2015_nisha-varia_06_web-bioNisha Varia

Nisha Varia is the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division. As a researcher in the women’s rights division between 2003 and 2014, she conducted investigations, published reports, and carried out advocacy campaigns on migrant domestic workers’ rights across Asia and the Middle East. Her advocacy contributed to the adoption of the groundbreaking 2011 International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention. Varia’s other work has included developing training materials for interviewing survivors of sexual violence and research on human rights impacts of coal mining in Mozambique, women’s political participation in Afghanistan, and abuses against refugee women in Nepal.

Varia is a lecturer on human rights research and advocacy at The New School in New York City. Before joining Human Rights Watch, Varia worked at the International Center for Research on Women and was a Fulbright scholar to India. Varia received a master’s degree in economic and political development from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor’s degree in economics and anthropology from Stanford University.

1) You serve as the Advocacy Director for the Women’s Division for Human Rights Watch – why women?
Women and girls around the world face discrimination and violence. Often, these abuses are “invisible” because society accepts them as normal, or because they take place in private settings, for example domestic violence.
2) Your work has included becoming an expert on migrant domestic worker issues in Asia and The Middle East – tell us,  has there been a common theme in the cases you researched?
Unfortunately, I found a pattern of similar abuses across countries as diverse as Singapore and Saudi Arabia. Employers often feel like they own domestic workers and may force them to work long hours around the clock without rest, and for a fraction of the minimum wage. Many domestic workers would be confined to the workplace and in the worst cases, face horrific verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.
What is striking about abuses against domestic workers is the laws generally served to further discriminate against them instead of protect them. Typically domestic workers are excluded from the labor laws across Asia and the Middle East, although that is slowly changing. Those exclusions are an example of how discriminatory social norms get codified into law–work traditionally viewed as “women’s work” such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of kids—is devalued. Migrant domestic workers are also tied to their employers through restrictive migration policies that makes it hard to escape abusive situations.
3) Migrant  domestic workers are seen as women who are weak and perhaps easily marginalized. How you would you describe them?
Many women who migrate know that they are leaving behind their loved ones—often their partners and young children—in order to provide for them. They know they will face the heartbreak of taking care of someone else’s children instead of their own. Many of them also know that it’s an industry laced with peril, with the risk of being cheated by recruiters or abused by their employers. Despite this, they migrate to countries where they may not speak the language or understand the customs, because they have limited options and want to build a better life for themselves and their families. The words that come to mind are brave and generous.
4) Share with us a story about one of these women and how it has personally impacted you.
I remember interviewing an Indonesian teenager who had been raped repeatedly by her employer in Malaysia. She was so distraught and scared and lonely and the one thing she wanted most was to be reunited with her mother. In Malaysia, as in many countries, a criminal case often takes more than a year to be completed—often a couple of years—and the migrant domestic worker typically must stay in the country in the interim. She is not allowed to work and will often be stuck in a shelter. As a result, many abused workers go home and do not testify in criminal cases, because they would rather go home and begin to heal. As much as everyone wants to see an abusive employer in prison, it’s a reminder on taking a victim-centered approach and to fight against all the institutional barriers that force them to choose between justice and self-care.
5) Your work has led to the powerful adoption of the ILO ‘s Domestic Workers Convention. Why was this so important?
Domestic work is an extremely important source of employment for women around the world. Yet they are routinely excluded from basic labor protections such as a minimum wage, a weekly day off, or limits to hours of work. Only 10% of domestic workers labor in countries where they get equal treatment under national laws. The ILO Domestic Workers Convention created new global labor standards that made it clear domestic workers should get the same protections as other workers, and some additional ones too, given the unique nature of their work in private homes. The process of the negotiations was important for sensitizing governments about the widespread and invisible exploitation taking place, and educating them about successful models for change. And it mobilized a strong and growing coalition of groups—domestic workers organizations, trade unions, migrants’ groups, and others, to fight for implementation of the new standards.
6) As you travel the world, do you feel we are more connected as a global society then before, or is it more polarized?
It’s a mixture of  both. There are incredible inequalities, and while some sectors of society grow increasingly interconnected and wealthy, others remain isolated and often marginalized.
7) What is the most pressing issue facing women today?
Given women make up half the world’s population, there is no single answer to that question. For women who live in conflict settings, it is basic safety and security. For those living in countries with highly discriminatory laws, it may be their legal status and fighting restrictions that affect their ability to study, work, marry freely, divorce, or keep custody of their children. There is a whole range of women’s rights issues—freedom from discrimination and violence, access to quality schooling, control over economic resources, and political participation—that are all profoundly important.