The Brief History of TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan
Hsiao-Chuan Hsia January, 2007
TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan (TASAT), was formally established on 7th of December, 2003. Yet, the origin of TASAT dates back to the “Foreign Brides Chinese Literacy Program,” founded at Meinung, Kaohsiung, 1995. As the media describes it, TASAT had gone through the “Eight Years War of Resistance” before her success in formal establishment.
On 31st of July, 1995, a group of fellows from Meinung People’s Association witnessed that immigrant women from Southeast Asian countries were confined at home because of the language barriers. The fellows then decided to help the immigrant women by initiating “Foreign Brides Chinese Literacy Programs.” By learning Chinese, the fellows believed, the immigrant women could be free from the constraints, form a mutual help network and communicate with the society. The title of the program is marked with quotation marks to emphasize and challenge the prevalent discrimination and prejudices against the immigrant women in Taiwan.
In the first place, the fellows understood very well that the immigrant women were not illiterate. Rather, the problem is that their native languages and capacities are deemed useless in Taiwan. This language program is thus titled “Literacy Program” to stress the difficulty the immigrant women face in Chinese-dominant Taiwan. Moreover, the term “Foreign Brides” implies xenophobia and discrimination against women, where immigrant women are not only seen as foreigners forever but also as Taiwanese men’s subordinates. Immigrant women are by no means incompetent. Yet, the sudden change of environments as the result of marriage migration makes them lose their mother tongues and capacities, and consequently appear “illiterate.”
Therefore, the purpose of the “Meinung Foreign Brides Chinese Literacy Programs” is, via learning Chinese, to empower immigrant women to speak for themselves and form an organization to fight for their rights.
After various trials and errors, the Chinese Literacy Programs gradually develop programs based on the combination of the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and the “Theater of the Oppressed.” As the “Meinung Foreign Brides Chinese Literacy Programs” developed a more systematic curriculum, it started to offer various training workshops for volunteer teachers and work with other community organizations. In September, 2002, the “Meinung Foreign Brides Chinese Literacy Programs” cooperated with Yungho Community College in Taipei County and established a “Foreign Brides Chinese Literacy Program” there. The volunteer teachers of this program were from the Feminist Research Club in this community college. Yungho Community College became another base for grassroots organizing for immigrant women.
In the end of 2002, Awakening Foundation and Rotary Club organized a “Foreign Mother’s Parenting Education School.” The volunteers of the “Foreign Brides Chinese Literacy Program” at Yungho Community College took this opportunity to cooperate with three community colleges at Panchiao, Wenshan and Zhongshan by conducting training workshops. In the beginning of 2003, Panchiao Community College officially established the curriculum for new immigrant women, which later became TASAT’s another base for grassroots organizing for immigrant women. In September, 2006, Panchiao Community College helped Sanchong Community College to open the courses related to new immigrant women with the hope of expanding grassroots organizing for immigrant women.
On 16th of March, 2003, Awakening Foundation hosted an activity called “Southeast Asia--Taiwan Sisterhood.” This is the first encounter between the immigrant women from Meinung and Taipei. This activity was an awarding ceremony for the “Let New Immigrant Women Speak for Themselves Writing Contest” organized by the Awakening Foundation. Several immigrant women from Meinung and Yungho participated in the competition and won awards. They were invited to recite their compositions in front of the public. The immigrant women from Meinung were also invited to express their situations and feelings by drama. This is the first time that the immigrant women put on a play in public to show how they feel. With the help of “La Mama Theater,” the immigrant women shared their stories by acting, which touched heart of everyone in the audience. However, while the immigrant women enjoyed the success of performance, they were not aware that they would be experiencing an upheaval.
The Turning Point for Formal Establishment
After several years of empowerment, the immigrant women from Meinung were no longer silent. They were willing to speak out their opinions in the Chinese classes. A sense of community, or transnational sisterhood among the immigrant women, was gradually formed. However, the original goals of establishing an independent organization to voice out collectively were still far from realization. The proposals of organizing collective action for their rights and benefits were failed, or only remained as plans, never action, because members were only interested in social activities. Besides, some immigrant women lost their motives to attend the “Chinese Literacy Program” when they were able to speak fluent Chinese. After many discussions and reflections, the volunteers in Meinung realized that the “Chinese Literacy Program” itself was not enough for immigrant women to accumulate their collective strength because they still had to face various daily problems at home after their heated discussions in the classes. As a result, the volunteers decided to organize a “Hope Workshop” in 2001, aiming at uniting the immigrant women’s strength by having intensive discussions for two weekends.
With various dynamic methods, “Hope Workshop” outlined the immigrant women’s common problems and discussed the possible solutions one by one. In the end, a resolution and a strategy came out. It was decided that everyone donated NTD. 300 as the fund and tried to find a meeting place where everyone could get together and organize activities. Because of this collective action, the immigrant women in Meinung had their own space for the very first time. Their energy and strength could be accumulated and together they built a “New Home.” Step by step, they were in the process of forming an organization.
After the immigrant women in Meinung had the first meeting place, they actively started many training programs, which inspired them to be independent and eager to help other underprivileged women. Organizers of the Chinese Literacy Programs initiated a project of multi-language hotline for foreign spouses with the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention Committee, Ministry of Interior. After more than three years’ discussion and negotiation, yet, the Committee transferred the project to a Foundation with the reason that these organizers and immigrant women in Meinung are not professional at social work and may not understand the procedure for handling hotlines. The volunteers in charge of this project were terribly sad when they were informed of this decision. Considering that the immigrant women were rehearsing the drama for “Southeast Asia-Taiwan Sisterhood,” the volunteers decided not to tell them for the time being so that their confidence would not be attacked. After the “Southeast Asia-Taiwan Sisterhood” activity successfully completed, they had a celebration party, where the volunteers reported the frustrating news about the hotline project.
When seeing the immigrant women’s disappointed faces, the volunteers who used to take care of them could not help sobbing and crying. At that moment, instead of being taken care of, the immigrant women comforted the volunteers by saying that it was no big deal to lose the project. The immigrant women’s strength in turn helped calm the volunteers’ emotions. Collectively, immigrant women and volunteers discussed and analyzed why they lost this project. Eventually, they came to the realization that as long as they do not have a formal organization, it is difficult for them not only to get access to fundings but also to voice out collectively and make their demands heard by the government.
In the past, the volunteers familiar with the rules of distributing governmental resources knew the importance and necessity of establishing a formal organization. They encouraged the immigrant women to form a formal organization from time to time. However, the immigrant women did not realize this point at that time. With the firm belief that the organization should be formed from the immigrant women’s own initiatives, the volunteers did not urge them to do so. By careful reflection and discussion, the frustration and anger of the hotline project ironically became the turning point that helped the immigrant women understand the necessity of establishing a formal organization. They soon became actively involved in the preparation for founding assembly.
What is an organization? What is the objective? What is the constitution of the organization? What are the responsibilities of officers? What is the procedure of official registration? How much should the membership fee be? What should we name the organization? The immigrant women discussed and expressed their opinions at every detail. The volunteers helped them draft the constitution of “TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan.” Later on, they divided the tasks into several working groups, including membership recruitment, preparation for founding assembly, and fundraising.
With the immigrant women’s efforts and active participation, “TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan” was finally established officially on 7th of December, 2003 at the Women’s Center, Kaohsiung City. The immigrant women and the volunteers in Taipei chartered two buses to attend the founding assembly. According to the by-laws of TASAT, resulted from the immigrant women’s discussions, the immigrant women should occupy more than two thirds of the officers. The first group of officers included immigrant women from Kaohsiung and Taipei, the volunteers, and some representatives from friendly organizations such as Awakening Foundation. The first office of TASAT was set up in Meinung. Due to limited resources, TASAT could only afford one full-time staff at the beginning. Various projects mainly depended on the volunteers and the cadre among immigrant women. As for the office in Taipei, since the rent was too expensive, projects were held and based in the Community Colleges until July, 2005, when they finally set up an office.
Objectives and Orientation
The objectives of TASAT are to help the immigrant women break away from isolation and become an active participant in the society. To achieve this goal, there are three major tasks in TASAT, namely, grassroots organizing, public education and policy advocacy. These three tasks are interconnected, reinforcing and complementing each other.
First of all, we believe that all grassroots people have the potentials to become independent, willing to help others, and the movers/subjects of the history. The task of an organization is to provide every means and approach so that the individuals can break through the structural constraints, making their lives meaningful, not only for themselves but for the societies and history.
The task of “grassroots organizing” is for both immigrant women and Taiwanese volunteers. The empowerment of immigrant women is based on the fulfillment of their immediate needs such as offering classes for Chinese and multi-cultural parenting education. In the classes, a friendly and pleasant atmosphere is created to encourage dialogues, where by being strongly encouraged to share their life experiences, immigrant women can gradually build confidence, develop a solidarious network, later become actively involved in the public issues, and even join the new immigrants’ movement and make the history. In this process of empowering immigrant women, Taiwanese volunteers and staff can also experience a process of empowering. They not only learn from the immigrant women but also begin to know more about social issues and develop their interests and capacity to actively participate in the public issues.
In order to reach the goal of grassroots empowerment, TASAT has initiated and implemented various programs. The Chinese classes continue to help immigrant women to speak for themselves. From various sharing and discussions, we found that many immigrant women are afraid or unwilling to speak their mother tongues to their children because they are repeatedly told that the Southeast Asian languages and cultures are worthless. Since some immigrant women cannot speak Chinese fluently, their interactions with children are sadly limited. In order to solve this problem, we have encouraged immigrant women to draw their story books and share their life with children via pictures and in their mother tongues.
Other than that, TASAT has been training immigrant women to be the seed teachers of Southeast Asian languages, cultures, and multiculturalism. They share their experiences of migration all over Taiwan and start teaching Southeast Asian languages, cultures and multiculturalism to the Taiwanese. From being a “learner” to become a “teacher,” the immigrant women are much more confident than before. The income from giving talks and teaching courses can also improve their economic situation and their position in the family. Their sharing and speeches also transform the stereotypes and discriminations against them in the host society. Their active involvement has indeed enriched multiculturalism in Taiwan. From those practices, they develop stronger beliefs in themselves and in collective action, Moreover, by expanding interaction with the general public, they are much more aware of their situations in Taiwan inspired to think what they can do to improve the situation collectively.
In addition to adjusting to the new environments and confronting economic difficulties, immigrant women are facing various stigmatas and discrimination. To transform the unfriendly environment, TASAT grasps every opportunity to arrange the immigrant women to share and speak, and be interviewed by media. TASAT also works on developing collaborative relationship between immigrant women and the host communities by various efforts, including joining community activities such as “The Yellow Butterfly Festival in Meinung,” and providing multi-cultural childcare services at Yungho and Panchiao Community Colleges.
Moreover, by “seeing” for themselves the immigrant women’s creative abilities, such as writings and paintings, the general public are more likely to change their opinions. The immigrant women’s works could therefore have critical impacts on the Taiwan society. Since the immigrant women have strong motives to learn Chinese, we encourage them to write and help them publish their articles in the community publications such as “Meinung Moonlight Mountain Magazine.” Moreover, their articles have appeared several times on national newspapers expressing their opinions and demands on certain issues. In September, 2005, we collected the immigrant women’s articles and paintings and edited it into a book titled “Don’t Call Me Foreign Bride.” This is the first book of immigrant women’s work, and the title of the book speaks out their feeling. The book also serves as a window through which Taiwanese people can “see” feelings and opinions of the immigrant women. “Don’t Call Me Foreign Bride” includes not only the immigrant women’s stories but also the articles by the volunteers who have accompanied them along the way. From one after another touching stories, moving pictures and drawings, Taiwanese people can see the vitality and strength of the immigrant women, and to reflect on discrimination and unfriendly policies and regulations against them.
The issues that the immigrant women are facing relate to many other laws and regulations. TASAT thus actively links with other related organizations to advocate for policy and law reforms. As the government hastened their action to make laws to regulate and restrict the new immigrants, TASAT works with organizations concerning women, workers, human rights, migrants, immigrants issues and formed the Alliance for Human Rights Legislation for Immigrants and Migrants (AHRLIM) on 12th of December, 2003. This alliance has waged protests against politicians’ discriminatory remarks and governmental policies against immigrants and migrants. Moreover, AHRLIM has focused on the Immigration Act and submitted its own draft of amendment to the Immigration Act to the Legislative Yuan in March, 2005 after successfully lobbying endorsement of legislators from different political parties. The Immigration Act is still under reviews at the Legislative Yuan and expecting to be deliberated soon.
Immigrant women are both immigrants and women. Like other Taiwanese women, they face the pressure of “mothering.” In a society which does not provide comprehensive social welfare, women are forced to shoulder most of parenting responsibilities without public resources. For the immigrant women, they suffer even more than Taiwanese women because they do not have a supporting network in the host society and they have been stigmatized as not being capable of educating children, which leads TASAT to joins the “Alliance for Public Childcare.”
In addition to concerning the rights of immigrant women, TASAT also tries to create a venue for immigrant women to develop empathy with other disadvantaged groups by collaborating with organizations for minority groups. For example, by serving as interpreters for helping organizations investigating human rights violation cases against migrant workers and human trafficking, immigrant women of TASAT gradually develop empathy and further understand the related issues. As the result of accumulative efforts, immigrant women of TASAT were willing to participate in the Anti-Slave Labor March on 11th of December, 2005, initiated by migrant organizations in reaction to the Thai migrant worker’s uprising against the inhuman treatment by their employers and brokers. By discussing and supporting the anti-slave labor march, immigrant women of TASAT understood and realized that immigrants and migrants should have equal rights, no matter whether they come to Taiwan as migrant workers or marriage migrants.
The experiences of TASAT have attracted many organizations in Taiwan to visit and share. The media and related organizations from other countries, including Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, U.K. and U.S., are also interested in learning from TASAT. By sharing experiences with groups from Taiwan and other countries, TASAT has gradually broadened their perspectives and expanded international networking.
The immigrant women of TASAT have significantly increased their participation in public issues, from sharing their immigration experiences, giving lectures on Southeast Asian histories, languages, cultures, multiculturalism, to advocating policy and legal reforms on immigration, and further reaching out to other disadvantaged groups such as migrant workers. In this process, the immigrant women’s initial sense of community developed from the “Chinese Literacy Program” and TASAT has been transformed to a comprehensive commitment to issues of human rights for immigrants and migrants.
As TASAT gradually grows with ever more complicated and multi-layered activities and involvement, problems and difficulties in interpersonal relations and collaboration have arisen. After continuous trials and errors, exploration and reflection, TASAT invited Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, which is very experienced in grassroots organizing, to facilitate various training workshops for its organizers and leaders. From these trainings, the immigrant women, volunteers and staff collectively identified the obstacles in the developing process of TASAT and found the resolutions. By analyzing the problems, TASAT could better evaluate its development and have a better view on its future direction. With this deep reflection and evaluation, TASAT will walk one step after another ever more steadily toward a brighter future.