The Learning Journey: The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge

Author: Kat Wong

Day 3 of USLS2015

This post represents the third in a series from the on going University Scholars Leadership Symposium being covered on the ground by the GLOSS’s team.  Please check in regularly to keep up to date with the laThe Learning Journey_The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refugetest news.

USLS 2015 – The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge – The third day of the symposium was the ‘learning journey’ where we got the opportunity to spend the day working with organisations tackling global humanitarian issues on a local level across the city of Hong Kong.  We were given a choice of one of the seventeen learning journeys, each looking at a particular humanitarian topic – diversely ranging from housing inequalities to intergenerational needs.  From this selection, I chose to embark on the ‘domestic violence’ learning journey as part of a group of thirty delegates – to visit the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, (BHMWR) a shelter set up in 1986 for women migrant domestic workers fleeing from domestic abuse, predominantly from the Philippines but also with other nationalities such as Indonesians, Thais, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Pakistanis and Indians.

Before we arrived at the shelter I had some initial worries about visiting as a large group as I thought potentially it would be disturbing to the women service users, many of which may still be feeling vulnerable.  Having previously researched into the spatial qualities of women’s shelters as part of an architectural study, I found that one of the main findings was the need to respect the private and personal space of domestic violence victims.  On arrival however, it became apparent that a more communal approach was adopted by the organisation to support the women service users.  The director of the Mission for Migrant Workers, Cynthia welcomed us warmly and showed us the various spaces in the refuge. She explained how the communal kitchen and living space fostered a strong social support network where communal events that are held in these spaces help to reduce social isolation which is a common symptom of domestic violence abuse.  Along with the social spaces, two rooms provide emergency accommodation and personal lockers for up to fifteen women migrant workers that give them privacy.  Cynthia explained the importance of self-directed services for the women to stimulate psychological, confidence building and self-empowerment in addition to the counselling services provided.

Following from the talk about the refuge we split up into two groups to help clean the accommodation spaces.  The chores broke down the barriers between the service users and our group and gave us a chance to engage informally with the women.  Many of the women at the shelter discussed the employment-related battles they faced with their former employers, some of which involved labour conflicts such as unpaid salaries.  Other women at the refuge experienced domestic abuse during their employment but felt like they could not speak out because they were afraid of losing their employment and income, which many of their families relied on back in their home countries.  The conversations with the women at the shelter pointed to some national and transnational policy issues related to the migrant workers rights and immigration laws.  Currently, over 320,000 migrant domestic workers live and work in Hong Kong yet they are treated as second classed citizens.  There is a lack of social protection for these workers where the Hong Kong government has set many rules within policy for migrant workers.  These include rules such as the mandatory ‘live-in policy’ and the ‘two weeks rule’ that make migrant domestic workers more vulnerable to domestic violence and has made it difficult for them to leave an abusive situation where they have insufficient resources.  Both rules violates the 2011 ILO Convention on Domestic Workers whilst the ‘two week rule’ stipulates that migrant workers must leave the country two weeks after an employment contract is terminated which is not enough time to find alternative employment.  This rule also violates the 1975 ILO recommendation for migrant workers which states that ‘the loss of employment should not in itself imply the withdrawal of residence’ and that ‘migrant workers should be allowed sufficient time to find alternative employment.’  Many of the women at the refuge have called on the Hong Kong government to sign the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers and have pushed for the Hong Kong government to address the malpractice of employment agencies and not ignore the needs and demand of domestic workers and their human rights.  One of the service users spoke of the difficulty whilst putting forward their legal case against their abuser.  As her contract was terminated with her employer they found it difficult to manage paying visa extension fees, food and accommodation without any income.  This barrier to compensation is the reason why migrant domestic workers usually choose not to file cases even if they are facing unfair treatment.

Whilst the task assigned of cleaning seemed rather tokenistic in helping the women fundamentally, I found value in the day as a learning experience through the small conversations with the women migrant workers.  It has highlighted the pressing concerns on the ground of domestic violence and dehumanisation perpetuated by the root causes of national government and migrant agency corruption.  Reflecting back on the UK context, statistics of domestic violence show that domestic violence is still rife where one in four women experience domestic violence during their lifetime and up to 3 million women and girls across the UK experience rape, domestic violence, stalking or other violence each year (Womens Aid, 2014.)  These statistics show that domestic violence is not just a local issue in Hong Kong but it is a global humanitarian concern.  There needs to be more awareness and support for grassroots initiatives that help to empower victims of domestic violence such as the Bethune House but also systemic change is needed where national governments must show their accountability through policy reform and advocacy for womens’ services.

Follow #USLS2015 on Twitter for live updates.

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