On a muggy summer evening, an elderly Kyrgyz woman named Raya sits selling vegetables from a makeshift booth on a street corner in southwestern Moscow. In between haggling with customers over prices, she describes the annual trip she makes from her home city of Jalalabad, in Kyrgyzstan. "I was here for five months last summer," she says, "and I came back in April." She purchases vegetables every morning from a bazaar and sells them on her street corner. "No one else will hire me," she laughs, gesturing at her aged body.
While the flood of Central Asian men to Russia's cities in search of work has been well documented, the past few years have also seen a quiet upsurge in female labor migrants like Raya.
"In recent times the number of female migrants has been growing," explains Afsona Kadirova, a legal advisor at the Angel Coalition, an alliance of non-governmental organizations that fights human trafficking and aids migrants. "The economies of [Central Asian] countries are fairly undeveloped. Many women are forced to begin working, even though in Central Asia [the practice of women working] is not considered particularly acceptable."
According to some calculations, nearly half of the estimated 300,000 Kyrgyz workers in Russia are female. The number of Tajik and Uzbek women seeking work is growing, analysts say, though reliable figures are unavailable.
While women usually leave their home countries for the same reasons as men - all female migrants interviewed by EurasiaNet listed money as the primary motivating factor - many young women noted an additional desire for adventure and independence. Venera, a 22-year-old Kyrgyz woman working the counter at a Subway restaurant in a Moscow shopping center, dropped out of university in Bishkek after three years to "earn money and help my parents, and also to make my own life."
But women searching for work abroad face dangers not encountered by their male counterparts. Foremost is the risk of being forced into the sex trade. "Female migrants encounter more violence and rights violations [than men]," describes Kadirova. "Often, in addition to being used as a free work force, they also undergo sexual exploitation." She notes that the frequency of human trafficking, at least in the CIS, is growing as the global financial crisis forces more and more women to seek work abroad.
Recent educational campaigns, however, such as those organized by groups like the Angel Coalition, and increased news coverage of the sex trade, have made young women increasingly wary about accepting work abroad. "Yes I'm scared," says Nargirya, a 27-year-old house cleaner from Kyrgyzstan, "I have heard a lot on TV and the radio about human trafficking."
Women also have to deal with all the same hassles encountered on a routine basis by male labor migrants - hassles including registration run-arounds and lying employers. Mavluda, a middle-aged single mother from Uzbekistan who came to work in construction, says, "Last November we finished a job and still haven't been paid. They tell us to be quiet when we complain. They don't want to give us money. Our boss is a liar."
"Most of them [migrants] work without registration, and they are cheated, and they can't even prove that they worked," notes Elena Burtina of the Civic Assistance Committee, which provides legal and medical aid to migrants from its cramped office in Moscow's center. "The government is obligated to help them in these situations," she said, adding that the process can take ages and many are afraid to seek help.
Indeed, perhaps half of Kyrgyzstan's migrant laborers live in Russia with a temporary registration or no registration at all, according to the International Organization on Migration. Russian officials have stated that there could be up to 1 million unregistered foreigners working in the capital, although no precise statistics exist.
Childcare is another example where women are forced to make painful decisions. Mavluda left her son and daughter two years ago when she moved to Moscow. They depend on her for financial support. "When I find work, I'll send them money," she says, "but now there is no normal work. We are all waiting, waiting, for money."
The fate of children who follow their parents can often be worse than remaining at home with grandparents or extended family. Kadirova notes that administrators in Moscow's schools and kindergartens often demand illegal bribes to accept the children of unregistered immigrants. In many cases, migrants can't afford to pay, and so the children don't go to school. "They walk around the streets hungry and no one looks after them," she says. "They are street children."
The recent closing of several large markets in Moscow has hit migrants especially hard, as many of whom work as porters or shopkeepers. An employee of the Civic Assistance Committee, who asked not to be identified, noted that many of the organization's regular attendees have been left without work since the closing of the Cherkovskii Market, Moscow's largest, in June. That closure may have left as many as 10,000 Tajik citizens without work, Tajikistan's Asia-Plus news agency has reported.
Female migrants are feeling the worldwide economic crisis. "I currently work three days a week, but I used to work five," explains Nargirya. "I'm not a [Russian] citizen yet, so no one will hire me for steady work. Before the crisis, with just a work permit, you could get hired, but that is no longer the case."
Despite the hardships, many women said they still prefer to remain in Moscow rather than return home. Although she admits she misses Kyrgyzstan, Venera admitted that "it is better here [Moscow], of course. There is work here, and it pays well."
All of Nargirya's plans focus on going farther from home. "I want to see the world, get experience, and see how people live," she says. She plans to continue looking for work in Europe and the Middle East, despite her concerns of exploitation.
But for Mavluda, family comes before adventure or money. "Had they given me my money last year, I would have gone home," she says of her employers. "But without money for tickets, how can I? My children are waiting."
"There is no money [in Uzbekistan], so I came here. But this turned out to be a lie too."
William OConnor the pseudonym for a journalist covering Central Asia.