Reclaiming Dignity, Reasserting Agency: Female Labour Migration in Indonesia

Artwork by Konijn Sate

Understanding labour migration in purely economic terms fails to adequately capture why Indonesian women choose to migrate: for some, it is a way to reclaim dignity and reassert agency over their lives.

“No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark”

Warsan Shire (British Somali poet)

From the beginning of the study of migration—usually attributed to E. G. Ravenstein’s (1885) study—migration has been seen as a primarily male phenomenon. Gendered assumptions of migration were partly motivated by the idea that was men spurred on to migrate by economic or financial constraints. Ravenstein assumed that economic and financial burdens do not fall upon the shoulders of the female population, as though they are somehow immune or exempt from said worries! This reduced potential motivations to migrate to purely economic considerations, failing to account for potential political, social, and cultural factors also at play. 

Popularly and academically, people no longer see migration as purely a male phenomenon. The last decade, in particular, has seen an increased focus on the study of gendered aspects of labour migration in Indonesia (Chan, 2014; Lam & Yeoh, 2018; Lindquist, 2010; Ningrum, 2011; Subadi et al., 2013; Platt, 2018; Robinson, 2020). The role of gender as a crucial aspect of migration is now much more widely acknowledged (Brettell, 2017). 

Unfortunately, this impetus arose from the public outcry over multiple incidents of abuse of Indonesian female domestic workers, such as Adelina Jerima Sau and Turti Tursilawati. The perspective that migration is primarily motivated by economic reasons, however, is still prevalent in popular understanding. While economic considerations and career or job-related aspects are the primary and most widespread motivators behind migration in Southeast Asia (Hugo, 2016; Sugiyarto, 2014), such a simplification overlooks the many other dimensions of migratory motivations. 

This article explains one oft-overlooked factor in why Indonesian women choose to migrate: it is a way for some women to reclaim dignity and reassert agency over their lives. It also argues that if we want to stop people from risking their lives abroad for low-wage labour, then we cannot approach the problem merely as an economic one but also need to address deep-seated sociocultural issues.

Women constitute almost half of all documented migrant workers in Asia. 42.4% migrant workers in Asia are women. Between 2006 and 2012, 3,998,592 Indonesian workers were placed abroad. 76.2% or 3,048,267 of them are women.

Fewer Incentives

Economic reasons, naturally, play a very important role in why women choose to migrate. However, if the financial gain were the only motivator of international migration, there would be fewer incentives for women because of their restricted access to better-paying opportunities stemming from systemic discriminatory and sexist beliefs.

Firstly, these women face common and prejudicial misconceptions that plague all migrant workers. These include the misconception that all migrant workers’ contributions are of low skill and low value; that they take away jobs from locals; and that they are security risks (Tunon & Baruah, 2014). Jobs available to migrants also usually involve physically demanding manual labour (e.g., mining, farm work, construction), long periods of repetitive motion (e.g., factory assembly jobs, meatpacking), and stigmatised or socially devalued work (e.g., janitorial work or personal care provision)—these are hardly attractive jobs.

However, for women specifically, in addition to being subject to broader patriarchal and sexist attitudes (Koike, 2014; Ramsay & Pang, 2017), the most prominent discriminatory myths surrounding female migrant workers are that they are less competent (Piper, 2004), less motivated, and (from an employer’s perspective) carry the additional burden of being more vulnerable than men (Fleury, 2016; Kawar, 2016; O’Neil et al., 2016). 

Because of these misconceptions, female migrants are disproportionately relegated to low-skilled and low-value labour. They are usually limited to the informal and service sectors, predominantly domestic work. They often have lower wages than their male counterparts and are forced to work on temporary and short-term contracts (Eckenwiler, 2014; McGregor, 2007). Women, therefore, should have less incentive to go abroad for low-wage migrant labour than men.

A cartoon of a compass with question marks and a woman with a suitcase standing looking confused.
Artwork by Konijn Sate.

Additionally, the commonly held belief that women are more dependent and more vulnerable further propagates the narrative that commonly sees women as victims of migration rather than having autonomy. Having to endure a backlash and the double discrimination of being female and a migrant limits access to safe and fair migration. Channels and locations that are free from violence and which respect their right to decent work and quality of life are usually less accessible to them compared with their male counterparts.  It leads female migrant workers to usually work in confined environments with less freedom of movement (UN Women, 2020).

Those conditions result in a self-fulfilling prophecy where female migrant workers are seen to be at an increased risk of violence and so are only hired in more marginal jobs through unofficial pathways because they are denied access to safe and official channels and face barriers to easily accessing the services available to survivors of violence—thus increasing their risk of experiencing violence.

The effects of these popular negative misconceptions extend beyond their experiences on the individual level. They also directly influence policies on labour migration and violence against women, further restricting access to safe and fair migration channels.

In Indonesia, when women are not able to migrate using official procedures, they are often forced to do so through unofficial channels. These are, by definition, less safe and less regulated. Migrants do not receive legitimate pre-departure training programmes, lack access to regular and officially supervised migration channels, and do not qualify for state-funded assistance (UN Women, 2017).

Consequently, female migrants are disproportionately susceptible to abuse in their destination country. Although cases of physical abuse are quite rare, female workers are disproportionately more likely to be subject to this than male workers (Rahayu, 2017). Indonesian workers placed in domestic jobs are also more at risk of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, as well as confinement. The reason is those female workers are more likely to not get overtime pay, work too long hours, have irrationally heavy workloads, and not receive days off.

Reclaiming Agency

In short, female migrant workers are typically lower-paid, work worse jobs, and are generally at greater risk than men of violence, abuse, and exploitation, both individually and structurally. 

Yet, despite these challenges, more Indonesian women go abroad than men. No fewer than two-thirds of Indonesian migrants are Indonesian female migrant workers from low socio-economic backgrounds (Badan Pusat Statistik, 2021; World Bank, 2017). The number of female migrant workers exported from Indonesia far exceeds the number of males. For example, there were 6,394 female migrants in March this year versus only 4,453 male migrants (BP2MI, 2022).  

The factors are multifaceted and complex. Two dimensions which are far less discussed and which are differentially experienced to a more significant degree are (1) regaining agency and dignity and (2) escaping psychological stress/domestic abuse.

Psychological Stressors and Abuse

A factor of forced migration experienced primarily (but not exclusively) by women is domestic violence. The persistence of patriarchal notions within familial and cultural systems in Indonesia is a common positive predictor of domestic violence and normalises the continued propagation of domestic violence (Hayati et al., 2014; Putra et al., 2019).

Even if abused women were to seek assistance, many external parties express reluctance to intervene for fear of intruding into private matters or believe that it is still within the rights of a male household member to exercise violence (Danoekoesoemo, 2021). It leads to an underreported number of abuse cases and an unreliable indicator of the issue’s rampant and deep-rooted nature (Noer et al., 2021).

Even so, the number of reported cases continues to rise, with 338,496 reported cases of violence against women in Indonesia in 2021 alone (NCVAW, 2021). A victim reaching out but failing to receive aid, or receiving insufficient aid, often further exacerbates the situation. Thus, these women often choose migration as an escape (Bowstead et al., 2015).

Agency and Dignity

The routine nature of violence against women in Indonesia is vital in understanding alternative motivations for migration. We should not view women as mere “victims” of circumstance and thus without agency.

It is important to acknowledge that while migration is perceived as an escape from psychological distress and domestic abuse, this is also a matter of personal choice. These women actively make life-altering decisions to reinstate their sense of autonomy and independence and reclaim their sense of individuality by actively choosing to remove themselves from a system that has failed them. In this sense, migration is a viable method of regaining control over their lives after experiencing personal trauma. This approach starkly contrasts the assumptions of migrant workers’ passivity.

Making a Choice to Migrate

Two Indonesian female migrants, Ibu Idah and Ibu Murni (not their real names), illustrate how these additional considerations play into their decision-making process.

Idah, 42, is a migrant worker from Tulungagung, East Java. One of her biggest motivations for becoming a migrant worker was her home situation. Her husband cheated and left her. She had an unstable income from a farm.

“The people from my village found out that my husband was cheating on me with a younger woman. I was under stress because of gossip from the people in my village. I was considered not fit to be a wife. I was often scolded by my own in-laws, even though it was their child who was wrong. I was very stressed because I was ashamed of my extended family. I was ashamed of the people from my village. My husband cheated, but I’m the one who bore the shame,” says Idah. 

She wanted to leave, but “there were very few job opportunities in my village. So, when a friend offered me a job in Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), I asked myself, ‘Why don’t I give it a shot?'”

Idah now works at a supermarket in BSB, Brunei.

“I am very happy. At the very least, I made a lot of money and no longer have to worry about all the problems in my kampung,” she continues.

A sketch of a woman running away from a home with traces of domestic abuse happening.
Artwork by Konijn Sate.

Murni, 51, a migrant worker from Kediri, East Java, also went through the same experience. She was disappointed by her marriage. She often fought with her husband and sister-in-law. “It was better to leave Kediri than to stay and listen to gossip from my neighbours,” Murni says.

She initially tried to work as a teacher but struggled due to her limited English.

“So I decided to be a masseuse for a rich Malay lady. Working as a masseuse in Brunei is very satisfying in terms of payment. The saloon service is more respected here,” she says.

 Idah and Murni were initially drawn to the idea of migrating because of a sense of dissatisfaction stemming from familial stressors and a distinct lack of purpose, but the decision to flee the pressure was not made on the spur of the moment. They carefully considered the risks and consequences for themselves and their entire families.

Migrating was seen as an opportunity to inject a newfound sense of dignity, direction, and self-esteem into their daily routine, with a profound preference for leaving versus monotony and a lack of aspiration. Despite recognising that their educational backgrounds and limited work experience would not be sufficient to find decent work once migrating, they persisted and received affirmation upon learning that they would be offered a job—regardless of the pay that came with it.

Thus, a strictly economic lens is insufficient to understand the motivations of Ibu Idah and Ibu Murni. Other social and personal reasons that need to be factored in include positive factors, such as a desire to regain agency and dignity, and negative factors, such as escaping domestic violence and discontent. Additionally, financial stability rather than increased financial opportunity would be a more appropriate way of perceiving their economic priorities.

Of course, even this expanded understanding is not exhaustive. These case studies are just two examples of the complexity and depth that characterise the lives and motivations of female migrants. 


Migration can thus be seen as an opportunity for liberation from the various familial and psychological stressors that women may be subject to, in combination with an accompanying rejuvenated sense of self and reclaimed autonomy. While financial considerations persist as a very salient factor, this ability to motivate action is diluted in the absence of other social and personal factors. There are, of course, many other considerations, such as persecution, environmental degradation, natural disasters, or other situations jeopardising their security, livelihood, or habitat, which this article has not covered. What is critical is to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of why women choose to migrate, lest we conceive of migration behaviours in a reductionistic fashion.

Most importantly, however, we cannot separate migration or the solution to the problem of people having to go abroad as low-wage migrant workers from non-economic factors. If governments want to stop people from risking their lives abroad for low-wage labour, then they need to both create economic opportunity and also address sociocultural issues like sexism, which leads to poor career prospects for women and the normalisation of domestic abuse.

While the tenacity and resilience of Ibu Idah and Ibu Murni in actively choosing to migrate is a commendable act of self-empowerment, focusing purely on the agency of workers absolves the state and society from having to make systemic and structural changes that would prevent the need for labour migration to begin with.

What’s Next?

  1. Support and promote movements such as Komnas Perempuan, Magdalene, SBMI, and Migrant Care, which amplify the voices of Indonesian female migrant workers, to ultimately ascertain how best to best to advocate for their fair and equal treatment at both the domestic and societal level,  through advocacy forums, movement groups, and petitions, for example.
  2. Sign this petition that urges the government and the House of Representatives in Indonesia to make more significant efforts towards protecting domestic workers’ (including migrant workers) rights. Domestic workers in Indonesia have been fighting for this since 2004. Also, consider signing this petition on Merry Utami’s case, a female migrant worker currently facing the death penalty in Indonesia, after reading our comic adaptation of her story here.
  3. Join the New Naratif community in order to support us in continuing to produce pieces about migrant workers, such as Kalimantan’s Warning, The Philippines’ Dependence on OFWs, and Don’t Let Them Kill My Mother, a comic adaptation of Merry Utami’s story.
  4. Socialise sentiments of mutual respect, agency, and fair treatment of female migrants as both workers and capable, empowered individuals. We write this article in the hope of being able to contribute to changing attitudes and perspectives surrounding Indonesian female migrants and returning agency to them as being more than just passive actors. By shedding light on the circumstances and motivations that catalyse migration, we can contribute to the process of transforming the narrative of female migrant workers as being dependent and vulnerable into capable, self-sufficient individuals from heterogeneous and complicated backgrounds who are willing to take drastic risks for the possibility of a better future.

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Reclaiming Dignity, Reasserting Agency: Female Labour Migration in Indonesia

Publication Year: 2022

Author Lengga Pradipta

Editor Wailiang Tham, Alif Teh, PJ Thum, Bonni Rambatan, and Fadiyah Alaidrus

Illustrator Konijn Sate

Graphic Design Ellena Ekarahendy, Mufqi Hutomo

Funding This article is supported by Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Grant C12.22_2021

This research report, excluding its illustrations, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit All illustrations are property of their respective illustrators.

Please cite this report as Pradipta, Lengga. 2022. Reclaiming Dignity, Reasserting Agency: Female Labour Migration in Indonesia. New Naratif.

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  1. Hi Lengga, It is an interesting set of findings with an amazing illustration by Konijn. I have a question about female labour agencies. I do agree that migration could be a practise of migrant decision-making as an autonomous individual to reclaim dignity. However, how do you explain the migration decision as a personal choice that is actually interwoven with social forces? For instance, they migrate because of the economic family strategy. And how far can they reclaim their dignity and agency in the destination countries?