewife until two months before her husband's death when she decided to take up a paid job. However, since she had only three years of schooling she did not have many choices. Her few skills lay in the area of domestic work. Although her working hours were from 4.30 am to midday, lack of public transport meant she needed to leave well before this to walk to her place of work. Her workday was composed of varied tasks and responsibilities:

      I woke up at 2 am and left (the house) at 2.30 am. If there was something to eat, I would eat first, but if there was nothing, I would just leave. I was with my friend, we would walk to the houses. At around 3.30 we were halfway and we could hear the Morning Prayer call and we kept on walking.

    She continued:

      At around 4.30, I arrived at the first house. When I arrived, I took the dirty laundry and washed it. When I was finished with dirty laundry, I cleaned [the house], swept the floor and mopped it. When I finished with the first house, I ran to the next door house and did exactly the same things.

      I worked for five houses. I had no breakfast in the dawn because no one sold anything at such a wee hour. Ah, my body felt weak, that was the situation. But some of my employers were nice. At around 9 am they would buy me some snacks...That was the reason I left to work in Malaysia, I was determined, my work was crazy! I had to wake up at 3 am, sometimes at 2 am. Ah, five houses, I felt so exhausted! And the salary was small, one house was about Rp25,000 ($AU1 is equivalent to 8,000 Rupiah) and the other was Rp50,000 per month. I finished at midday and went home to sleep and get some rest. I felt so exhausted.[25]

  16. Exhausted and fed up with her heavy workload and low pay after two years of part-time domestic work, Mariam gladly welcomed an offer, which came from one of her neighbours, to work as domestic worker on a higher salary in Malaysia. The decision was made easier by an incident that happened when she was one her way to work one morning:

      Once on the way to work, my friend and I were chased by a crazy man on the street (as we went along in the dark). We ran and ran, and I felt like fainting! Then I asked myself, how long am I going to work like this? You see, that was why when [my neighbour] came up to me with the idea of working in Malaysia, I agreed at once! He said, over there, you will have a nice life and you do not have to work forever, [you'll get a] big salary you know! That was [the reason] why I agreed to work there.[26]

  17. Mariam's lack of education and skills made it difficult for her to find attractive employment opportunities that could support the high cost of living in the urban area, such as Pontianak. According to Malsiri Dias,[27] perceived wage differentials between domestic service in sending countries and receiving countries, combined with the lack of job opportunities for uneducated and unskilled women, have propelled many Indonesian women to migrate to Malaysia. Migration involves costs, risks and uncertainty. However, when the choice facing women is poorly paid domestic work in the home country or better paying domestic work abroad, it is not surprising that many opt for the latter.
  18. As discussed above, unreasonable work conditions and very low pay were two important factors impacting on Mariam's decision to migrate. However, her role as a mother and the need to support her children were also major factors in her decision, as she explains below:

      My husband had just passed away and my hope had gone. I asked myself, who is going to support my child, for her future? That was why I decided to go there [Malaysia]. I was determined. I heard people who worked there had big salaries. That was what I heard. I had a job here, but the salary was really low, while over there the salary was good. So I thought, I would be better off if I went there. Over there, I did not have to work forever, but here I had to work forever. There I could earn something for my daughter's future. I cannot work forever until I'm old, but here in Pontianak, people said we have to work forever. In Malaysia, at most I only need to work for two to three years, then I could have something for the future. That was the reason I decided to work in Malaysia.

    She continued:

      I wanted to support my child and I felt like I could not think of any other option, I could not think of anything else. My husband had just passed away. My hope was gone, how could my daughter grow up like other children? I wanted to support my life, who was going to support me except myself.[28]

  19. Mariam's decision to migrate to Malaysia was fundamentally related to subsistence and survival. Her husband's death left her in a difficult economic situation so that she felt that she 'could not think of any other option.' In effect, she suddenly had to assume the role of the breadwinner of the family. The few prospects of gainful employment in Pontianak combined with the expectation of better paying domestic work in Malaysia were factors that 'pushed' Mariam to see migration as the most viable economic decision for the sake of her child's future. Thus, it did not take long for her to make a decision when a local broker presented the opportunity of having a 'big salary and nice life' in Malaysia. For many single mothers, divorcees and widows, especially those whose lack of education and skills prevents them from securing rewarding employment in their area of origin, migration sometimes is the only viable economic option left for the survival of the family and the future of their children.[29]
  20. While a lack of education clearly impacts on a woman's ability to find adequately paid work, having an education does not necessarily guarantee satisfactory employment. After Rohana graduated from high school she unsuccessfully applied several times for vacant positions at the Pontianak Government Office. She took typing and computer skills courses in an attempt to qualify for an office job, but found these 'were all useless,' Eventually, Rohana decided to work at the local sawmill in Batasan, on the outskirts of Pontianak. However, after a year and four months she was forced to quit because of the unbearable and unhealthy working conditions. She described these conditions as follows:

      I could not stand working there anymore, it was very itchy and exhausting, with a low salary, and we had to work two (consecutive) shifts when there was a lot of work to be done. If I was on night shift, I would start working at 7 pm and was supposed to stop working at 3 am. But if we had work to be done we had to stay until 7 am. We went home at 7 in the morning! Can you imagine that? We had to work from 7 pm to 7 am, two shifts! If we did not take the extra hours, we would not have enough money because our basic salary was so low.[30]

  21. In searching for better and more attractive employment opportunities, Rohana decided to move to Batam, the urban city (Kotamadya) of Riau Province. Once a dry and sleepy island, Batam's strategic position has seen it become a striving industrial city over the last fifteen years. With high wage employment opportunities, this city is like 'honey to the bees' for many Indonesian employment seekers. Here, Rohana found a quality control position with a rewarding remuneration package in one of the many manufacturing companies in Batam. However, eight months later she had to quit due to health problems caused by constant exposure to very low temperatures in the work place. For a while, Rohana returned to her village to help her mother with farming jobs before finally deciding to migrate to Malaysia.
  22. From a general perspective, Rohana's experience is representative of the experiences of women in other sites, such as the Philippines. The lack of viable and financially rewarding economic alternatives in the home country is one of the reasons many educated Filipino women opt to work as domestic workers in other countries where they can gain higher financial rewards.[31] According to the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrant Filipinos more than 50 percent of Filipino women have been employed prior to migration, with the biggest concentration being in clerical work followed by domestic service.[32] Like Rohana, even though these women were in paid work prior to migrating, the lack of attractive employment opportunities in the country of origin combined with more favourable working conditions in the destination country act as major pull and push factors in their decision to look for work overseas.

    'Dutiful' daughter or independent woman?
  23. Much research on women's migration suggests that many single women opt to migrate in order to send remittances home to support their families. These studies argue that those migrants usually come from communities where cultural values induce daughters more than sons to fulfill family obligation.[33] Therefore, for these women, immigration is an extension of the traditional role of dutiful daughter. However, none of the four single women I interviewed had any strong sense of being a 'dutiful' daughter. Rather, all four indicated that their decision to migrate was based on a pressing need to become self-supporting. The reasons for their decisions ranged from family economic difficulties to estranged family relationships.
  24. For Indah, the decision to migrate was based on what she saw as an imperative to support herself. She felt unable to depend on her family, especially her father from whom she felt alienated and remote:

      I went to secondary school, at that time I had already left my parents' house. When I graduated from elementary school, I stayed at another person's house, my relative's house, a grandfather from my mother's side. When I lived there, I rarely went home maybe once in two months and it was only for a day. I was not very close to [my father]. It seemed to me that [he] treated me differently. It was always like that. When I was still at school, my father had already bought books for my sisters but I was always the last one [to get books] and at Christmas my father bought something for everyone else but me. I had always been treated like that...

    Regarding her decision to migrate, Indah explained:

      [S]ince I was child, I had already left my parents. So I had to earn money to support myself, I never received it from my parents. I had a job here (Pontianak), my salary was quite good, Rp400,000. But then I heard, the salary in Malaysia was higher. That was why I wanted to go there to try my luck. [I wanted to know] how the work was and [whether] the salary was high. [I thought] here, a maid and a waitress in restaurant received the same salary, who knows, over there the salary will be higher. I went there to try my luck...[34]

  25. Separating from her family at a rather young age had made Indah grow apart from and feel disconnected from them. Because of her estranged relationship, particularly with her father, she felt she had to be independent at a fairly young age because she could not expect the family to support her financially. Therefore, for Indah, the decision to migrate was based more on her aspiration to support herself rather than any sense of obligation towards her family. Even though prior to migration she had earned a reasonable salary, the prospect of higher salary in Malaysia induced Indah 'to try my luck' in a foreign land.
  26. Ani, the daughter of a widow left to raise seven children, had a good relationship with her family. Nevertheless, after the death of her father, she realised she could not expect her aging mother to support her and her six sisters. Each of her siblings was forced to find the means to support themselves. In Ani's case, once she finished her secondary schooling, she started working at a local biscuit factory to earn some cash. However, the low salary made her decide to quit the job after a year. When a friend came with the story of how good it was to work in Malaysia, Ani decided to try it herself. Even though she did not wish to leave her mother, the family's difficult economic situation compelled her to do so:

      My friend told me that it was good [working in Malaysia]. I was really interested and I wanted to go there as well. Moreover, it was my mother's condition, my family is a big family and I have many sisters. Even if we wanted to stay together with my mother, she [her mother] could not afford it. So, each of us had to find our own way. That was why I had to go. Otherwise I would not have gone.[35]

  27. Ani's comments suggest that her family's economic situation gave her no other option but to leave Pontianak and migrate to Malaysia where she could find more attractive employment opportunities. Had her family not been in economic difficulties, she and her sisters would have opted to stay with their mother. Instead, she decided to migrate to a foreign country. Importantly in terms of this study, these women did not migrate to fulfill any traditional role of dutiful daughter. Their principal objective was to support themselves. This is understandable in the case of Indah, who felt alienated from her family and overlooked by her father. Given the breakdown in relations that had occurred, it was hardly surprising that she had little desire to provide assistance to her parents. However, Ani came from a close family and might have been expected to feel she had some financial responsibility towards her mother. Her position can perhaps be explained in terms of traditional Malay family values, where sons—more so than daughters—are expected to care for their parents and support them financially. In Indonesia, once a daughter marries, she no longer belongs to her family, but to her husband's family and therefore she is not expected to care for her parents in old age.[36] My research findings indicate that although women in some Asian countries migrate to support their families, it this not always the case. Therefore, it is important to look beyond accepted assumptions when researching women's experiences.

    Beyond the economic
  28. Without a doubt, most of my respondents' migration decisions had been driven at least partially by economic motives. However, these motives were often blurred by gender issues. In order to fully understand a woman's decision to migrate, it is often necessary to look beyond the purely economic to the social expectations placed upon women and the many ways in which gender constrains how women are able to respond to difficulties which arise in their lives. It is only by considering these latter factors that it is possible to gain a complete and accurate understanding of the key issues affecting Indonesian women's decisions to migrate and work as domestic workers in Malaysia.
  29. Occasionally, however, non-economic motives related to gender injustice can be dominant in a woman's decision to migrate. These motives include domestic violence[37] and marital problems.[38] In this study, sexual harassment emerged as the main motive in the case of one respondent. At the beginning of our interview, Indah insisted that her decision to migrate was solely based on economic necessities. However, towards the close of the discussion she confessed that, rather than economic motives, the major influence had been the sexual harassment she endured from her brother-in-law:

      [I]it happened here with my brother-in law, he is a kind of person who is, he is...[she did not know what to say] I'm sorry...even my sister doesn't know about it until now. It is a secret, even my parents do not know about it. None of my friends know about it. Here is the story. I did not have my own bedroom here [the interview was held at her older sister's bedroom], so I slept here with my sister. First I did not want to live here, but my sister forced me to because she just gave birth to her second child, so I was the one who took care of her from the time she was pregnant until she gave birth and up to now until her child was two years old. I was the one who took care of her. I stayed here, there was only one bedroom here, and I often slept here. Later on, it seemed to me that her husband acted strangely. One day my sister slept on the bed, while I slept on the floor with her eldest son. Then her husband touched me...

    She continued: that was another reason why I decided to go. I was stressed, I was afraid if I stayed here any longer...She is my only family [in Pontianak], so I had to stay here. It was impossible for me to stay at other people's houses. I was really worried something bad could happen and I was afraid to tell my sister. I was also afraid to tell my parents. Coincidently, there was an offer [of work in Malaysia]. I thought, is better if I go there. Maybe if stayed here much longer, maybe bad things would happen. My concern was, if I told my sister, she would fight with her husband, and then it would ruin her family. I did not want that to happen, it would be a sinful act. So I decided to keep it secret. If I went there, I might be able to forget it, but I cannot forget it even now! This is the first time I tell the story, I was afraid! Moreover, he did not do it only once, it often happened. That was why I was so scared! I was afraid, so I left to avoid it. I let myself be lured by a big salary and the nice life there. That was why I took the offer. So, the economic factor was not the main factor. The main reason was that, that reason, I was afraid! Before I went to Malaysia, I already had a job here, I was a babysitter.[39]

  30. As a younger sister and single, it was almost impossible for Indah to refuse a request to stay with her sister and help her with the new baby. Furthermore, according to cultural values in Indonesia, it would be seen as an 'inappropriate act' if Indah chose to live with other people while she had her own sister in the same city. If she did so, other people might think that there is a 'problem' in the family. However, there was a problem in Indah's sister's house when her brother-in-law started to harass her sexually. Fearful that it would be 'a sinful act' to do anything that might ruin her sister's family, she felt powerless to take any action to prevent her brother-in-law's advances.
  31. Indah's attitudes of taking the blame and her 'selflessness' arguably are part of the existing gender-biased ideology in Indonesia which blames women for men's sexual misconduct. Women are often portrayed as temptresses who lead men 'astray.' In contrast, men are just 'naturally' too 'weak' to refuse such temptation. In sexual harassment cases, therefore, society (more often than not) places the blame on the woman for 'tempting' the 'weaker' man. In Indah's case, rather than confront her brother-in-law or her sister, she chose to 'keep it a secret' for she was sure her confession would destroy her sister's family. Clearly, this was something that she did not want to happen. Prior to migration, Indah already had a good job with a reasonable salary as a registered baby sitter. However, she had to give this up to avoid the harassment and the complicated situation in her sister's house. In addition to research on the economic factors that operate in women's migration, a number of studies suggest that, like Indah, many women choose to migrate for reasons other than economic determinants. In Indah's case, migration to Malaysia seemed to provide her with the only solution for the problem of a sexually abusive brother- in-law and demanding sister.

  32. Without a doubt, economic necessity is a significant factor affecting Indonesian women's decisions to migrate to Malaysia. For single women with few prospects of gainful employment in their area of origin, migration to Malaysia with the promise of a better life and higher salary is seen as a very attractive employment alternative. Migration is also likely to be the main option available for women heads of households struggling to bring up families on their own. This is especially the case when employment in Indonesia offers so much less in terms of benefits than in Malaysia. However, it is erroneous to conclude that economic determinants are the only or the most significant factors affecting these women's decisions to migrate. For some respondents in this study, the prospect of gaining higher financial rewards in Malaysia was less significant than non-monetary factors. These ranged from a desire to be independent of family to a desire to escape problems at home, such as the sexual harassment experienced by Indah. For Indah, Malaysia somehow was perceived as the only solution to her problems in Indonesia.
  33. These research findings are significant for they challenge the assumption that women's migration, especially between Indonesia and Malaysia, is solely caused by economic determinants. While economic difficulties play a significant role in determining women's decisions to migrate as domestic workers to Malaysia, this is not the whole story. I have demonstrated in this paper that some women also migrate when confronted with a combination of unfavorable conditions related to their gender, conditions which, in several cases, had persisted since childhood. These conditions included familial conflicts in domestic settings, the practice of young marriage that robbed one respondent of the opportunity to continue with her education, and the existence in Indonesian societies, especially in rural areas, of a gendered-biased that regards a woman's education as insignificant since her 'natural' position is in the domestic domain. Without an adequate level of education, these women are unable to secure satisfying employment opportunities in the local job market. Furthermore, data I have gathered shows that for some women, even a good education does not automatically guarantee gainful employment in the area of origin. Consequently, the relatively cheap travel costs combined with the promise of a better life and the prospect of gaining higher financial rewards make Malaysia a very attractive employment alternative. This is the case both for single women without dependents who need to support themselves and for married and widowed women determined to provide a better future for their children. Ultimately, it was a combination of past and present circumstances related to both monetary and non-monetary factors that motivated respondents' decisions to leave Indonesia and migrate as domestic workers to Malaysia.


    [1] This paper is based on my MA research project entitled, 'A Qualitative Study of Decision-making Processes among Indonesian Women Undertaking Domestic Work in Malaysia.' Data for the study was collected between September and November 2003.

    [2] Dewi Anggraeni, Dream Seekers: Indonesian Women as Domestic Workers in Asia, Jakarta: Equinox Publishing, 2006, p. 128.

    [3] Rachel Salazar Parrenas, Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work, Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 2001, pp. 66–69.

    [4] Maruli Tobing, Maria Hartiningsih, AM. Dewabrata & Widi Krastawan, Perjalanan Nasib TKI-TKW: Antara Rantai Kemiskinan dan Nasib Perempuan, Jakarta: Gramedia, 1990, p. 85.

    [5] Parrenas, Servants of Globalization, p. 66.

    [6] Caridad Tharan, 'Filipina maids in Malaysia,' in Trade in Domestic Helpers: Causes, Mechanisms, and Consequences, Kuala Lumpur: APDC, 1989, pp. 272–86.

    [7] See Ann Oakley, 'Interviewing women: a contradiction in terms,' in Doing Feminist Research, ed. Helen Roberts, London: Routledge & Kegan, 1981, pp. 30–61. Here Oakley discusses the feminist interview principles that grew out of her own experience as an interviewer, particularly when doing research on motherhood. According to Oakley, unlike more orthodox interview methods, feminist interview principles regard the interview situation as a two-way process which allows the interviewer to interact socially and personally with her respondents. These methods respect the respondents' subjective experiences as women and as people and therefore humanise the relations between the interviewer and her respondents.

    [8] West Kalimantan is subdivided into two urban cities (kotamadya) and ten rural regencies (kabupaten). The cities are Pontianak and Singkawang; the regencies are Sambas, Bengkayang, Pontianak, Ketapang, Landak, Sanggau, Sekadau, Sintang, Melawi and Kapuas Hulu.

    [9] Badan Pusat Statistik Propinsi Kalimantan Barat, West Kalimantan in Figures, Pontianak: BPS of Kalimantan Barat Province, 2000, p. 5.

    [10] Kenneth D. Bailey, Methods of Social Research, New York: The Free Press, 1994, p. 183.

    [11] Maria Mies, 'Towards a methodology for feminist research,' in Theories of Women's Studies, ed. Gloria Bowles and Renate Duelli Klein, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983, pp. 117–39.

    [12] Bailey, Methods of Social Research, p. 183.

    [13] Masri Singarimbun & Sofian Effendi (eds), 'Tecnic Wawancara,' in Metode Penelitian Survai, Jakarta:LP3ES, 1989, pp. 192–215, p. 195.

    [14] Oakley, 'Interviewing women: a contradiction in terms', p. 49.

    [15] When my respondents found out that I studied in Australia, they asked me a lot of questions about Australia and my studies in general. They wanted to know about the people, the weather, and the food that I ate in Australia and if, while studying, I happened to find a 'white boyfriend.'

    [16] I visited each of my respondents at least three times prior to my commencing the interviews. During these meetings, I tried to avoid any discussion of their working experiences. Instead, we talked about daily activities, the family, the city, and so on. I decided it was really important for both parties to feel comfortable about each other's company to reduce the level of nervousness surrounding the upcoming interview.

    [17] Lourdes Arizpe, 'Relay migration and the survival of the peasant household,' in Why People Move: Comparative Perspectives on the Dynamics of Internal Migration, ed. J. Balan, Paris: Unesco Press, 1981, pp. 187–210, p. 203.

    [18] The Indonesian schooling system consists of six years of elementary school for children aged 6/7–12/13, middle school for three years, and another 3 years in high school. At the final year of schooling at each level, the Department of Education holds a national examination that determines whether a student can continue her/his education to the next level.

    [19] Sri (alias) 35 years old, was interviewed in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, 2 October 2003. She was thirty-three when she started working as domestic worker in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At the time of interview she had been back in Pontianak for only a month.

    [20] The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Women in Indonesia: A Country Profile, Statistical Profiles, New York: United Nation, 1998, p. 23.

    [21] Sri Mulatsih, Women in Rural Indonesia: A Case Study from East Kalimantan , Göttingen: Institute of Rural Development Georg-August-University of Göttingen, 1994, p. 44.

    [22] Badan Koordinasi Keluarga Berencana Nasional, Pokok-pokok Strategi Program Nasional KB Bidang Komunikasi,Iinformasi, dan Edukasi: Komunikasi Sosial, Jakarta: BKKBN, 1982, p. 15.

    [23] Mulatsih, Women in Rural Indonesia, p. 52.

    [24] Linda B. Williams, Development, Demography, and Family Decision-Making: The Status of Women in Rural Java, San Francisco & Oxford: Westview Press, 1990, p. 70.

    [25] Mariam (alias) 39 years old, was interviewed in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, 23 September 2003. She worked in Kuching, Malaysia in 1994, soon after the death of her husband.

    [26] Miriam.

    [27] According to Dias, many Sri Lankan women are propelled to migrate to the Middle East for similar reasons. See Malsiri Dias, 'Female overseas contract workers: Sri Lanka,' in Trade in Domestic Helpers: Causes, Mechanisms, and Consequences, Kuala Lumpur: APDC, 1989, pp. 207–34.

    [28] Mariam.

    [29] Lim, Lin Lean, 'The status of women and international migration,' in International Migration Policies and the Status of Female Migrants, Proceedings of the Expert Group Meeting on International Migration Policies and the Status of Female Migrants, San Miniato, Italy, 28–31 March 1990. New York: United Nations, 1995, pp. 29–55.

    [30] Rohana (alias) 32 years old, was interviewed in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, 5 October 2003. She worked for one family in Kuching, Malaysia from 1999 to 2003. I met her again during my second fieldwork trip in May, 2008. By then, she had been married for a year and was a successful farmer in her village.

    [31] Victoria Paz Cruz, Anthony Paganoni, Filipinas in Migration: Big Bills and Small Change, Manila: Scalabrini Migration Center, 1989, p. 28.

    [32] Aside from working in clerical and domestic jobs, some Filipino women had previously been in professions such as nursing and teaching prior to migrating. See Asia Pacific Mission for Migrant Filipinos, Case Study of the Development of Filipino Migrants' Movement in Some Selected Countries in the Asia Pacific and Middle East Regions, Submitted to Asia Pacific Women Law and Development Task Force on Labor and Migration, 2001, p. 8.

    [33] Dias, 'Female overseas contract workers,' p. 215.

    [34] Indah (alias) 22 years old, was interviewed in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, 25 September 2003. She worked as domestic worker in Kuching, Malaysia in 2002 for less than 3 months before running away from her abusive employers. She swore that she would never return to Malaysia.

    [35] Ani (alias) 24 years old, was interviewed in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, October 12, 2003. She left Pontianak for Kuala Lumpur when she was only sixteen and worked as domestic worker for four years.

    [36] Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, Perubahan Pola Perilaku Masyarakat Akibat Pertumbuhan Industri di Kalimantan Barat, Jakarta: Depdikbud, 1990, p. 50.

    [37] Frank Eelens, 'Migration of Sri Lankan women to Western Asia,' in International Migration Policies and the Status of Female Migrants, Proceedings of the Expert Group Meeting on International Migration Policies and the Status of Female Migrants, San Miniato, Italy, 28–31 March 1990, New York: United Nations, 1995, pp. 267–77.

    [38] Parrenas, Servants of Globalization, pp. 66–68.

    [39] Indah.


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