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Interview: the dangerous invisibility of women migrants

Women migrate all over the world to work or to escape violence, yet in comparison to male migrants they are barely visible in policy and media discussions. This makes them vulnerable.

Women sort pistachios by hand at a privately-owned factory in Herat, Afghanistan. United Nations Photo/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Jenna Holliday: My name is Jenna Holliday, and I am an independent gender and migration specialist and researcher.

Cameron Thibos (oD): One of the assumptions you hear a lot in the press is that most of the people on the move today are unmarried men. Can we start with you giving us a corrective on the realities of women’s migration around the world today?

Jenna: Women make up half of the people on the move at the moment in the world today. And that includes workers, as well as other people on the move. Its commonly understood that women will migrate with their families, but we're seeing over the last decade a large increase in independent migration of younger women who are seeking to fulfil either their duty or to find an independence or a new status through labour in other countries.

I think that at the moment there is a large focus on a specific stream of migration, where, commonly, the first people to be migrating in order to find a new safe country to bring their families to are men. With conflict countries, for example, you might find that women and their families are in refugee camps and it is the men who are making the first move to see where next to settle.

We often talk about women as some kind of homogenous group … but in many cases you'll get four women in the same village and exactly the same family scenario who will move for different reasons.

But that's one very specific type of migration. In fact, when you look at labour migration, there is a huge amount of autonomous women who are moving. If you look at southeast Asia – in Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia – there is a large amount if not more women who are moving on their own through regular, government-agreed migration, into factory work in special economic zones on the borders. There will be factories full of hundreds of these women who are largely working in non-regulated spaces.

Cameron: I think there is a feedback loop between assumptions of women’s unfreedom in the developing world and the assumption that they are less likely to move by choice. Would you agree, and how do we bring women’s agency into the conversation?

Jenna: The reasons that women move are going to depend on the women themselves. We often talk about women as some kind of homogenous group of people who all are affected by the same things. However, in many cases, you'll get four women in the same village and exactly the same family scenario who will move for different reasons.

You will get those who are striving to create some kind of financial independence or maybe to get away from their family, and therefore see migration as a pathway to something different from their current situation. In some situations, you will see dutiful daughters who are expected to go and give up a large amount of their youth in order to provide for their family. In that situation, we can loop in a number of conversations about the lack of social protections in some sending countries, that mean that there is a drive to create more money in the family to support elderly relatives or younger children.

But you also have structural situations that mean that women don't have the same access to information or don't have the same access to financial literacy. So they may be more vulnerable to being exploited and being duped into scenarios where they are moving across borders and finding themselves in labour situations that they weren’t expecting to be in. So I think the key here is always to focus on the women themselves and to increase our understanding of all the different drivers for migration, so we can respond to each and every one of them appropriately.

Cameron: The situation is not only that women migrants are often largely absent from the media, but also that policy frameworks are often designed around men and male migrants. Why are women comparatively absent from policy discussions, and what needs to change?

Jenna: I think that it is a gender-blind approach, as opposed to a male approach, really. There is still an underestimation of how different migration is for women at each of the stages of migration. The immediate response is to increase understanding and to conduct qualitative and quantitative research at each stage of the migration, so we can better understand why women move, where they move to, what their vulnerabilities are, and also what their potential and contributions are.

Some such research has already taken place, and we are finding that there are structural situations – such as a duty (certainly a reproductive care duty) or feminised sectors of work where there is an expectation that women will do certain types of work better, and that they don’t need to be paid quite as much for it – that impact women in their lives whether they're migrating or not, and that continue to impact their lives as migrant workers.

We have seen an increase in gender-responsive policy-making, but there has to be a level of capacity that comes with that.

Cameron: So beyond the data gap, is it a matter of needing new policy, or customising policy, or reframing policy or enforcing current policy?

Jenna: All of the above, absolutely. We have a very strong international normative framework in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that provides a very concise and clear approach on how to develop law that doesn't discriminate against women. That could apply equally to women as well as women migrant workers, especially through their general recommendations. So this, along with international labour standards, should provide a clear guidance on how to treat women as opposed to men in terms of migration, labour, and social protection.

We have seen an increase in gender-responsive policy-making, but there has to be a level of capacity that comes with that, so that people understand how to implement gender-responsive policies. For example, you might create a law that says that women and men need to be kept separate in residential training centres for migrant workers, but the separation in practice may be a curtain in a hall. Its taking that policy and that legislation down to a real kind of understanding and capacity development, so people can see what the rights and risks are, and implement them in practice for the benefit of women and men.

Cameron: So what are three key areas of risk that do need to be addressed in policy and in practice?

Jenna: In terms of women migrant workers, I would say that isolation is still a very key risk. In straightforward terms, domestic workers are isolated in the places in which they work. They are isolated from organising, unionisation, and collective bargaining. But they are also isolated in terms of the restrictions on their movements, how much freedom they have, and what they can anticipate their work should be.

It is very difficult to clarify that when you aren't surrounded by other people doing the same work and you can't see the treatment of others. So I think isolation is a large one, but isolation also applies throughout the migration cycle, and that could include structural isolation or policy isolation as well.

The more you migrate, the more exploitation you experience, the more information you have by which to balance the lesser of the evils.

Linked to that is a lack of information, meaning a lack of easy, accessible, rights-based information that provides workers with a practical guidance as to what they can expect and where they can call when they are not getting what they should get in terms of protection or labour rights. Again, this applies throughout the migration cycle. The expectations on workers and what they are actually likely to receive is largely not really clarified in the very beginning. Similarly, how you can translate your experience back home is not clarified when you are returning home.

As we have been talking about, because women’s migration experiences are different the information needs to be different as well. Adding to that is financial literacy—and greater financial inclusion for women generally—so they are able to have an autonomous control over their finances and they are able to build, send, or invest their finances. Commonly, there is a situation where a lack of financial literacy is a very good way of keeping women in a structural situation of control – either by employers themselves or their families – so they are not necessarily able to realise their own empowerment or their own agency in relation to their income-earning capacity.

Cameron: Can you talk a little bit about the actual risks and costs of transit? Certainly it’s hard for anyone to accurately anticipate exactly what those will be in any given situation. But in your experience speaking with women migrants, to what extent do they face the costs, risks, and potential for violence with eyes wide open?

Jenna: There is plenty of evidence to say that women who have experienced various forms of exploitation that could be described as trafficking or as severe exploitation re-migrate. Again, there are many reasons why that might be. Tragically, some of it may have to do with the traumas that they have experienced.

There are of course plenty of women who have exploitative experiences but continue to work, in the same way that you would anticipate many people who have exploitative, non-migration based labour experiences probably seek new work. Part of that is maybe human nature and the expectation that the next time around will be better. Part of it is that they will inform themselves. Some of it is necessity depending on the types of migrants you are looking at.

Much of the work I did is based in southeast Asia. A lot of the women there didn't have any other choice but to go into local factory work, the entertainment sector, or to re-migrate – with the last two of these offering slightly more money. A lot of time it’s just the more you migrate, the more exploitation you experience, the more information you have by which to balance the lesser of the evils. Of course, there are many women who are making that balance with eyes wide open.

Cameron: Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Jenna: I'd like to say that I think that the discourse still is very focused on the vulnerabilities of women and women migrants for the most part. But I saw today [at the Global Forum for Migration and Development, held in Bangladesh on 8-10 December 2016] that there is a real push to start viewing women in their own right as agents of their own lives.

Women migrants are often incredibly dynamic, strong, and creative transnational actors. Because of the strong connection they keep and maintain with their families, they often become very significant, stable conduits of information, cultural and political change, as well as money. That’s what drives change in our globalised world. These things happen through interpersonal relationships and women are a significant part of that interpersonal change. I’d like to see there be a bit more of a focus on the contribution and the role that women migrants play in the changing world that we are in.

About the authors

Jenna Holliday is an independent gender and migration specialist.

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery and Mediterranean Journeys in Hope. He is a former research associate at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and holds a D.Phil from the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. 


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