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Abstract

This paper explores the intersection between gender and migration through an analysis of the advocacy strategies undertaken by Malaysian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and trade unions on behalf of female transnational migrant workers. In particular, the paper looks at the different ways in which local NGOs and trade unions have engaged with the so-called “rights-based approach” to migration that has been emphasized by transnational NGOs and key intergovernmental organizations – in particular the International Labour Organization (ILO). The paper suggests that despite the widespread feminization of migration in the region, the rights-based approach has tended to employ a gender-blind perspective on migration. It is only in the arena of activism around the rights of migrant domestic workers (an overwhelmingly feminized sector) that gender issues are brought to the fore of the migrant rights debate. The appropriation of rights-talk by activists organizing on behalf of migrant domestic workers does indicate that the language of human rights can be employed strategically in ways that place the concerns of women workers at their centre. However, there are significant limitations posed by the employment of a human rights “master frame” by pro-migrant worker activists. These limitations include: the continued association between rights and gender-blind universal (labour) standards; the linkage between rights and “public sphere” activities outside of the household realm; and the problematic relationship between universal notions of human rights and particularistic notions of citizenship under conditions of political authoritarianism.