Migration can be a life-changing experience, but migrant workers are especially vulnerable to human trafficking and gender-based violence. San May Khine, a social worker in Thailand who was once a migrant worker herself, is supporting her fellow women migrant workers to move past experiences of violence and build a stable and bright future in a COVID-19 world.
“Migration empowered me and made me who I am today,” explains San May Khine, a Project Officer with the Education and Identify Project at the MAP Foundation in Thailand. Born and raised in Myanmar, Khine became a domestic worker in Thailand at the age of 14.
“I was the youngest child in my family, and I wanted to help my parents. Back then, I earned 3,500 Thai Baht (about USD 100) per month. I was excited to have that money for me and my family in Myanmar,” she explains.
“However, the working environment was exploitative. I had to work for a whole day without any leave or proper care as a child. But I did not know I had rights, so I did not even think of claiming them.”
After being a domestic worker for two years, Khine worked in various fields, including on an orchid farm and at a construction site. “I gained more freedom as I earned more money. This was not possible without the support of the good people that I have met in Thailand.”
Finding strength in adversity
Migration can empower female migrant workers financially and help build their confidence. But, away from family and established community networks, many women struggle to find support when they need it. Khine found that the strength she gained through her migration experience allowed her to leave her abusive husband, and realized that she wanted to support others in her migrant community to also break free of gender-based violence.
“I thought only men could do things like protect the family and earn money – the traditional roles of the father. My daughter was very little, and I was terrified to leave my husband, so I endured his abusive words and acts. But, one day, I realized that I was working like he did, earning money like he did, and I was protecting my daughter, probably better than he did.”
“I had no doubt that I could be the best parent for my daughter without him. It was all thanks to financial independence and the belief I had in myself, which I gained throughout my migration experience. When women are confident and know more about their rights, they will be more prepared to break out from the cycle of violence. My role is guiding them to realize their potential and supporting their brave journey to walk away from violence,” enthuses Khine.
Khine is now a social worker, and she is part of a multi-disciplinary team in Chiang Mai province that has a large migrant population from Myanmar. She works with migrant women and their children who have experienced violence and trafficking.
“I see my past in them. I know they have unlimited, yet unrealized, potential because of what women are ‘supposed to be’. While the COVID-19 pandemic is a difficult time for everyone, it is extremely difficult for women who have had to stay within abusive relationships. I’ve seen an increase in the number of cases of violence, and also an increase in the intensity violence.”
Migrant communities support their own
Khine’s social work is supported by the Safe and Fair Programme, jointly implemented by UN Women and ILO, in collaboration with UNODC, as part of the multi-year EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls. In Thailand, the programme is working with local civil society organizations in Mae Sot, Chiang Mai and Bangkok to strengthen coordination systems by developing local standard operating procedures.
“Working with women like Ms. Khine is critical,” explains Kohnwilai Teppunkoonngam, the National Programme Coordinator of UN Women in Thailand. “Having experienced that life firsthand, they know the reality that women migrant workers are living and how best to help them.”
The programme has also been supporting peer network groups and civil society organizations across the ASEAN region to better support women migrant workers in whatever country they find themselves in. “Research shows that women migrant workers who are survivors of violence seek immediate support and help from friends, fellow women migrant workers or local civil society organizations,” notes Valentina Volpe, the Ending Violence against Women Specialist at the UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
“The Safe and Fair Programme encourages and supports the establishment of migrant women’s networks in countries of origin, transit and destination, and across countries, for peer support and information sharing.”
Khine says her work will not stop as long as there is someone who needs her. “I work to make the referral processes safer and more gender-responsive for women migrant workers and their children. I also provide interpretation support for women from Myanmar who do not speak Thai. My job is to make them more comfortable, confident, and safer. Their courage always inspires me. It is what keeps me moving… until the day every woman and girl is free from violence and trafficking.”