In a Thai factory just across the border from Myanmar, a young woman with a gently
rounded face and wide eyes assembles costume jewellery for export to North America.
Her name is Saokham and she earns 140 Thai Baht (about US$3.50) a day. In this part
of the world, it is a respectable wage—particularly for someone who grew up living
in abject poverty in a mountain village in Myanmar’s Shan Province. Although Saokham
completed eight years of free schooling, she was unable to continue her education
because her parents were too poor to pay her school fees. At the age of 14 she followed
her older sister—who had left home two years earlier—to neighbouring Thailand. Today,
she lives with her young husband in a community of fellow compatriots near the Myanmar
border. "Living in Thailand, we have money for food and to spend. Life is convenient,"
she says. "Back home we didn't have any work except farm work."
Saokham is part of a steadily growing revolution. It is a revolution of movement and
empowerment; fuelled by hope and bedevilled by risk. Yet it remains largely silent.
Today, 94.5 million, or nearly half (49.6 per cent) of all international migrants,
are women.(1) If international migration has remained on the periphery of global
policymaking until recently, the issue of migrant women has received even less attention.
This is because research has failed to take into account the socio-economic contributions
and unique experiences of women and girls.(2)
It is an important oversight, one that has broad consequences not only for the women who
migrate, but also for families and communities left behind. Their remittances constitute
a significant contribution to poverty reduction and development. Despite this, women
face disproportionate obstacles and risks simply because they are female. These include
discrimination—both at source and destination—abuse and exploitation, which testify to
the neglect of their rights (see Chapter 3). Nevertheless,
migration has proven to be a positive experience for millions of women and their families
worldwide. Moving to a new country exposes women to new ideas and social norms that can
promote their rights and enable them to participate more fully in society. It can also
have a positive influence on gender norms in the country of origin. In all cases,
policymakers need to focus attention on how discrimination influences the course of
international migration at the individual, family, community and country levels. Only
when international migration is properly managed will the human rights of migrant
women be fulfilled and their contributions—to their families, their communities and
their countries—be fully realized.
"There are very limited job opportunities in this country [Ethiopia]...
I remember how I suffered before securing a job in Yemen... things would
have been worse for me and my family had I not gone abroad to work."
— Ethiopian woman who migrated (undocumented) to Yemen to work as a domestic
worker. Within four years, she managed to bring her five sisters.
Globalization and the Migration of Women
While most women historically migrate for marriage or family
reunification, the past decades have seen an increase in women—married and unmarried—who
migrate alone or in the company of other women or fellow migrants outside of their family
circle.(3) Women are on the move in all parts of the world,
drawn by the opportunities and forces of globalization. Biases regarding what constitutes
appropriate "male" or "female" labour, government policies and employer practices influence
why and where women and men move, for what occupations and under what conditions.
While migrant women and men are both in demand, the latter are more
likely to occupy highly skilled and better-paid jobs. Women, on the other hand, are
often restricted to traditionally "female" occupations—such as domestic work, work in
the service sectors (waitressing etc.), and sex work—frequently unstable jobs marked
by low wages, the absence of social services and poor working conditions.
(4) Nevertheless, because care work and nursing remain
traditional female roles, certain migration channels are now wide open—with formal
mechanisms designed to fill the demand for female employees. However, even when
migrating legally, women are often relegated to jobs where they are subject to
discrimination, arbitrary employment terms and abuses.
Click here to enlarge image
Source: UN Population Division. 2006. Trends in Total Migrant Stock: The 2005 Revision.
THE DECISION TO MOVE
In addition to responding to the global demand for their services,
women make the decision to move abroad because of a host of "push" factors in countries
of origin. These include family obligations, unemployment, low wages, poverty, limited
social and economic opportunities and the desire to expand their horizons. Women
generally face greater decision-making and financial restrictions than do men, which can
pose obstacles to freedom of movement. Yet income-earning opportunities abroad can loosen
traditional constraints on female mobility. Economic and social upheaval can also provide
the impetus to leave. For example, the 1998 economic crisis and the dollarization of the
Ecuadorian currency in the year 2000 sparked a major outflow of new migrants to Spain.
(5) The 1997 financial crisis in Asia similarly led to the
emigration of many women from poorer countries.(6) For educated
women unable to overcome employment discrimination in their own country, migration offers
an opportunity to find work that is more likely to better utilize their skills.
(7) Women also migrate to flee abusive marriages and patriarchal
traditions that limit opportunity and freedom.(8) Discrimination
against certain groups of women—single mothers, unmarried women, widows or divorcees—also
drives many to move elsewhere.(9)
Over the last 40 years, almost as many women have migrated as men.
Most moved to join their husbands in the settler countries of Australia, Canada, New
Zealand and the United States. By the year 2005, there were slightly more female than
male immigrants in all regions of the world except Africa and Asia.
Among developed regions, North America is exceptional in that female
immigrants have outnumbered male immigrants since 1930 and still do in both Canada and
the United States.(2) Europe and Oceania are also reporting
increasing proportions of female immigrants— surpassing the number of males since 2000.
(3) Among migrants to Australia, women have outnumbered men
for the last three decades. The majority of women migrating to Australia, New Zealand,
Europe and North America do so for family reunification, followed by labour migration and
Within the developing world, the numbers of female labour migrants have
In Asia, the number of women migrating from some countries has surpassed
that of males. The majority migrate alone to neighbouring East Asian countries, the Middle
East and elsewhere. By the year 2000, an estimated two million Asian women were working in
neighbouring countries.(6) In 2005, over 65 per cent of the nearly
3,000 Filipinos that left the country every day for work or residence abroad were women.
(7) From Sri Lanka in 2002, there were two women for every male
emigrant.(8) Between 2000 and 2003, an average of 79 per cent of
all migrants leaving Indonesia to work abroad were women.(9) By
the mid-1990s an estimated 800,000 Asian women were migrating to the Middle East annually—mostly
as domestic workers.(10)
Latin American and Caribbean women are also highly mobile.
By 1990, immigrant women in Latin America were the first in the developing world to reach
parity with male migrants.(11) Destinations include Europe, North
America and elsewhere in South America. The trend toward feminization is also strikingly
apparent among migrants moving from both Central and South America to Spain, with women
representing nearly 70 per cent of all immigrants arriving from Brazil and the Dominican
Republic in 2001.(12) Women from this region also clearly
dominate migration flows to Italy, where, in 2000, 70 per cent or more of the arrivals
from 13 of 30 source countries were women.(13) Caribbean women
have outnumbered males in migration flows to North America during every decade since the
1950s and are well represented in skilled categories.(14) The
tourism industry has been a major pull factor behind the migration of Caribbean women.
In Africa, widespread poverty, disease, land degradation and
high male unemployment are all contributing to a steady increase in female migrants—and
at a rate that is faster than the global average.(16) By 2005,
47 per cent of the 17 million immigrants in Africa were women—up from 42 per cent in
1960—with the greatest increases among migrants in the Eastern and Western regions.
(17) While most African women circulate within the region,
they are also moving to North America and Europe. To illustrate: From Cape Verde, women
constitute 85 per cent of all those who migrate to Italy.(18)
Employment opportunities in France have drawn an increasing number of educated women from
urban areas of Senegal.(19) Nurses are also on the
move—Nigerians to Saudi Arabia, and Ghanaian, South African and Zimbabwean nurses to
Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.(20)
In the Arab region, socio-cultural norms continue to limit
female mobility. Although reliable data are scarce, it is generally accepted that male
émigrés far outnumber women. Unemployment, armed conflicts and economic need have been
major factors. Young men migrating from poorer countries to richer oil-producing states
have dominated migration flows to fill the demand for construction and infrastructural
workers that followed in the wake of the oil boom.
Millions of Faces, Many Experiences
Migrant women move to marry, rejoin migrant husbands and family or to work. They are domestic
workers, cleaners, caretakers of the sick, the elderly and of children. They are farmers,
waitresses, sweatshop workers, highly skilled professionals, teachers, nurses, entertainers,
sex workers, hostesses, refugees and asylum-seekers. They are young and old, married, single,
divorced and widowed. Many migrate with children. Others are forced to leave them behind.
Some are educated and searching for opportunities more consistent with their qualifications.
Others are from low-income or poor rural backgrounds and are seeking a better life for
themselves and their children.
MOVING TO WED: ARRANGED, FORCED AND MAIL-ORDER BRIDES
Marriage has played a significant role in female migration and still does.
(10) In today’s globalized world, however, marriage migration has
taken on an added dimension—the growing phenomenon of international unions, including
mail-order brides and arranged and forced marriages.
Arranged marriages are quite common in some cultures, especially among émigrés from the
Indian sub-continent, where both men and women migrate for this purpose.
(11) For many, arranged marriages can lead to a lifelong
supportive partnership. But where a woman or girl's own wishes and human rights are
disregarded, such unions can be more accurately described as "forced".
Governments of receiving countries are now struggling to come to
grips with the issue. In 2004, the United Kingdom established a Forced Marriage Unit in
a bid to halt the practice and provide support to victims.(13) In
Australia, recent legislation includes sentences of 25 years for anyone sending a minor abroad
for marriage against her will.(14) In Denmark, authorities have
established a nationwide network of crisis centres for women and girls who have been forced
into marriage.(15) The French Government has also expressed
concern and plans to curb the automatic recognition of foreign unions.(16)
In Asia, there is also a high demand for foreign brides
(see Box 5). Migration to Taiwan, Province of China, for the purpose
of marriage is skyrocketing. Foreign brides, mostly from China and South-East Asia, now number
about 300,000—half of the total foreign population.(17) Since the
1990s, nearly 100,000 Vietnamese women have married Taiwanese men.(18)
There is also a surge in the numbers of women migrating to the Republic of Korea to marry local
men.(19) Nevertheless, even where marriage is "consensual", women
from poorer countries still face unequal terms and conditions because these unions usually
involve men from wealthier countries.(20)
When it comes to the global trade in mail-order and internet brides, women,
on the whole, are willing participants—whether out of a desire to find a supportive partner and
economic security or as a means to gain legal entry into another country. The trade-off, however,
is that they are dependent for their legal status on their grooms-to-be.
(21) In this case, demand is also driving supply. In Russia, for
example, nearly 1,000 agencies offer intermediary services,(22) with
an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Russian women emigrating every year on fiancée visas: According
to the Department of Justice, 80,000 have entered the United States in the past ten years.
(23) In addition, mail-order bride businesses can act as facades to
recruit and traffic women—including those that send Russian women to toil in the sex industries
in Germany, Japan and the United States.(24) Worried about the
possibility of abuse, the US passed a law in 2005 authorizing consulates to share information
with would-be brides regarding their husbands-to-be.(25)
In parts of Asia, various factors are fuelling the demand for potential brides.
In many East and South East Asian countries, the increase in women entering the workforce—coupled
with a trend towards delaying or forgoing marriage and childbearing altogether—is leading to a
demand for more "traditional" brides in order to maintain the household.(1)
Female rural to urban migration is another factor accounting for the bride deficit. And researchers
are also attributing the shortage to the as many as 100 million "missing" women and girls—eliminated
through prenatal sex selection and infanticide.(2) A strong preference
for sons and exorbitant dowry demands are the leading reasons behind the quiet decimation of girls.
In China and India, an estimated 40.1 and 39.1 million women and girls are "missing" respectively.
Men are increasingly scouting outside their own borders to fill the gap. In India,
villagers approach brokers to procure Bangladeshi and Nepali women and girls, who often face
discrimination on account of being poor, ethnically different and paid for—a justification for
abusive behaviour by some husbands who may feel that they "own" their wives. For some women and
their families, these arrangements offer an escape from poverty. But for others it is a one-way
ticket to hardship, social exclusion and forced labour.(4)
A 2005 study of 213 Vietnamese migrant women who had once lived in China
found that close to 30 per cent had been sold as brides. Many reported that they had entered
into the arrangement because of poverty (91 per cent reported income insufficient for "survival",
and 69 per cent cited unemployment) and to provide for elderly parents (80 per cent). Though
many planned to send remittances back home, most found themselves confined to the household
instead, or working on the household plot. Researchers also uncovered evidence of physical
abuse and reproductive rights violations.(5)
PRIVATE LABOUR AND PUBLIC NEEDS: DOMESTIC WORKERS
Domestic work is one of the largest sectors driving international female
labour migration. As more North American, Western European and East Asian women have entered
the workforce, fewer are available to attend to the elderly, children and the infirm. In the
United States, for example, the proportion of working women with children under the age of
six soared from 15 per cent in 1950 to upwards of 65 per cent today.(26)
Despite the rapid entry of women into the labour force, a corresponding shift that would have
more men carry an equal share of household responsibility has not occurred.
Furthermore, a lack of family-friendly policies and childcare facilities
makes hiring nannies and domestic workers essential for those who can afford it. Indeed,
two-income households have become a necessity where costs of living are high. More prosperous
families, declining social benefits (owing to welfare reform and privatization) and increases
in the longevity and size of the elderly population are also adding to the demand.
(27) These factors have all spurred massive outflows of women from
Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and now also increasingly from Africa
(see Chapter 3). In Spain, for example, approximately 50 per cent of
annual immigrant quotas are designated for domestic workers.(28) Most
Asian domestic workers head to the Middle East, where prosperity is driving demand.
(29) Domestic workers also move within regions, from poorer countries
to richer ones.
For millions of women and their families, the "global care chain" offers
considerable benefits, albeit with some serious drawbacks: i.e., separation from children and
other loved ones (see Box 6). Aside from salaries that are several
times higher than what they receive at home, international domestic workers also gain personal
and social benefits, including improved educational and health opportunities for their children,
gifts, extra cash to send back home and travel with employer families. In the case of Muslim
domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates, the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to Mecca
can lead to the fulfilment of a lifetime dream.(30)
Many of the international domestic workers and caregivers who leave their
homes to care for others abroad also have their own children and elders to look after. Migrant
women usually either pass on this responsibility to other female relatives—or, with their higher
foreign earnings, hire lower-income domestic workers to manage their own households. This
phenomenon is known as the "global care chain", an international system of caregiving stratified
by class and, often, ethnicity.(1)
Many domestic workers wind up running two households, their employers' as
well as their own, from afar. Both they and their female employers continue to shoulder
disproportionate responsibilities: Women spend 70 per cent of their unpaid time caring for
family members—a contribution to the global economy that remains largely unrecognized.
(2) Needless to say, leaving one’s family in order to sustain
it takes a huge psychological and emotional toll. These women provide love and affection
to their employer's children in exchange for earnings that can improve the quality of life
of their own children— whom they sometimes never see for many years.
ENTERTAINMENT, HOSPITALITY AND THE SEX INDUSTRY GO GLOBAL
Globalization has resulted in an explosion in the entertainment and sex
industries. These are providing additional migration channels for women—albeit largely owing
to few other alternatives.
In 2004, United Kingdom records revealed that the second largest category
of work permit applications from foreign women were for "entertainment and leisure" at 5,908—with
another 4,627 applying for "hospitality, catering" and "other" occupations.
(31) In Canada, over 1,000 temporary work permits a year were granted
to exotic dancers in the mid-1990s.(32) In 2004, Japan admitted nearly
65,000 women on entertainment visas, the majority of whom were from the Philippines.
(33) These high numbers (coupled with concerns over trafficking)
have prompted the Government to review requirements for entertainers.(34)
The boundary between "entertainment" (singers, dancers, hostesses) and
sex work is often blurred—especially for those women who have been coerced and/or abducted.
(35) For instance, in 2004, more than 1,000 Russian women were
engaged in sex work in the Republic of Korea. Most had entered the country on entertainment
or tourist visas but were then forced into prostitution by business owners and recruiters.
Sex work is a lucrative business. Throughout the 1990s, it accounted for
more than 2 per cent of the GDP in four South-East Asian countries.(37)
Sex workers circulate in Asia and Europe, and also move from Latin America to Europe and North
America, and from Eastern to Western Europe.(38) Given the largely
unregulated and underground nature of these industries, actual numbers are hard to come by and
are likely higher than available estimates. Many workers also remain in the host country once
their visas have expired. Some estimates pin the numbers of women working in the illegal sex
trade in the European Union at 200,000 and 500,000. Many have been trafficked.
"Here there were a lot of opportunities for my children, so they could have
a different kind of life. For all the opportunities, all the good things that
my children have, I love this country, I love it. I am very thankful."
— Venezuelan domestic worker living in the US, who fled with her two children
from an abusive husband.
A WORLD OF SKILLS, A WORLD OF OPPORTUNITY: FEMALE PROFESSIONALS
More and more female professionals—teachers, nurses, scientists, technicians
and business owners—are moving abroad, despite the fact that many face considerable obstacles
just to have their qualifications recognized.(40) Since the early
2000s, roughly one quarter of employed migrant women living in Finland, Sweden and the United
Kingdom have been working in the education and health sectors.(41)
Since 2001, both the UK and the US have been recruiting Caribbean teachers directly out of high
school and college. This has had an adverse effect on the quality of education in Jamaican
In the United Kingdom, the number of migrant women participating in the
information, communication and technology, finance and business sectors has also increased.
(43) In Australia, recent data also show that more women are
migrating to the country to work in managerial, professional and paraprofessional positions.
(44) Educated and skilled women are migrating within Africa and
Latin America as well. These include arts and sciences professionals from Argentina, Chile
and Uruguay to Brazil.(45)
A huge international demand for nurses is encouraging more and more women
to migrate. But as wealthier countries strive to satisfy their need, others are experiencing
troubling shortfalls (see Box 7). More than one in four nurses
and aides working in major cities in the United States are foreign born.
(46) In New Zealand, the nurse registry shows that in 2002, 23 per
cent of nurses were foreign.(47) In Singapore, 30 per cent of the
nurses registered in 2003 were born outside the country.(48) Virtually
all of the foreign-trained nurses working in the United Kingdom migrate from Africa, Asia and the
West Indies.(49) Indeed, the number of newly registered nurses from
Africa quadrupled between 1998 and 2004.(50)
The massive outflow of trained nurses, midwives and doctors from poorer
to wealthier countries is one of the most difficult challenges posed by international
migration today. It highlights the complexities of migration as it relates to poverty
alleviation and human development goals. On the one hand, skilled women and men are
increasingly turning to migration as a means to improve their own lives and that of
their families. On the other, their countries are facing a health-care crisis unprecedented
in the modern world.
This is causing substantial problems. The World Health Organization
(WHO) recommends a minimum ratio of 100 nurses for every 100,000 people, but many poor
countries do not come even close. In some (Central African Republic, Liberia, Uganda)
the ratio is less than 10 nurses per 100,000 people, as compared to more than 2,000 per
100,000 people in wealthier nations (Finland and Norway). In Europe, the average ratio
is 10 times that of Africa and South East Asia.(1)
The yearly exodus of 20,000 highly qualified nurses and doctors from
Africa(2) is worsening an already grave situation for a region
ravaged by disease, HIV/AIDS and the tragic reality that one in 16 women will face a
lifetime risk of dying from childbirth.(3) To meet the
United Nations Millennium Development Goals of reducing HIV and infant and maternal
mortality by 2015, sub-Saharan Africa will require one million more health workers
(4)—including 620,000 nurses.(5)
The motivations for migrating, however, are anything but in short supply.
In many poor countries, health systems are collapsing, under-funded and facing chronic
shortages of basic supplies, equipment and staff. This is exacerbated by overwhelming
pressure brought on by massive health-care needs. Nurses cite the following reasons
behind their desire to migrate: being overburdened, low pay, poor opportunities for
promotion, lack of management support and poor working relationships.
(6) Meanwhile, the continued outflow of colleagues is
aggravating existing health-care disparities and is contributing to low morale among
remaining staff. In 2000, twice as many nurses left Ghana as graduated.
(7) Two years later, the Ministry of Health estimated a
nurse vacancy rate of 57 per cent.(8) In 2003, Jamaica
and Trinidad and Tobago reported nursing vacancies of 58 and 53 per cent, respectively.
(9) In 2003, an estimated 85 per cent of employed Filipino
nurses were working abroad.(10)
Governments have begun to tackle the problem. In 2004, the United
Kingdom Department of Health issued a revised Code of Conduct that restricts the hiring
of nurses from developing countries unless there is an official agreement with the source
country.(11) However, private agencies continue to recruit.
(12) From April 2004 to March 2005, 3,301 nurses from banned
countries registered with the United Kingdom—most were from South Africa.
(13) Both Canada and the United Kingdom are supporting source
countries (such as Jamaica and South Africa) in their efforts to train more nurses and
teachers to help offset the negative impact of the brain drain.(14)
The South African Nursing Council will not register nurses recruited from the 14 Southern
African Development Community (SADC) countries without a prior agreement between governments.
(15) The Philippines has filed many bills requiring nurses to
serve in the country for a two-year period before leaving.(16)
Nursing associations are also increasingly expressing worry over the
impact of the brain drain, while searching for solutions that would still safeguard freedom
of movement: The profession is one of the few migration streams that offer women formal
sector employment at a decent wage. National nursing associations, the International Council
of Nurses (with members in 128 countries),(17) the European
Federation of Nurses Associations,(18) and the Caribbean Nurses
Organization(19) are taking an increasingly proactive approach,
including calls for the improved management of health sector human resources globally.
Nevertheless, such measures are unlikely to slow demand. WHO estimates
that by 2008, Great Britain will require 25,000 doctors and 250,000 nurses more than it
did in 1997. The US Government projects that by 2020, more than one million nursing
positions will need to be filled.(20) Canada and Australia
are projecting nursing deficits of 78,000(21) and 40,000,
(22) respectively, during the next four to five years.
Self-employment allows women to juggle work and family responsibilities and
offers an alternative to labour discrimination or exploitative work conditions.
(51) In Southern and West Africa, this is best illustrated by a growing
reliance on cross-border trade. Zimbabwean women, for example, are finding creative ways to
supplement their family income by purchasing goods from Mozambique, South Africa, the United
Republic of Tanzania and Zambia for resale in their own country, where runaway inflation has put
consumer items beyond the reach of the average buyer.(52) Self-employment
is also on the increase among migrant South Asian, Chinese and Turkish women living in the United
Over the past decades, the establishment of factories, such as the maquiladoras
along the United States-Mexico border and the textile industries in Asia, has increased employment
opportunities for women. These rely heavily on female workers and have provided many with a
springboard for work in other countries. In 2001 in Mauritius, women accounted for nearly three
quarters of foreign workers labouring in the garment and textile sector. Though roughly half were
married with children, most were drawn by higher wages—even if it meant leaving loved ones, including
children, behind.(54) In the estimated 200 factories that pepper the
landscape around Tak Province, Thailand, migrant women from Myanmar constitute nearly 70 per cent
of the workforce. Wages are much higher: In their home country, women can expect to earn US$15
compared to approximately US$80 a month in Thailand.(55) However, abuses
are not uncommon. These include withheld wages, under-payment, recruitment agency debt, inadequate
health-care access, exploitation and poor working and living conditions.
The Socio-economic Implications of the Migration of Women
REMITTANCES, IN CASH AND IN KIND
Despite a paucity of data, one thing is clear: The money that female migrants send back home
can raise families and even entire communities out of poverty. Of the more than US$1 billion
in remittances sent back to Sri Lanka in 1999, women contributed over 62 per cent of the
total.(56) Of the roughly US$6 billion remitted annually to the
Philippines in the late 1990s, migrant women transferred one third.(57)
Because they typically receive less pay for equal work (or are employed in sectors that offer
poor remuneration), the total women remit may be less in comparison to men. Available data,
however, shows that women send a higher proportion of their earnings—regularly and consistently.
A 2000 study by the United Nations International Research and Training Institute
for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) shows
that Bangladeshi women working in the Middle East send home 72 per cent of their earnings on
average.(59) The same study reveals that 56 per cent of female
remittances were used for daily needs, health care or education—a pattern which reflects the
spending priorities of migrant women elsewhere.(60) This is largely
because women are more inclined to invest in their children than men, and, in more traditional
societies, they tend to lack control over financial decision-making, assets and property.
Men, on the other hand, tend to spend remittance income on consumer items,
such as cars and television sets, and for investments, such as property and livestock.
(62) One study of Ghanaian migrant women in Toronto, however,
revealed that many were planning to build homes in their country of origin (56 per cent had
already begun the process).(63) In the Dominican Republic, another
survey found that 100 per cent of the women returning from Spain established their own businesses.
Remittances would have an even greater role in poverty reduction and development
if women did not face wage, employment, credit and property discrimination and if they were not
excluded from decision-making within the family and in hometown organizations. Another deterrent
for poorer women is that traditional banks tend to charge hefty user fees. Some institutions are
working to lower transfer costs and are enabling women to retain control over their remittances and
further their uses for productive activities and development. These include Fonkoze, the Haitian
alternative bank whose clientele is 96 per cent women;(65) ADOPEM in the
Dominican Republic, an affiliate of the Women's World Banking Network;(66)
the Inter American Development Bank (IADB);(67) and the Bangladeshi
Ovhibashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA), established by returning migrant women.
The international community has also been looking more closely at the issue of
female migrant remittances in order to understand how best to maximize their contributions for
socio-economic development. This includes recent efforts by INSTRAW and UNFPA to strengthen research
and policy dialogue.(69)
FORGING NETWORKS OF SOLIDARITY, PROMOTING GENDER EQUALITY AND DEVELOPMENT
Beyond financial remittances, the social remittances of migrant women (ideas, skills, attitudes,
knowledge, etc.) can also boost socio-economic development and promote human rights and gender
equality. Migrant women who send money transmit a new definition of what it means to be female.
This can affect how families and communities view women.(70) Women
abroad also play a role when it comes to promoting the rights of their counterparts back home. A
good example of this is the vigorous lobbying undertaken by Afghan expatriate women to promote
greater female participation in the new constitution of their home country.
(71) In Belgium, Congolese expatriates supported their countrywomen in
the struggle for increased National Assembly representation in the first-ever free elections in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo.(72)
Women living abroad often acquire attitudes, opinions and knowledge that can lead to enhanced family
health in the home country. A World Bank report attributes improved child health and lower mortality
rates to the health education that female migrants receive while living abroad. This was found to hold
true for families in Guatemala, Mexico and Morocco. Furthermore, these health benefits are more likely
to result when mothers migrate as opposed to fathers.(73)
Collective remittances—those pooled by diaspora associations—are rarely aimed
explicitly at improving the lives of women. One exception is the Netherlands Filipino Association
Overseas. Members provide collective remittances to support poor women through micro-credit
programmes and the development of small enterprises.(74) Another is an
association of Mexican expatriates in the United States that sends funds to Michoacan State in Mexico.
The local Government uses these donations to train women to produce school uniforms that are then
sold to the Chamber of Commerce for distribution throughout the country.(75)
In general, however, as research into Latin American migrant hometown associations in the United States
demonstrates, migrant women are often excluded from decision-making both on the sending and receiving
end. Men manage most of the associations in host and destination countries, while women take on
secretarial, fundraising and event organizing roles.(76)
As more women migrate abroad, increasing numbers are establishing their own
migrant networks that are transferring skills and resources and are sparking transformations in
traditional notions of appropriate gender roles.(77) In Germany,
self-organized immigrant women’s groups have been instrumental in battling trafficking, fighting
racism and advocating for the independent legal status of migrant spouses.
(78) Women’s groups also successfully lobbied authorities to make
forced marriage illegal among the country's 2.5 million Turkish immigrants.
(79) Through IOM's Migration for Development in Africa programme, Guinean
women living overseas are assisting impoverished women back home to develop and establish
micro-enterprises.(80) Since 1993, African women living in France have
formed a network of migrant associations that aims to facilitate integration into host societies and
improve the quality of life in countries of origin.(81)
THE IMPACT OF MIGRATION ON GENDER ROLES AND EQUALITY
Migration can transform the traditional private and public roles of men and women.
The relationship between migration and gender equality is, however, complex. While experiences vary,
women who migrate alone (rather than as part of a family), who enter the country legally and work
outside the home, are more likely to report a positive experience—especially if the move is
Where women migrate for family reunification, over-zealous relatives may restrict
social relations in an attempt to preserve cultural identity and "honour". This is particularly
difficult for women and girls who have left behind an extended network of female relatives and
friends on whom they can rely for emotional support. This kind of cultural isolation is more likely
to occur among immigrant families and communities who feel marginalized and believe their cultural
identity is being challenged by the dominant host society.
For many other migrant women, however, the migration experience is so positive
that they may be reluctant to return home for fear of having to relinquish their new-found autonomy.
Male migrants, on the other hand, are sometimes more likely to express the desire to return.
(83) Studies of migrants from the Dominican Republic
(84) and Mexico(85) living in the United States
illustrate the point. While work can hold the key to increased independence for women, their husbands
may face downward mobility and wind up in lower-skill jobs. Women migrants were also found to be
more likely to integrate faster, owing to contact with local institutions (such as schools and
social services), and were more likely to become US citizens.(86)
When a male head of household migrates abroad, some women gain a greater say in
how household funds are used even though they are still dependent on remittances.
(87) In Kerala, India, for example, women who stayed behind reported
that remittances from their husbands in the Gulf States raised their authority and status: 70 per
cent had opened their own bank accounts, 40 per cent had their own income, and half held land or
homes in their own names.(88)
However, when remittances are meagre or dry up altogether, women compensate for
lost income—usually through paid work or the establishment of a small business. Despite additional
stress and responsibility, this, too, can lead to greater autonomy and status. During the 1980s and
1990s, as destination country economies contracted and remittance income dried up, African women took
control of farming and contributed more to family income.(89) However,
when immigrant husbands abandon their wives altogether, the consequences can be dire—particularly
where women are stigmatized for being alone, barred from owning property and land, or are unable to
Migration affects traditional male roles as well. A study of former Bangladeshi
male migrants to Singapore revealed that, once home—and contrary to customary practice—many
selected their own wives, and, in some cases, treated them in a more equitable manner based on
overseas experience.(90) When men are left behind, they, too, can adjust
to and accept new roles. One study of migrant Indonesian females found that many reported that
their husbands were more respectful and took greater responsibility for childcare.
(91) In the United States, husbands of Dominican migrants were more likely
to help with household chores and spend more time at home rather than with friends.92 Nonetheless,
for men who stay behind, the migration of their wives can also be an affront to traditional notions of
male identity and authority.
The Migration Experience: Seizing Opportunities, Overcoming Obstacles
The experiences of migrant women are as diverse as the backgrounds they come from and the
communities to which they move. While migration has many benefits, it does not come without
Right from the start, discriminatory immigration policies can limit legal
migration channels. This relegates many women to the most vulnerable labour sectors or as
dependents of male migrants. In the worst cases, they may wind-up as trafficking victims.
Most women migrants come from countries where discrimination against females is deeply
embedded in the social and cultural fabric. This places many at a disadvantage which can
in turn result in inadequate access to information regarding work opportunities in
destination countries, costs, benefits and steps necessary to migrate legally and safely.
(93) Soliciting the aid of another person or smuggler may place
a woman in considerable debt and danger.
During transit, female—and, in particular, unauthorized—migrants risk
sexual harassment and abuse. They may be coerced into providing sexual favours in exchange
for protection or permission to pass through frontiers.(94) For
example, researchers conducting a study of migrant women travelling alone through Central
America en route to Mexico found that males perceived them to be "ready for anything". Male
migrants often forced female migrants to have sex with border authorities in order to guarantee
safe passage for the entire group.(95) In 2005, Médecins Sans
Frontières reported that security officers and fellow migrants were sexually abusing sub-Saharan
African women and minors while they transited through Morocco to Spain. Women along the
Moroccan-Algerian border are also vulnerable—particularly to smugglers and traffickers intent
on sexually exploiting them. Unsafe abortions are not uncommon, and incidents of pregnant women
being deposited and abandoned at the Moroccan-Algerian border were also registered.
(96) Anecdotal evidence suggests that as many as 50 per cent of
female migrants making the trip from West Africa to Europe via Morocco are either pregnant
or are travelling with small children. Many give birth unattended in the forest for fear of
being deported should they seek medical services.(97)
Upon arrival in the destination country, female migrants are doubly
disadvantaged—both as migrants and as women—and sometimes triply so, when race, class or
religion are factored in. Those suffering abuse and violence may have no idea of what their
rights are, and may fear repercussions if they contact the police or seek support services.
Women also have priority needs in the area of reproductive health and rights, but legal,
cultural or language barriers mean that many have difficulty accessing information and services.
BY DESIGN AND BY DEFAULT: DISCRIMINATORY POLICIES
Sending and receiving country policies affect who will migrate and how.
Sometimes discrimination is inadvertent, while in other situations, women may dominate in
certain migration streams such as nursing and domestic work, but specific needs and rights
may go ignored. Some policies result in the exclusion of female migrants altogether. Other
policies—often well meaning and aimed at increasing employment opportunities—nonetheless
ignore multiple work, family and community responsibilities. In the absence of childcare
and extended family networks, these can prevent women from partaking in skills training or
other educational opportunities open to migrants.(98)
A country’s particular labour needs directly affect to what degree men and women are likely to
find work abroad and whether they can migrate legally. Traditionally, policies that invited
migrants on a temporary basis to fill gaps in specific sectors tended to favour male-dominated
occupations. Since the 19th century discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa, for example,
male migrants have been in high demand. In South Africa, citizens of the 14 Southern African
Development Community (SADC) countries are most likely to find legal work within the mining
industry, where 99 per cent of employees are men. No equivalent employment sector that
facilitates entry for women exists.(99) By contrast, South African
commercial farmers prefer female workers from neighbouring countries, but because cross-border
migration is typically irregular, female labour migrants remain unprotected by existing laws.
(100) While industrialization in Asia has required labourers for
construction, manufacturing and plantation work ("men's work"), women have been more likely to
fill the demand for domestic and childcare support.(101)
When destination countries prefer skilled candidates, implications for migrant women can cut
both ways. Women of low socio-economic and educational status can be at a serious disadvantage.
They are more likely to wind up toiling in informal, irregular and seasonal jobs, with fewer
possibilities to obtain work permits or citizenship entitlements.(102)
In France, for example, one study found that women constitute two-thirds of those refused
citizenship on the grounds of insufficient linguistic knowledge.(103)
Entry for skilled workers can also be based on criteria, such as proof of years of uninterrupted
work, language or of income and educational level.(104) These
unintentionally discriminate against women. On the other hand, the demand for skilled labour
can also open up opportunities for better-educated women to migrate, as was the case during the
1980s when Australia shifted from a preference for manual labourers to that of professionals.
Governments sometimes restrict female migration in order to "protect" women.
Such bans on female migrants have been in place, for example, in Bangladesh, the Islamic Republic
of Iran, Nepal and Pakistan.(106) Bangladesh government data show that
less than 1 per cent of those emigrating between 1991 and 2003 were women. This was largely owing
to greater restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles that made it more difficult for women to emigrate.
(107) These, needless to note, only increase the likelihood that women
will resort to irregular methods.(108) A case in point: According to the
Asian Development Bank, the Gulf States and South-East Asia are home to considerable numbers of
undocumented Bangladeshi women.(109) Government policies, however, have
recently begun to change. In 2005, Bangladesh lifted the ban(110) and, in
the same year, the Nepalese Supreme Court ended the requirement of parental or spousal consent for a
woman under the age of 35 to obtain a passport.(111)
Labour laws tend to exclude certain sectors of the economy in which women migrants
predominate—such as domestic work and the entertainment industry.(112)
This leaves many female migrant workers dependant on employers for legal status, basic needs such as
housing and food, and the payment of due wages, which employers may arbitrarily withhold in order to
ensure compliance. In addition, government efforts to curtail immigration and thus restrict it to
temporary, short-term contracts means that many women are unable to change employers.
(113) This can trap them into abusive situations, outside the public view,
and, in many cases, beyond the purview of public policies.
Rights, terms of employment and working conditions vary according to the
labour laws and immigration policies in each receiving country. In many countries, for example,
the rights of domestic workers are neglected, and many spend years abroad before ever seeing
their families (see Box 8). Host country regulations often prohibit
low-skilled migrants from bringing family members with them. This is prompting calls for
family-friendly policies that will support female migrant workers. Italy and Spain are among the
very few countries that grant unskilled workers the possibility of family reunification—a
privilege usually reserved for "skilled" migrants. They are also among the few countries that
have actively furthered domestic worker rights, largely owing to the vigorous lobbying on the
part of women's organizations.(114)
The mass movement of people has led to the emergence of a new
phenomenon: the transnational family. Transnational families are those whose members
belong to two households, two cultures and two economies simultaneously. These take
many forms and are marked by changing heads of household—including grandmothers and
youth who take charge of children while the parent(s) are away.(1)
When both parents leave, elderly women, aunts and other female
relatives are most likely to shoulder the burden of childcare.(2)
Alternatively, migrant parents will sometimes leave children in the destination country
while they shuttle back and forth. One illustration of this phenomenon is the East Asian
"astronauts", who maintain businesses in their origin country but leave their wives and
children in Canada.(3) Caribbean and Ghanaian populations in
Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have adapted to challenging work and
living situations by mobilizing extended family networks to raise their children back
home.(4) In Cape Verde, a population whose diaspora outnumbers
residents, almost every family has members living abroad.(5)
Cape Verdean families may even be split between three and four different locations, with
women working in Italy or Portugal, their husbands in the Netherlands and children back
home with relatives.(6) With more than 8 million nationals
working and living abroad, transnational Filipino families are very common as well.
When mothers migrate, the decision can be heart wrenching. For women,
separation is also fraught with feelings of guilt. For children, the loss of their mothers'
nurturing and affection, can take a huge emotional toll. Regardless, migrant women often have
little choice but to leave loved ones behind. While children often say they would prefer it
if fathers instead of mothers migrated, many express gratitude and are proud of their mothers'
sacrifices. Studies in Indonesia and the Philippines by and large found little evidence of
negative effects on children.(8) Children of migrant parents
displayed similar behaviours and values as children of non-migrant parents, and were not
found to be more disadvantaged, troubled or face greater psychological difficulties. A
nationwide study in the Philippines found that more children of migrants were on the school
honour roll and were less likely to repeat a grade than children of non-migrants.
(9) Another study showed that children understood their mother's
decision to migrate was for economic reasons and their own well-being.(10)
THE DEPENDENCY TRAP
Women who migrate under family reunification schemes usually enter as
dependents and may enjoy only limited access to employment, health care and other social services.
(115) In countries that distinguish between the rights of mig¬rants
to work or to reside, women entering as dependents may only be able to work illegally.
(116) Dependent status can also result in “brain waste”. This occurs
when skilled female migrants remain unemployed or are able to find work only in occupations far
below their qualifications. Furthermore, if the marriage founders, or if the relationship is abusive,
migrant women may find themselves trapped by threats of deportation or the loss of custodial rights.
Children also suffer from the absence of material and emotional support when fathers abandon the
family or the marriage dissolves. Granting abused women mig¬rants independent legal status, such as
Sweden and the United States have done—rather than keeping it contingent on male relatives or
husbands—helps protect their rights and frees them from violence.(117)
WORK AND WAGES
The proportion of immigrant women who are in the labour force varies by
country, yet unemployment is generally higher for immigrant women.(118)
In many cases this is true in comparison to native men and women—as well as fellow male migrants.
For example, in 17 OECD countries (for which data are reported), unemployment rates for foreign
women are substantially higher than the rate for native women.(119)
Among immigrants from SADC countries living in South Africa, 38 per cent of female immigrants
were unemployed as compared to 33 per cent of female natives, 30 per cent of male natives and
23 per cent of male migrants.(120)
Where migrant women face high unemployment rates and discrimination, many
are forced to take whatever work is available.(121) This can contribute
to host population perceptions that migrant women are "unskilled", though many may actually be
better qualified than their work implies. In some cases, however, migrants may be offered the
opportunity to move up the pay scale: In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Filipina domestic
workers are increasingly being employed as drivers—a job with higher salaries and greater benefits.
Relative to the status of women in their home countries, newcomers may earn
higher wages. Compared to women in the receiving country, however, they are likely to be far worse
off.(123) Lower earnings can lead to impoverishment and can negatively
impact families left behind owing to less remittance income. Data from the 2000 United States Census
Bureau shows that 18.3 per cent of the foreign-born women live in poverty, compared to 13.2 per cent
of the native-born women, and that 31 per cent of the female-headed migrant households are poor.
(124) Low wages can also affect family reunification for female migrants
who are the sole sponsors of relatives. This is because many countries, such as Canada and the United
States, require proof of sponsorship based on income and economic self-sufficiency.
Low wages can have dire implications for older migrant women—especially for
those who are underemployed, undocumented, widows or working in jobs without benefits. Pension
plans and other social programmes in receiving countries, such as Canada and the United States,
are based on long-term paycheque contributions. In addition, a lifetime of irregular labour
means many older migrants are without savings for retirement or health care.
(126) In many European countries, pension entitlements are based on
years of work and residency. The increasing number of older migrants within the region is sparking
particular concern for the needs of elderly immigrant women. In the Netherlands, more than 90 per
cent of Moroccan women aged 55 years and above report never having worked. In Austria, immigrant
non-EU women have the lowest earnings in the country. Among those 60 years and older, 19 per cent
from the former Yugoslavia and 23 per cent from Turkey had no income of their own whatsoever.
ETHNICITY AND RACISM: ADDITIONAL BARRIERS TO WORK AND WAGES
Ethnicity and class compound the problem of gender discrimination, stymie
advancement and result in lower wages.(128) For example, in the
United Kingdom (which has long relied on immigrants to fill health-care jobs) harassment is
widespread with black staff (mostly Caribbean women) largely concentrated in the lower grades.
(129) In the UAE, a college-educated domestic worker from the
Philippines earns much more than her counterpart from India—regardless of the latter’s skills.
(130) One European study found that when fellow nationals undertake
domestic work—as opposed to foreigners—they tend to be treated as professionals.
The United States provides one example of how domestic work is divided
along ethnic and racial lines. During the 1950s and 1960s, African-American women dominated
the occupation but by the end of the 1980s, their numbers had dropped dramatically throughout
the country. Around that same time, foreign-born Latin American women stepped in to fill the
breach—from 9 per cent to 68 per cent in Los Angeles alone.(132)
A commonly held view that can serve to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment is that
migrants have higher fertility rates than non-migrants. But this very much depends on the migrant
community, host country context, the woman's socio-economic status, cultural fertility norms and
access to reproductive health services. Generally speaking, when immigrants (especially those
from developing countries) first arrive, they tend to have more children than natives but will
have fewer over time. This is because many migrants eventually adopt host country childbearing
norms, which results in fertility rates similar to that of the host population.
Delayed marriage, separation from partners, economic pressures, the costs of
raising children, female autonomy, the evolution of values and norms, and pressures to gain legitimacy
through assimilation can all contribute to fertility declines.(2) A study
of 24 migrant groups undertaken in Australia over a 14-year period, showed that fertility rates in
all groups except two (Lebanese and Turks) nearly converged or declined to lower than that of the
host population.(3) The survey included migrant communities from Egypt,
Greece, Malta, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, and Viet Nam—among many others. In Sweden, a study
of immigrants from 38 origin countries found that those who had been living in the country for at
least five years showed fertility levels similar to that of the native population.
There are, however, variations—according to ethnic group, and a complex
interplay of socio-economic, cultural and political factors. In the United Kingdom, for
example, census data showed that all main ethnic minority groups had more children than t
he native population—especially among migrants originating from Bangladesh, India, and
Migrant women also tend to have fewer children than their counterparts in
countries of origin.(6) For example, although in Belize, Costa Rica,
the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, immigrant women tend to give birth to more children than
native women (in Costa Rica, immigrant fertility rates are 40 per cent higher),
(7) their fertility rates are still lower than those of compatriots
living in their countries of origin. African immigrants in Spain have fertility levels slightly
higher than the native-born population, but far lower than those in their countries of origin.
(8) In the United States, however, the reverse is true: Immigrant
women tend to have more children than women in their countries of origin. And while immigrant
fertility rates are also higher than natives', they do not affect overall fertility
During preparations for migration and the first years of settling into a
new country, female immigrants may delay childbearing and focus more on securing work, but,
after a few years, decide to start a family. This is illustrated in the case of Ecuadorians
who migrate to Spain. In recent years, the country has received large numbers of young
South American immigrant women. In 1999, children born to Ecuadorian women accounted for
only 4.9 per cent of all foreign births but by 2004, they accounted for 19.5 per cent.
Migrant fertility can also depend on age and educational level and
the migration stream to which immigrant women belong. Migration can cause spousal
separation, which may result in delayed childbearing. Once reunited, however,
childbearing rates increase.(11) In Australia, skilled
immigrant women have lower fertility than natives, whereas those entering as refugees
or for family reunification tend to have more children.(12)
Women who migrate at an early age may adapt faster to the childbearing norms of their
host society: In France, immigrant women who entered the country before the age of 13
had only slightly higher fertility than French women. But women who were 25 to 29 years
of age at the time of migration, showed notably higher fertility rates.
SEXUAL AND REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH
The health of any migrant is affected by gender, sociocultural and ethnic
background, type of occupation and legal status, as well as the degree to which he or she can
cover costs and access services, transportation and health insurance.
(133) Prior exposure to relevant health education and services
will also affect a migrant’s capacity to make informed health decisions.
If a migrant cannot speak the language, she or he is more likely to encounter
problems accessing health care. Low-paying and exploitative labour also has an impact, as does
the degree to which the migrant and his or her community are integrated into the mainstream
society. Discrimination and racism on the part of health-care providers only adds to cultural
and linguistic barriers.
Both the host country itself and immigrant women will benefit from improved
access to reproductive health information and services—including pregnancy-related services
and the prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. However,
migrant women often come from countries where poor health is a fact of life. Many possess
little information regarding health matters and tend to be poorer and less educated than their
native counterparts. Health status may be further compromised by the stress of adjusting to a
new country and/or violence and sexual exploitation.
Pregnancy-related problems among migrants have been a major problem
throughout the EU, where studies have found that migrants receive inadequate or no antenatal
care and exhibit higher rates of stillbirth and infant mortality.(134)
One United Kingdom study found that social exclusion and being non-white were among the main
predictors of severe maternal morbidity.(135) Other research in the
country reveals that babies born of Asian women had lower birth weights and that perinatal and
post-natal mortality rates were higher among Caribbean and Pakistani immigrants than in the
general population.(136) Hospital-based studies also show that
African women delivering in France and Germany had higher rates of pregnancy complications
and perinatal death than their native counterparts.(137) Turkish
immigrants in Germany also had higher rates of perinatal and neonatal mortality, and rates of
maternal mortality tended to be higher overall among immigrant women.
(138) In Spain, premature births, low birth weight and delivery
complications are especially common among African and Central and South American migrants.
Immigrant women often have a higher incidence of unplanned pregnancies
owing to poor access and a lack of information regarding contraceptives and how to obtain
them. Research in Latin America shows that migrant women report more unintended pregnancies,
have lower contraceptive use and generally utilize reproductive health services less often
than do non-immigrants.(140) Throughout Western Europe the story
is the same.(141) In Germany, researchers attribute low
contraceptive use to the fact that programmes are geared towards German speakers and that
immigrants often come from countries where family planning information is simply not available.
(142) Socio-cultural pressures may also prevent migrant women from
accessing services for fear of being discovered by family members.
Higher abortion rates among immigrants reflect women’s limited decision-making
power and lack of access to quality family planning services. In Spain, requests for abortions
tend to be twice as common among immigrant women—especially those from North and sub-Saharan
Africa.(143) In Norway, non-western women account for more than one
quarter of all abortion requests—although they represent only 15 per cent of the population.
(144) In one Italian region, a study found that foreign-born women
were three times more likely to undergo an induced abortion than local women.
CULTURALLY SENSITIVE CARE
Socio-cultural factors can influence migrant reproductive health status,
including pregnancy and childbirth outcomes and access to family planning services. Women
from more traditional backgrounds are often embarrassed when dealing with male medical
personnel—a problem when it comes to accessing reproductive and obstetric health-care services.
(146) In Denmark, studies show that poor communication between
migrants and health-care providers, coupled with insufficient use of trained interpreters, is
a key cause of poor and delayed gynaecological care.(147) In Sweden,
one study found that young, single immigrant women with children were more likely to register
late (more than 15 weeks) at prenatal care centres. The study concluded that training staff in
trans-cultural skills and providing them with interpreters could result in improved care.
(148) In São Paulo, doctors report that maternal and infant mortality
rates among Bolivian migrant women are far higher—the latter by 3 to 4 times—than among local
women. Migrants often decline caesarean section—a lifesaver in the event of obstructed labour—because
in some indigenous cultures it implies a loss of femininity that can prompt the husband to desert his
spouse.(149) In response, the Municipal Health Secretariat is working to
refine its programme, including providing outreach in the Quechua and Aymara languages.
Nonetheless, despite increased risks and obstacles to accessing health care,
exposure to new childbearing and female decision-making norms can be empowering. Indeed, in some
cases, female migrants gain access to reproductive health information and services for the very
first time (see Box 10).
Many migrant women seize the opportunity to access family planning
services with a zeal that speaks to their relatively disadvantaged state in countries
of origin. In Belgium, for example (as with several other countries), immigrant women
have higher contraceptive use than women in source countries—with modern methods
replacing traditional. This is confirmed by one study that found that 79 and 71 per
cent, respectively, of 25- to 29-year-old married Turkish and Moroccan migrant women
used contraception compared to only 44 per cent and 35 per cent in their origin
A survey of Malian women in Paris in 2001 found that their rate of
family planning use was almost as high as among French women at 70 per cent, and in
striking contrast to Mali, where it remained at only 6 per cent. Sixty per cent of
the women reported that they first learned about contraception in France. In addition,
approximately 60 per cent reported using contraceptives in spite of their husband's
PROVIDING HOPE, EXTENDING CARE
More and more countries are working to improve the reproductive health of
migrant women. In a study conducted among Myanmar immigrants in two Thai provinces following
the 2004 tsunami, researchers discovered that one in four mothers delivered without a skilled
birth attendant; 55 per cent of all infants had not been immunized and only half of all married
women were using contraception. The survey also found that fully 50 per cent of all adults
interviewed lacked basic knowledge about HIV, despite the relatively high incidence (30 per cent)
of unmarried males who reported paying for sex without consistently using condoms. In response,
the NGO World Vision, with UNFPA support, recently expanded a programme serving immigrant
communities. To date, project personnel have established mobile health clinics, a health education
campaign and have hired Burmese-speaking medical staff.(150)
Over time, Australia, Canada and Sweden have also developed broad-based
policies that work to tackle cultural and linguistic barriers, not only through culturally
sensitive provider training and recruitment measures, but also by promoting the social and
political integration of immigrants and refugees. This approach is proving effective: In these
countries, studies have shown equal pregnancy outcomes for immigrant and native women.
The little border town of Tecún Uman in Guatemala, just across from Mexico,
draws many migrants. In "Little Tijuana", sex work, alcoholism, delinquency and drug trafficking
have proliferated as fast as its population of migrants—who have effectively doubled the
population to 32,000 inhabitants in the past decade. Almost half are under 24-years-old and come
primarily from Central and South America and Asia. Most are trying to make their way to the United
States or have just been deported from Mexico following another failed attempt
In 2002, research by the Ministry of Health and Social Services found an HIV
prevalence rate of 3.13 per cent among sex workers, most of whom were young women. Many initially
set out as migrants but become stranded with no way to earn money except through sex work. So
pervasive is the violence that young women are often forced to barter sex in exchange for
"I am very scared but the need to travel because of my child helps me.
Above all, my entire family needs a lot of help."
— Salvadoran 21-year-old woman on her first attempt
to cross the border.
"I don’t have money, the little bit I brought with me, they stole, they
assaulted me and took it and my papers."
— Honduran 24-year old woman in her second attempt to
cross the border.
Worried that female migrants were increasingly vulnerable to the virus
and concerned about the need for preventive measures among the local population, UNFPA has
partnered with the NGO EDUCAVIDA and La Casa del Migrante, which is run by a Catholic Church
order, under an initiative funded by OPEC. La Casa del Migrante provides shelter for three
days while migrants await funds to continue their journey north. This provides outreach
workers with an opportunity to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. Between August and December
2005, 32,597 migrants (2,484 of them sex workers) passed through La Casa's doors. Services
include educational sessions on HIV prevention, voluntary counselling and testing (VCT), condom
distribution, STI treatment and medical care—including for pregnant women. Prevention activities
are also reaching the local population with community leaders and local organizations now
spearheading the fight against HIV/AIDS.1
FEMALE MIGRANTS AND HIV
Data on HIV infection rates among international migrants are scarce. The
alarming “feminization” of the pandemic, however, is well documented and speaks to what can
transpire when the rights of women are neglected en masse.
Physiological, social and cultural factors mean that women and girls face
particularly high risks of contracting HIV and other STIs throughout the migration process.
Undocumented migrant women who become stranded in transit countries en route to their intended
destination and are unable to work may be forced into "survival sex" in exchange for basic
commodities or food. This increases the likelihood of infection.(152)
Sexual violence makes them even more vulnerable. In one South African
study, female migrant farm workers from Mozambique and Zimbabwe were found to be particularly
susceptible to HIV infection owing to sexual violence. About 15 per cent of those surveyed
reported having been raped or knowing someone who had been raped or sexually harassed while
working on farms. Most were too fearful of losing their jobs to report violence. According
to interviewees, male Zimbabweans were the main perpetrators.(153)
The vulnerability of migrant women is borne out by some grim statistics.
According to UNAIDS, in France, 69 per cent of all HIV diagnoses attributed to heterosexual
contact during 2003 occurred among immigrants—65 per cent of whom were women.
(154) In Costa Rica, one service organization found that 40 per
cent of the women treated for sexually transmitted infections were immigrants.
(155) In Sri Lanka, the Government reported that, for every one
male migrant that tested positive in 2002, there were a corresponding seven females. Although
the causes behind this gross disparity have not been established, researchers suggest that
sexual abuse by employers and exploitation in so-called domestic worker "safe" houses could be
factors.(156) To minimize the risks of infection, the Government
(with support from UNAIDS and WHO) has established HIV/AIDS awareness pre-departure orientation
sessions aimed at migrant women.(157)
Seasonal and circular migration, whereby individuals leave their homes
and then return home, can also contribute to HIV transmission.(158)
One study undertaken in Senegal revealed that migrants have unprotected sex while abroad and then
infect their wives upon return. Women without adequate support from migrant husbands also turn to
sex work for survival while their spouses are abroad.(159)
When male migrants become infected with HIV, remittances often dry up—either
through job loss or because they have to spend more of their income on health care. According to
UNAIDS, women may resort to transactional sex or will migrate themselves in order to make up for
lower remittances and provide for family members.(160) A country with
one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world (33.5 per cent), Botswana is witnessing
decreased remittances from husbands with AIDS-related illnesses. This leaves women—usually
older—shouldering the care of orphaned children.(161)
Gender-based violence is not only a violation of human rights, but also threatens health,
productivity and social and economic integration into the host society.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND HARMFUL PRACTICES
Gender-based violence is the ultimate manifestation of unequal relations
between men and women. Owing to their status as women and as foreigners (in addition to
race and ethnicity), migrant women face disproportionate risks of physical abuse and violence
at home, in the streets or in their places of work. So profound is the problem, that the UN
Secretary-General now issues reports exclusively focused on the topic.
Gender-based violence is not only a violation of human rights, but also
threatens health, productivity and social and economic integration into the host society.
Some immigrants also come from cultures that maintain harmful practices such as female
genital mutilation/cutting, forced marriages and so-called "honour killings".
While there is a notable dearth of data on violence against migrant women,
smaller studies indicate a high incidence of abuses (see also Chapter 3).
In Mexico, a recent study revealed that 46 per cent of migrant women had suffered from some sort of
violence, with 23 per cent reporting that customs officials were the main perpetrators; federal
police followed next at 10 per cent; judiciary and municipal police at 10 per cent; and, finally,
the armed forces at 6 per cent.(163) According to the Sri Lanka Bureau
for Employment, in 2001, over 1,600 women reported harassment in their workplaces overseas.
WHEN HOME IS WHERE THE HURT IS
Domestic violence knows no boundaries. It permeates every society, group and
income level worldwide: between 10 per cent of women in some countries, and 69 per cent in
others, are the victims of domestic abuse.(165) The strains of moving
to a new environment, unemployment, inadequate wages and racism can lead to frustration that finds
its outlet in the abuse of female partners.(166)
One survey found that 31 per cent of abused Latin American female immigrants
reported increased violence from their partners since moving to the United States and 9 per cent
reported that abuse began after migration.(167) Studies indicate that
domestic violence among immigrant groups is markedly higher than the estimated 22.1 per cent
lifetime rate in the general American population.(168) Rates of sexual
and physical abuse against immigrant women surveyed ranged from 30 to 50 per cent among Latin
American, South Asian and Korean groups.(169) A study of highly-educated
middle-class South Asian women living in Boston revealed that nearly 35 per cent had experienced
physical abuse and 19 per cent had experienced sexual abuse at the hands of their male partner.
(170) And a New York City health report cited that 51 per cent of female
homicides by intimate partners occurred among foreign-born women, compared to 45 per cent among the
native population.(171) In Germany, a Government study found that 49
per cent of married Turkish women had experienced physical or sexual violence.
Migrant women who come from societies where domestic abuse is largely accepted
as a “normal” aspect of gender relations are unlikely to seek help from police or access other
services—especially if they fear deportation or retribution from their abusers. According to
domestic violence data in Colombia, Nicaragua and Peru, migrant women are less likely to seek
assistance from the police and health facilities compared to their native counterparts. And
none of the women who reported abuse sought any medical attention whatsoever.
(173) Similarly, a nationally representative survey in Canada found
that immigrant and “visible minority” women (68 per cent of them immigrants) who reported abuse
were less likely to seek services than the general population.(174)
Other factors, such as cultural, linguistic and social isolation, make it less likely that migrant
women will seek assistance even where social protection and legal redress exist. This is especially
the case when they are unaware of their rights. Research in the United States shows immigrant women
tend to stay in abusive relationships longer than native-born Americans and suffer graver physical
and emotional consequences as a result.(175)
Women with children who migrate as dependents of their husbands are often
unfairly forced to choose between their own personal safety and maintaining their legal status.
The United States has amended legislation allowing migrant women who have suffered domestic
violence to secure legal status irrespective of their partners.(176)
Sweden allows immigrant women who are victims of abuse by their Swedish partner to obtain a
permanent residence permit. In 2003, 99 per cent of the requests for residence permits received
from domestic violence victims were approved.(177)
Azerbaijan, Belize, El Salvador, Indonesia and Jamaica report that they are
training government officials, police officers, social workers, community leaders and other
professionals to address more effectively the issue of violence against women migrant workers.
(178) NGOs in countries hosting large migrant populations have
also been working to meet the diverse needs of women who suffer from domestic abuse. One
example is the Vancouver-based organization, MOSAIC, which works with both men and women to
prevent abuses and to address the mental, physical and psychological needs of female victims.
The organization also offers small group sessions conducted in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and
English to Indian and Pakistani migrant men to help them to take responsibility for, and
end, their abusive behaviour.(179)
Women with children who migrate as dependents of their husbands are often unfairly forced
to choose between their own personal safety and maintaining their legal status.
FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION/CUTTING
Approximately 2 million women and girls every year are at risk of
female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C)—a traditional practice that involves the partial,
or total, removal of external genitalia. The practice has spread through migration, outward
from 28 countries in Africa and others in Southern Asia and the Middle East to Europe, North
and South America, Australia and New Zealand.(180) In the United
Kingdom alone, researchers estimate that approximately 3,000 to 4,000 girls are “cut” each
year. An additional 86,000 first-generation immigrant women and girls have already undergone
the procedure.(181) According to the 2000 United States census,
881,300 African migrants come from countries where FGM/C is widely practiced. This does not
include refugees and asylum-seekers (totalling an estimated 50,000 in 2000), many of whom
came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, countries with some of the highest FGM/C
prevalence in the world.(182) Female genital mutilation/cutting
is a human rights issue that can cause short- and long-term physical and mental health
problems, including higher risks of delivery-related complications and infant mortality.
Policymakers in countries receiving immigrants from FGM/C countries face
the challenge of establishing culturally sensitive approaches designed to halt the practice.
At least 11 industrialized countries have already passed legislation that prohibits FGM/C.
(184) Many organizations, such as the British Medical Association
and the Danish Health System and Midwife Schools, are striving to ensure that health providers
are well equipped to care for women who have undergone the practice.(185)
Belgium, Germany and Sweden have also established medical guidelines.
(186) NGOs are also working with immigrant women and their communities
to support the right to bodily integrity. The United States-based Sauti Yetu Center for African
Women is undertaking a comprehensive approach that includes cross-cultural training for service
providers and the establishment of a centre to document the practice in Western countries.
Crimes committed in the name of "honour" and "passion" are socially sanctioned
practices that allow a man to kill, rape or otherwise abuse a female relative or partner for
suspected or actual "immoral" behaviour—i.e., behaviour socially defined as bringing "shame" to
the family or challenging male authority.
In 2000, in the first United Nations General Assembly resolutions specifically
dedicated to the issue, countries from around the world reiterated that crimes committed in the name
of honour and of passion are egregious human rights abuses and reaffirmed their commitment—as
embodied in international human rights instruments—to end them.(188) In
2003, the European Parliamentary Assembly adopted a resolution calling on all Member States to "amend
their national asylum and immigration laws to ensure that women have the right to residence permits
and/or asylum if threatened with so-called 'honour crimes'". It also calls on members to, among other
things, enforce "legislation more effectively to penalize all crimes committed in the name of honour".
In the UK, police are re-examining past records of 117 murders to determine how
many were committed in the name of honour.(190) And Sweden maintains a
system that includes working through the education sector, government authorities, immigrant
orientation sessions and NGOs on issues around prevention and protection. County Administrative
Board reports found that at least 200 girls in each of three counties had contacted social services,
other authorities or NGOs to help them escape honour-related violence during 2001.
* * *
Governments, parliamentarians, civil society organizations, the media and the
UN System are increasingly paying attention to the social, cultural, economic and political
implications of the international migration of women. An increasing body of data and
research—although still limited—is making it possible to grasp the magnitude and as yet
little-understood potential of migrant women to contribute to social and economic development
and gender equality. Migrant women face serious risks and obstacles that can have severe
repercussions and, in the most extreme cases, threaten their very survival. Yet the migration
experience need not be fraught with hazard when it has proven to be such a positive experience
for so many millions. Risks and challenges can be averted through stronger measures aimed at
empowering migrant women and protecting their human rights. Others are intrinsic to the migration
experience itself and relate to greater social and cultural understanding and to shifting norms
regarding male and female roles. But solutions can, and are, increasingly being sought within a
human rights and culturally sensitive framework. Though largely incipient, insufficient in scope
and reach, these efforts offer insights into how the migration process can be improved for the
benefit of women, their children, their families and the global community at large.