Asian feminists on building bridges between women’s rights and labour rights

At a regional dialogue in Dhaka, feminists, political economist and women’s rights and labour activists focus on recognition of care work and stronger maternity rights.

Participants at FES event “Women’s rights are worker’s right, Dhaka, 7 April 2019. Photo by FES/Charlotte Clemensen.

To bridge the gap between women’s rights and their labour rights, Asian feminists want to bring the two movements into the same conversation and into curricula that explores the struggles of Asian women yearning for a decent work and recognition of care work.  

This was the essential message in an unusual regional dialogue among 50 feminists, political economists and women’s rights and labour rights activists from Bangladesh, India and the Philippines, in Dhaka (April 7), as part of the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung-supported Political Feminism in Asia project (link), that aims to bring feminist critique into debates on social justice. At the event in Dhaka the focus was on recognition of care work and strengthening of maternity rights.  

“The feminist perspective of the care economy [aims to bring] working-class women and the women’s movement closer to fight against the “invisibilization” of women’s contribution in the care economy,” explained keynote speaker Vibhuti Patel, an economist and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India who is developing an academic curriculum on care work. 

“The feminization of the workforce is taking place, the feminization of agriculture is taking place—but nowhere do women have entitlement. They have their rights. [But] women’s work remains “invisibilized”, unrecognized and unrewarded.” According to Patel, women’s participation in a national economy has decreased due to the increase in care responsibilities in the household. Citing a 2018 report by the International Labour Organization, Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work (link), women spend 4.1 times more time in unpaid care work than men in Asia and the Pacific.

Women's share in total employment across the Asia region (selected countries), 2003 and 2015, percentages, ILO estimations. Source: ILO STAT database.

There is imperative need, Patel stressed, for women’s work to be recognized for its contribution to national income, economic growth, national efficiency and productivity and to establish a supportive environment so that women are not forced to leave the workforce because of care work.

She said a new kind of feminization of the workforce is taking place, one in which women’s participation is fragmented. She emphasized that new types of interventions are needed, based on research, labour studies, human rights activity and the gender sensitization of policy-makers and others who have power.

  • Screening of INNA, MAA, AMMI, documentary film on maternity rights in Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines by Farhat Parveen (Pakistan), Magnolia del Rosario (Philippines) and Mahmudul H Sumon (Bangladesh), Dhaka, 7 April 2019. Photo by FES/Charlotte Clemensen.

Following the showing of a documentary film on maternity rights in Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines, entitled INNA, MAA, AMMI, a panel of Bangladeshi labour rights activists and feminist network members discussed what interventions are needed to bridge the gap between the feminist movement and labour rights.

In the panel discussion on policy, practice and challenges in realizing maternity rights in Asia, Khushi Kabir, the Executive Director of Nijera Kari Bangladesh, pointed out that maternity is not an individual problem and that society must take responsibility to create a supportive environment for women.

  • left-to-right) Mahmud Hasan Sumon, Khushi Kabir, Taslima Akhter. Sumon, member of the Feminism in Asia network hosts the panel discussion about access to maternity rights and discusses with Bangladeshi trade unionists. Dhaka, 7 April 2019. Photo by FES/Charlotte Clemensen.
  • (left-to-right) Taslima Akhter, Vibhuti Patel and Magnolia del Rosario. Del Rosario, member of the Feminism in Asia network shares talks about the challenges to make maternity rights accessible for all, Dhaka, 7 April 2019. Photo by FES/Charlotte Clemensen.

Pointing out the problem of implementing laws, Magnolia del Rosario, a law student from Manila and one of the film makers who interviewed women in the Philippines, said: “A new law increasing maternity leave was just passed this February in the Philippines [link], but many women don’t know about it. They were not aware about their rights, and that is something we want to address in this documentary. We want to hear their voices.”

Joining her, Taslima Akhter, President of the Bangladesh Garment Sromik Samhati, emphasized the need for society and employers to value women as human beings and as citizens. Referring to the many garment factories in her country that employ thousands of women workers, she said, “They don’t respect their workers. It’s the floor managers who don’t consider workers’ sufferings to be respected. I feel that we have lot of work to be done.” 

Akhter also urged for more roundtables to hear the perspectives from grass-roots communities to arrive at the “right” interventions for ensuring women’s rights.


For more information on the regional project Feminism in Asia contact the FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia.

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