Today, women constitute almost half of all international migrants worldwide—95 million. Yet, despite contributions to poverty reduction and struggling economies, it is only recently that the international community has begun to grasp the significance of what migrant women have to offer. And it is only recently that policymakers are acknowledging the particular challenges and risks women confront when venturing into new lands.
Every year millions of women working millions of jobs overseas send hundreds of millions of dollars in remittance funds back to their homes and communities. These funds go to fill hungry bellies, clothe and educate children, provide health care and generally improve living standards for loved ones left behind. For host countries, the labour of migrant women is so embedded into the very fabric of society that it goes virtually unnoticed. Migrant women toil in the households of working families, soothe the sick and comfort the elderly. They contribute their technical and professional expertise, pay taxes and quietly support a quality of life that many take for granted.
For a long time, the issue of women migrants has been low on the international policy agenda. Today, the world has a unique opportunity to change this: For the first time, government representatives from around the globe will be attending a United Nations session specifically devoted to migration. The 2006 High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development offers a critical opportunity to ensure that the voices of migrant women are heard. The explicit recognition of the human rights of women and the need for gender equality is a basic prerequisite of any sound, equitable and effective policy framework that seeks to manage migration in an orderly and humane manner.
Benefits cut both ways. For many women, migration opens doors to a new world of greater equality, relief from oppression and the discrimination that limits freedom and stunts potential. For origin and receiving countries, the contribution of women migrants can quite literally transform quality of life. This dedication, however, comes at a cost—for migration also has its dark side.
From the modern-day enslavement of trafficking victims to the exploitation of domestic workers, millions of female migrants face hazards that testify to a lack of adequate opportunities to migrate safely and legally. Trafficking is not only one of most horrific manifestations of migration “gone bad”; it also undermines national security and stability.(1) Weak multilateral cooperation and the failure to establish, implement and enforce policies and measures designed to protect migrant women from exploitation and abuse means it is the most vulnerable who will pay—and sometimes with their lives.
The demand for women migrants is at an all-time high and growing. Unnecessary and discriminatory barriers, coupled with inadequate human and labour rights protections, are beneficial neither to families or to countries—nor to the hundreds of thousands of women exposed to insufferable conditions and abuses.
Since the 1990s, governments have addressed international migration at various UN conferences. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) stands out among them.(2) By the time the tenth anniversary of the ICPD rolled around in 2004, the Programme of Action still constituted one of the leading and most comprehensive global governmental agreements ever established on international migration and development.(3) Among key commitments, governments agreed to “address the root causes of migration, especially those related to poverty”,(4) and to “seek to make the option of remaining in one’s country viable for all people”.(5) Since then, the global community has rallied around the Millennium Development Goals. In 2000, heads of state and government unanimously made a pledge to “make poverty history”(6) and to end gender discrimination.
Global communications and transportation have made it possible for people to enjoy more freedom of movement than ever before. But people should not be compelled to migrate because of inequality, exclusion and limited alternatives in their home countries. While governments and experts discuss how best to manage migration, at the centre is the fact that migrants are first and foremost human beings vested with human rights.(7) The equitable management of migration means that measures adopted should not further penalize the most vulnerable, who already face systemic inequality. Chief among these are lower-income and female migrants. Increasingly, migration is following an unsavory course that is hewing toward the negative side of globalization, and exacerbating existing inequalities. While an elite of highly skilled individuals increasingly enjoy the benefits of migration, barriers to poorer migrants are increasing.
Immigration and development go hand in hand. Stepped-up investments in poverty reduction, gender equality and development—including the fulfilment of donor country commitments to overseas development assistance (ODA)—are part and parcel of efforts to achieve a more orderly migration system. These are necessary to reduce the gaps between rich and poor and to expand opportunities for all—including women, who in too many countries lack equal access to livelihood opportunities. Sound immigration policies that respond to economic interests while safeguarding human rights and gender equality are critical. At the same time, they help remove unnecessary obstacles to mobility that can, and do, result both in the loss of human dignity and of human lives.
Sovereign countries have the right to control immigration and deter illegal entry. This, however, constitutes only one aspect of any comprehensive policy framework and should not be the only major focus.(8) One positive development is that more countries today acknowledge the need to manage migration rather than restrict it.(9)
Women are migrating and will continue to do so. Their needs are urgent and deserve priority attention. Only then will the benefits of international migration be maximized and the risks minimized. Women migrants are among the most vulnerable to human rights abuses—both as migrants and as females. Their hard work deserves recognition, and their human rights, protection. Their voices must be heard. Vision and leadership can help steer public debates away from reactionary sensationalism and an emphasis on “otherness” to a recognition of our common humanity, which binds us together in a world increasingly without borders.