Female migration, urban relocation and remaking home: excerpts from a report

Key recommendations from the exploration of migration, relocation and settlement in an urban context, through the ethnographic project, “Women of the World: Home and Work in Barcelona”.

Kate Neyts
9 June 2015
Women of Barcelona

Huma, from the Women of the World exhibition. UNU-GCM. All rights reserved.

Huma, from the Women of the World exhibition. UNU-GCM. All rights reserved.This policy report arose from the ethnographic project “Women of the World: Home and Work in Barcelona”, carried out by the United Nations University, Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility (UNU-GCM) in order to explore key aspects of migration, relocation and settlement in an urban context with a specific gender focus, by means of oral and visual documentation.

Some concepts in (female) migration literature deserve more attention, both those used to describe the process of relocation as well as the process of settlement. This report explores the social aspects of relocation and settlement by providing an overview of opportunities and challenges for women in a strange city trying to integrate into the community. As background, a short overview of existing supranational debates connects existing knowledge to the oral documentation collected in the “Women of the World” project. Barcelona is characterised as a city of migration, with specific attention to its “Interculturality Plan” and the “Anti-Rumour campaign”. Several policy recommendations to promote the integration of female migrants within host societies conclude the report.

Experiences of migration can be very different for men and women, not only because women are more prone to physical and sexual abuse while travelling, but also because of the cultural aspects of living in a transnational community and rebuilding a home. It has been recognized in recent years that a gender perspective is essential to understanding both the causes and consequences of international migration. In 2002, the United Nations (UN) Commission on Population and Development adopted a resolution, inviting the incorporation of gender perspectives in all its research on population policies, levels and trends, including the gender dimension of migration. Various international protocols have been put in place to protect the rights of migrants and especially women and children, for example the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and The International Convention on the Protection of Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. However, the spotlight is often still on women traveling as dependents, refugees or victims of trafficking, whereas women are regularly migrating on their own. Much attention is also given to the process of departure and arrival, less on the process of integrating in the community and the least on what it entails to remake a home. The UNU-GCM project “Women of the World: Home and Work in Barcelona” explores key issues of relocation: those of remaking home, reinventing tradition, changing values, creating new identities and remaking the city; with visual and oral documentation. 

Feminization of migration

In migration studies it is often agreed that the ‘feminization of migration’ is one of the clearest trends within migration streams over the past few decades. This does not point to the fact that more women are crossing (transnational) borders; rather it means that women are migrating independently in search of employment or independence, rather than traveling as a dependent to a family member.[1] This results in some very specific forms of female migration, such as the labour migration of domestic workers and caregivers, sectors where we can find many immigrant women, but also the trafficking of women for the sex industry and migration organized for the marriage of women. This also means that existing ideas about gender roles and gender identities are shifting, with newly-defined and evolving masculinities and femininities as a result. Hence the continuous advice to researchers and governments to insert a gender perspective in relation to migration issues. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has also been asking for the identification of the needs of migrant women and the inclusion of gender consideration in international, regional and bilateral policies.

Women in transnational communities

Studying transnationalism, meaning that migrants are seen as representatives of a more globalized world, also asks for a gendered approach to the subject, since women and men experience immigration and citizenship in different ways.

The effects and conditions of gender diaspora is an underexamined topic within migration literature. One issue for example is that the conditions for moving transnationally are not always available to women, or are limited within a set of normative and cultural gendered rules. Another  study on Moroccan immigrant women in Italy concludes that their transnational movements are determined by the roles women are expected to perform in the household. Men, who act as providers, are expected to send remittances home to their families and visit occasionally. Women, however, are expected to take full responsibility for the daily care of both their children and their homes in both the host and the origin country. In one paper on Moroccan women in the Netherlands it is concluded that Moroccan migrant women’s transnational lives are closely connected to family cycles: women’s different roles as daughter, mother or wife determine their transnational activities. We can conclude that leading a transnational life is heavily determined by a woman’s position in patriarchal structures and her role within the household. The UN-INSTRAW study (2007) however, points out that women who become economically independent able to provide for their transnational family, can experience higher self-esteem, personal autonomy and status.

Another UN-INSTRAW study (2010) shows that regularization programmes in, for example, Spain, have enabled many families to reunite. However, other case studies from Spain show that many regular immigrants choose not to reunite their entire family, but use their new status differently, for example for circular migration.

Family separation always emerges in studies as the most painful aspect of the migratory experience, regardless of whether the move was voluntarily or not. This is especially the case for female labour migrants who have left young children in their home country and are sometimes separated for a long time. These women suffer from the social stigma of ‘abandoning’ their family, which adds to the pain of separation. In a time when we are celebrating globalization and transnationalism, nation-state borders have become real obstacles to many immigrant women who want to be reunited with their children and family. This is why in 2005 the UN proposed to, “grant the right for women migrant workers to choose their own motherhood arrangements”.

Remaking home

“Making home” in a new country or region brings its own situations and difficulties. Many aspects of this process have received insufficient attention in migration studies.

Regional conventions often focus on immigrant workers. Broader conventions in Europe include the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) and the European Social Charter (1965). But in the end, it is mainly national laws that provide the principal support for immigrant women. Gender-sensitive policies, including the requirement for sensitization initiatives for women immigrants and the training of officials to be aware of gender specific immigrant situations, can greatly increase the promotion and protection of the rights of female immigrants.

According to UN-INSTRAW, the living conditions of immigrant women are heavily determined by their health status and their working conditions. Female immigrants’ access to health services is often limited, even in countries that offer broad health coverage for its citizens. The problems include a lack of access to public-health systems, but also reluctance from female foreigners to visit these services as they do not want to leave work for it, they have trouble communicating with the service providers, they lack information about the health-care system or the costs are too high. This especially affects female immigrants, both for biological reasons (pregnancy and child-birth), as well as social reasons (they are responsible for family health-care). The working conditions of domestic workers are very diverse. Some are treated as members of the family, some are treated with unacceptable working conditions that border on slavery or forced labour. This is often due to a lack of regulation and the invisibility of domestic workers. UN-INSTRAW has called for a revaluation of domestic work.

The refugee scholar Liisa Malkki was one of the first to point out that “emplacement is the flipside of displacement”, referring to the fact that migration (eventually) means remaking home, reconstructing life, a place in the community and ultimately, an identity. It is for that reason that in the “Women of the World: Home and Work in the city” project, 16 immigrant women that have integrated in the city of Barcelona were interviewed on their migration experience as well as their experience in rebuilding a home.

Many of them indicated that their “emplacement” in a new country or city did not mean creating a new identity, but adding a new feeling of identity to their already existing personality. Rebuilding a home in an urban area can also be a matter of interaction with the city. Many of them felt that their life in the new city, although difficult at first, gave feelings of joy of life, freedom, stability and happiness. When asked what they offered to Barcelona, many suggested that they gave the contribution of their family, their knowledge, their motivated personality and their zest for life.

Relocating to the city, it should be said, is entirely different from moving to rural areas. Migrants often chose to move to the city, as these interviewed women did, because there are more job opportunities, better schools and better social and cultural facilities than in rural areas. Also, rural infrastructure projects are declining in struggling economies, making the city a more attractive place. However, migrants are often met with discrimination by local residents.

The dual responsibility of work and family often hits women the hardest. They can face double discrimination on the labour market, due to being women and foreigners, and their residence may depend on the relationship with their male partner. However, there are also opportunities for them to create their own space and their own role in society. These can be found in international literature, but were especially identifiable from the interviews with the 16 immigrant women from the “Women of the World” project.


Female immigrants are faced with a new society, with new possibilities and are possibly moving away from traditional and patriarchal societies. Often they get the chance to have more authority in their lives. They also become familiar with new norms on women’s rights and opportunities and may have more opportunities to participate in waged employment or gain access to financial resources they have never had before. It is mostly in urban areas that more self-employment activity, often in the informal sector, can be found.

The women that were interviewed for the project support these findings. Deepti from India has, since arriving in the country, started her own business, a shop that sells Indian clothing and other typically Indian things. Other than that, she has created a space for herself and her culture in Barcelona by giving guided tours on “India in Barcelona”. Bombo from Senegal works in an association for Sub-Saharan female migrants in Barcelona and tries to identify and fulfil the as yet unaddressed needs of these women. Huma from Pakistan started her own cultural association on Social and Educational Operations for Pakistani women and actively works with them to integrate them into the city, the country, the new culture and new values. Lilia from Cuba has her own restaurant, Lingling from China started her own translation company and Nora from Argentina started her own acting studio. In their individual ways, they have tried to connect their identity and culture to the city by building something new.

Immigrant women may influence their society of origin by taking up a mediatory role and representing the rights and opportunities of other (immigrant) women. When women become economically, socially and politically empowered through international migration, it often also benefits the broader community, as their empowerment can contribute to the lives of others in society. Where men generally experience a loss of social status in the process of immigration and, as a consequence, have a stronger orientation towards the community of origin, women do not experience status loss. They may gain in social status. Therefore, they are more interested in their situation in their new country.  Female immigrants can form cultural linkages between different geographical locations and become in themselves a ‘cultural resource’.

It is also often women who are part of the networks and communities in the city that work to gain for example better quality housing and services. We see this too in the women that were interviewed for the ‘Women of the World’ project. Bombo from Senegal, Huma from Pakistan, Maritza from Colombia and Nora from Argentina are, for example, very active in associations for female migrants or women’s rights issues. Fatima from Morocco and Deepti from India both work as intercultural mediators and Sithy from Cambodia is a contact person for Erasmus students from Cambodia.

Each tries to make a difference for the people from their region to integrate better in the city of Barcelona, prompted by their own experiences as a female immigrant. At a different level, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) recognizes the existence of many of these immigrant women’s societies and aims to integrate them more, in hopes of having a better representation of immigrant women in Europe.


There are interesting opportunities for immigrant women as they rebuild a home, but obviously they are also faced with various obstacles. Foreign-born women in Europe face a gendered labour market and lack of job opportunities in higher qualified jobs. Labour participation by female immigrants is mostly lower than among native women and they tend to have lower earnings. Many immigrant women perform what are considered ‘culturally appropriate activities’ such as taking care of families and domestic work. A lot of immigrant women are involved in the domestic or the services sector.

The upside is that due to this, some countries have gender-adapted immigration policies that affect the admission of migrant women for employment reasons. For example, Canada and the US have explicit immigration programs for the admission of “live-in caregivers”, jobs often filled by immigrant women. In 2005, the European Commission called for policies that would mobilize all groups to the labour market and give more attention to immigrant women. As of 2009, many countries had ratified the international labour standards and 49 countries had ratified the Migration for Employment Convention, which obligates States to provide free and accurate information to immigrants and prevent discrimination against immigrants. In the interviews, several women indicated that they had difficulties entering the formal labour market. Bombo from Senegal and Maritza from Colombia were literally told that they had no option but to search for work in the caregiving sector. It is, therefore, no surprise that many of them started their own initiatives, as described in the previous section.

Another challenge is being treated respectfully and fairly. If the population in the host country perceives immigrants as a threat, they may respond with suspicion, fear or even violence. Immigrant women are at higher risk of discrimination, exploitation and abuse than either male migrants or other female workers. The UN has consequently recommended that potential women emigrants be informed of their rights and what they can expect to help them prepare for migration. The UN sets out to eliminate gender discrimination using the many provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)[2] directed at immigrant women, such as the elimination of sex role stereotyping and provisions concerning education, employment and health. Many of the women interviewed have dealt with name-calling. But they indicate that it does not affect them any more. Bombo from Senegal stated that a lot of prejudice exists against Sub-Saharan female migrants and that people generally do not listen to them. Furthermore, Joice from Venezuela reported that she was denied a chance to work at different stores because she is South-American. Fatima from Morocco said there are many existing stereotypes regarding Muslim women, that they are very submissive and not well educated, while that is not the case at all, and Nilza from Mozambique also mentioned having to fight stereotypes as an African woman.

Although many immigrant women can feel empowered by the migration experience, it also often entails a language barrier, which can be quite an obstacle when integrating into the community. Migrant women can lose autonomy when crossing borders, if they do not know the language and have difficulty adapting to the new society. Also, when children adapt more quickly than their parents to a new language and social system, the migration experience can result in intergenerational tensions, which could complicate the process of rebuilding a home for a woman and her family. In addition, immigrant women may not be able to benefit from language and skills training courses, because they experience barriers in access to these classes, usually due to cultural constraints and practical problems (transportation, day care).

Regularly, these language classes are also too academic and not sufficiently adapted for women with little previous education. Immigrant women’s associations are often able to bridge these barriers. Many of the interviewed women have indicated they had to learn Catalan to be able to integrate into society and find employment. Some of them already had knowledge of Spanish, but still had to learn Catalan to fully integrate. Huma from Pakistan for example, lived in Madrid for years before coming to Barcelona and spoke Spanish well, but still had to learn Catalan to fit in. Fatima from Morocco only spoke French upon arrival and could not communicate with anyone in the first few months, until she met a nurse who spoke French and later learned Catalan.

Lastly, there is also a lack of recognition of the qualifications, degrees and skills of people from other regions. This matter was addressed by the IOM in 2005, who called for a gender-balanced migration policy, including an international diploma recognition scheme. From the women who were interviewed, some acknowledged that they had skills or degrees that were not recognized in Barcelona. However, not all women have actually attempted to use their qualifications. So , the problem might be more extensive. Nilza from Mozambique for example, said her driver’s license from Mozambique was not recognized, so she had to retake a driver’s test in Barcelona. Deepti from India had a degree in economics; however this degree was not recognized in Barcelona. Edna from the Philippines studied English Philology for two years before she came to Barcelona. She would like to finish her degree, but then she would have to start all over again in Barcelona, because her credits are not transferrable.

Barcelona as a city of migration

Barcelona is a very socio-culturally diverse habitat, which has its own advantages and difficulties. The local government has created its own strategy for living together in this diversity, named the Interculturality Plan. The idea is to make interculturalism and the relationship and interaction between citizens a fundamental part of the city practices by defining a list of principles, strategies and targets to implement on the local government level. Remarkably, city departments as well as citizens were asked for their input in public opinion surveys to evaluate diversity, the difficulties in interaction, common elements shared by all Barcelona residents, and to identify spaces of interculturality in the city. This input formed the core content of the plan. A website was created to host public discussion on the plan and to show the evolution of the project. In-depth interviews were held with experts and people from different sectors in the city. Public working sessions were held in territorial and sectorial councils and the public consensus on interculturality was monitored. The result was a focus on interaction and the promotion of several issues, such as the trilingualism in the city (Catalan, Spanish and language of origin), making sure that new immigrants are supported in their entrepreneurial ideas, and addressing discrimination with the Anti-Rumour campaign (Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2009; Cities of Migration, 2012). The plan is paying off, as Barcelona is currently third in the Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities Index.

The “Anti-Rumour campaign” was designed to “fight fiction with facts”. To battle the persistent rumors that immigrants were “invading the city”, “crowding the health services” and so forth. The city recruited and trained “anti-rumor agents” to dispel these myths, to contradict uninformed ideas about immigrants and to combat discrimination. To get the message out to the inhabitants of the city, 80 local organizations that work in the field of social cohesion were contacted and connected through a website that offered information, free training sessions and online guides. Furthermore, the government organized public debates with local figures, supported street theatre and comic videos on the subject and produced comic books about a local woman and her Peruvian caregiver. These comic books actively dispelled many existing myths by portraying them in everyday situations. They were a huge success with the locals.  


As migration studies have been increasingly recognizing the gendered dimension of migration processes, more attention is being given to the feminization of migration, the determinants, possibilities and difficulties of women in transnational communities and urban integration processes. However, they mainly focus on the gender segregated labour market, irregular immigrants and problems of regularization and health needs.

Many aspects of relocation are still insufficiently considered. Remaking home entails many different social aspects that could receive more attention. Immigrants, and often especially women, are confronted with many difficulties as they try to rebuild a home in a new country and city. They face a gendered labour market, low paid functions and, often, bad working conditions. They regularly face the double burden of discrimination, for being a woman and a foreigner. The language barrier can form a significant obstacle in integrating into society and lastly, the recognition of their skills is often insufficient. On the other hand, in terms of empowerment, rebuilding a home can bring many opportunities. The research in combination with the oral documentation from the “Women of the World” project has shown that women are highly motivated to shape a place for themselves in the new city and have a true entrepreneurial spirit. Not only do they start new businesses or other initiatives, but they also try to take up an active role within their community and often act as (cultural) mediators. In the next section, we form several policy recommendations to better accommodate female migrants in the city as they attempt to rebuild a home.


We urge an expansion and sensitization of the existing vocabulary used to describe migration and gender situations. Also – a focus on the opportunities women can create for themselves and their potential for entrepreneurship and (cultural) mediation.


  • * Female entrepreneurship in the city can be stimulated by providing guidelines with best practices, success stories and tips and clues for starting an initiative, directed at female immigrants.


  • * The potential of women to be a (cultural) mediator can be stimulated.

- On micro-levels, this is possible by identifying representatives in the immigrant community and inviting them to start collaborating with the city government or other agencies.

- On macro-level this is possible through a better integration of female immigrant’s societies, as suggested by the European Women’s Lobby (2007), for a better representation of female immigrants at the (supra-)national, regional or local level. 


  • * The empowerment of immigrant women in the city can be stimulated by identifying the needs of these women better. This includes addressing housing and health needs, but also access to financial resources and (language) education.


* To address existing labour market access obstacles and discrimination, countries could start by ratifying and implementing the ILO’s Migration for Employment Convention.

[1] See also UN (2006), UN-INSTRAW (2006), UNDP (2010), UN-INSTRAW (2010) and UN Women (2013)

[2] See also UN-INSTRAW (2006)

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