Publication Details

Lyons, LT, Dignity Overdue: Women’s Rights Activism in Support of Foreign Domestic Workers in Singapore, Women’s Studies Quarterly, 35(3/4), 2007, 106-122.


The forces of globalisation increasingly compel feminist activists to engage internationally, either through their involvement in transnational networks and social movements, or by incorporating understandings of the ‘global’ into local and national activist practices. However, as differently situated actors with diverse agendas and priorities come together to address women’s rights within a transnational frame they face a range of challenges and contradictions. Rather than simply transcending the ‘national’, transnational feminist activists must pay particular attention to the roles played by nation-states and national governments in mediating the relationship between local and transnational groups. Amongst the issues they must consider are the ways in which local political cultures shape the willingness of women’s groups to openly adopt a rights based and/or feminist based identity, as well as state controls (overt as well as covert) on the operation of local and international NGOs. By focusing on organisations advocating for the rights of foreign domestic workers in Singapore, this paper problematises the meaning of terms such as ‘local’, ‘transnational’, and ‘women’s rights NGO’ in the context of global women’s activism. In doing so, it addresses three interrelated questions: 1) what does it mean for women right’s activists and/or feminists to work transnationally?; 2) what factors support and/or inhibit transnational activism?; and 3) what strategies are useful in assisting women’s rights groups to undertake transnational projects? The first part of this paper briefly surveys the growing literature on feminist transnational activism, before examining the issues facing migrant domestic workers in Southeast Asia. In the second part of the paper I provide an overview of the history of the feminist movement in Singapore with particular emphasis on the constraints of working within an authoritarian, patriarchal state, and the implications this has for attempts by Singaporean feminists to engage transnationally. The paper ends with a case study of two Singaporean-based NGOs – the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), an avowedly feminist organisation; and Transient Workers Count Too, a network of men and women with a pro-feminist outlook. Through these two case studies, this paper seeks to develop an understanding of the constraints and opportunities that feminist activists face in building effective transnational alliances in Southeast Asia.