ASIAN women who become domestic helpers in Hongkong or mail order brides elsewhere are trying to solve the same problems and escape the same fate. But until their conditions at home improve, neither marrying a ''rich'' westerner nor working as an amah is likely to lose its appeal, however harsh the conditions, the head of a regional women's programme believes. Dr Noeline Heyzer, a Singaporean sociologist, heads the gender and development programme at the Kuala Lumpur-based Asia and Pacific Development Centre. It began life as a United Nations project but in 1983 became an inter-governmental centre, funded by the 22 countries throughout the region it serves, including China and Hongkong. Dr Heyzer's task is to ensure the policies of governments in the region take greater account of women's needs. ''We use the experience of women's lives to try to influence government policy.'' She admits it is a frustrating task, but says unless governments can be persuaded to change their policies, the effectiveness of women's and community groups will be limited. Dr Heyzer specialises in the trade in domestic helpers in Asia. She says that's one area in which changes in government policy have been made, and the results of her chipping away can be seen. She carried out a regional study, looking at the suppliers - the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - and receivers, Hongkong, Singapore, Malaysia and the Gulf states - and the whole process from village level to the employer's household. ''What we found is that very often the choice to migrate, for instance to Hongkong, is not just the woman's choice. Very often it is a pressure put on her by her family. She is seen as someone who has a responsibility for the survival of her family.'' Often that decision to move gets the woman into a cycle of debt - borrowing money, selling her land, forced deductions by an employer. ''The whole network of recruitment has become such a big business there is a network of sub-agents that goes all the way down to the village and could even involve the shopkeeper or market trader,'' Dr Heyzer says. It was as a result of Dr Heyzer's efforts that then-president of the Philippines, Cory Aquino, banned the export of domestic helpers in 1980, sending her envoy around the region to try to improve their conditions. The ban was eventually lifted. ''While poverty exists it is very difficult not to allow international migration to take place,'' said Dr Heyzer. ''We need to have minimum conditions that will work in favour of the sending countries - for instance, to ensure that money they are sending home reaches there safely. ''We also need to help them build economic security. Many send money home but the village consumes the money and doesn't attempt to use it for some productive purpose, so they get caught up in migration after migration.'' The Hongkong Domestic Workers' Union is spearheading a movement to form an international association of domestic workers, aimed at breaking the monopoly of the large recruitment agencies. ''In Hongkong so many people are leaving the country many of these women face a terrible choice,'' said Dr Heyzer. ''They can try to migrate to another country such as Canada, but many countries are tightening the rules. ''Many of these women are desperate to keep a secure job because to go home means going to poverty. We need to think of ways of generating employment in their own countries, instead of international migration.'' Dr Heyzer added: ''Mail order brides are just taking a different path instead of becoming domestic workers. What they hope is by entering into a marriage they can get out of a situation of poverty. All these are dreams of seeking a better life.'' But many of those women did not realise that often the men seeking brides could not get partners in their own country because they were violent or incapable of forming satisfactory relationships. Some of Asia's most healthy, educated women were being matched with social misfits. Others, who become domestic workers, were also highly qualified, but their departure meant their countries were becoming de-skilled. Dr Heyzer said her centre recently made a grant to the All China Women's Federation to try to ensure some of the gains women have made in the past are not lost in the development boom, particularly in Guangdong and in mountainous regions which are becoming poorer. ''China is changing to a market-oriented economy, but what we have found is that the burdens are being passed on to a lot of women,'' she said. ''We have allocated funds for the re-training of people running training programmes so they are aware of the implications of their designs for women. ''They need to look at women and men at the community level, at their differing access to resources, at how each benefits from the way those resources are used to ensure that the changes are not at the cost of gains under the previous system.''