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In an age of unprecedented human mobility within and between countries, women are migrating more frequently for work and other reasons, to more destinations, and in greater numbers than ever before. Currently women represent 48% of all global migrants. A global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration should acknowledge women’s choices to migrate and the immense contributions made by migrant women to sustainable development and social change in countries of origin, transit and destination.
This multi-disciplinary panel identified actions and strategies that member states and other stakeholders can take to promote and protect women’s human rights in migration governance, and in particular the global compact for migration. The panel also identified interventions that enable or constrain women’s enjoyment of their human rights, both among those who migrate and those who stay behind.
Panellists reflected on how states can best develop gender-responsive, human rights-based migration policies which recognise the choices women make in migration, promote their empowerment and leadership and moves away from addressing migrant women primarily through a lens of helpless victims. Panellists considered questions such as: How can states ensure that policies, legal frameworks, and programmes address gender-based discrimination and violence against migrant women in their development and implementation? What are the measures, conditions and mechanisms in which migration contributes the most positively to the lives of women who move and who stay behind, for example through access to decent work, public services and social protection? In what ways can fair and dignified working conditions be assured for women migrant workers, particularly those working in sectors that are undervalued and susceptible to exploitation?
Panellists vehemently underlined a need to move away from a negative discourse on migrant women to change. Currently, including in international discussions, the focus tends to be on the negative aspects of migration in destination countries. Instead, we should focus on the ways in which migration offers women empowerment. Women migrant workers make a choice to improve their lives as migration often benefits their families as well as countries of origin and destination.
Tabulating the impacts of women migrants leads to a list of overwhelmingly positive outcomes. The development benefits of migration are well documented, including the transfer of economic remittances, which often exceeded foreign investment and Official Development Assistance (ODA). Though women migrant workers are likely to earn less than men, they have been found to remit higher proportions of their earnings and at more stable and regular intervals when compared to men. Furthermore, women’s remittances are often used to invest in the well-being of the family and community. Women migrant workers also often fill care gaps in destination countries which helps to stimulate economic growth. Panellists stressed the importance of social remittances, including empowerment, skills, new earning capacity, elevated status and progressive attitudes, and expressed that these can be seen as more sustainable and impactful on development indicators. Panellists stressed that women migrants are in some ways not vulnerable, but rather dare to break the cycle of poverty. One panellist furthermore underscored the importance of inclusion of migrant women broadly, and migrant women workers in particular, in the implementation of the SDGs moving forward.
Issues that are unique or pronounced among women migrant workers in the global south, as compared to those in the global north – and those connecting both, or in transit – were raised. In the case of Mexico and Myanmar, it was noted that women migrant workers are also migrants in transition. They may be in transition to other destinations, as in the case of Mexico, or in a temporary situation for bigger aspirations, as in the case of Myanmar and many others. The concept of “home” may be a symbol, experience, practice, and lens as well as a conveyor of a sense of belonging or not belonging in a destination country
Empirical research suggests that women migrant workers from Myanmar see their migration to Thailand as temporary access to education and work. One panellist noted Myanmar’s transition to a civilian government in 2010, and stressed that many human rights concerns in the country still exist. Aspects of ethnographic research were shared that focused on ethnic minorities and women and the home. Some of the hardships that women migrants from Myanmar experience, such as battling with their identity, heighten discrimination and avoidance of the police. The panel underlined the change of view that many migrants also experienced including the illumination of women’s rights.
The issue of migrants in transition is germane to research on Central American women migrants in Mexico. One panellist focusing on this issue noted that at the Southern border, women migrants have inserted themselves into the labour market primarily into domestic and agricultural work. The primary objective of many of these women is to temporarily work in Mexico and then continue their migration journey to the U.S. It was underlined that women migrate from Central America for a variety of reasons including gun violence, sexual and gender-based violence, and climate change. She explained that due to the influx of women migrant workers at the southern boarder there have been new ways of working developed, such as Guatemalan women working to pick tropical fruits. It was stressed that returnees must have access to gender-specific services. Panellists emphasized that researchers and policymakers should focus on the various and specific profiles of women.
Panellists underlined that there are many blind spots in understanding women and migration due to a lack of data. Yet data is a powerful tool to make women visible. The discussion covered various data and measurement issues including availability and transparency, definitional problems, inconsistencies, limitations in geography and the politics of collecting migration data. Migration counts and figures are usually underestimated, informal workers are usually not counted and estimating trafficking is difficult. While there is no silver bullet answer to these questions, better engagement across states as well as with experts from academia, civil society and the UN can help to improve data collection, retention, and use. Panellists made the plea that ‘data matters’.
Panellists underlined several key recommendations, focusing on points that could be integrated into a global compact on migration.
Women on the move should not be portrayed exclusively or predominantly as victims (of trafficking), poor and vulnerable, or involved in criminality (migrant smuggled). It is essential to recognise and normalise migrant women as agents for development for the societies they bridge. Women’s choices must be emphasised for both personal and collective goals.
Choice necessarily implies alternatives, the ability to have chosen otherwise. Policies can support women migrants in making better choices through the migration cycle by, for instance, providing essential resources such as a basic income, a social protection regime for those who are left behind in their countries of origin and basic safety across migration corridors. But also, policy has the potential to provide other, less tangible resources. For example, (formal and informal) education and access to information that include positive images of women migrants add to their sense of self-worth and perceived ability to integrate into labour markets. These two kinds of resources can also improve women migrants’ lifestyle choices (including where to live, whether to marry and to whom, whether to have children, how many children to have, how to raise children), freedom of movement, and choice of friends. All of these points are critical for people to live the lives they want. Children and women should not be conflated in discussions on protections and empowerment, and the rights and agency of children must be recognised and supported.
Women migrant workers are overly represented in jobs involving routine tasks. This contributed to rendering them more at risk for job loss as automation progresses. In designing and promoting education and skill development programmes for women, governments and partners should take this into account. Protections for migrant women, particularly those in certain sectors, can be improved.
Finally, data measurement tools and consistency of data measurement across member states can be improved. This will help improve the invisibility of some migrant women.