Chapter 1 A Mighty but Silent River:
Women and Migration

Globalization and the Migration of Women

Millions of Faces, Many Experiences

The Socio-economic Implications of the Migration of Women

The Migration Experience: Seizing Opportunities, Overcoming Obstacles

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.

Figure 5: Trends in Female Migration by Continent/Region, 1960-2005

Click here to enlarge image

Source: UN Population Division. 2006. Trends in Total Migrant Stock: The 2005 Revision.


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. (1)

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 asylum.(4)

Within the developing world, the numbers of female labour migrants have also jumped.(5)

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. (15)

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.


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". (12)

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. (3)

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)


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.


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. (36)

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. (39)

"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.


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 schools.(42)

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 Kingdom.(53)


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


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. (58)

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. (61)

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. (64)

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. (68)

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)


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)


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 permanent.(82)

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 secure work.

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 challenges.

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.


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. (105)

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. (7)

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)


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)


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. (122)

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. (125)

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. (127)


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. (131)

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. (1)

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. (4)

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 Pakistan.(5)

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 rates.(9)

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. (10)

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. (13)


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. (139)

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. (145)


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 countries.(1)

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 opposition.(2)


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. (151)



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 protection.

"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


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.


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. (162)

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. (164)


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. (172)

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.


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. (183)

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. (187)


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". (189)

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. (191)

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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.