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Empowerment in Motion: Gender Equality for Refugee and Migrant Women



Photo:  Alisdare Hickson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Millions of people around the world currently find themselves affected by dire humanitarian crises. Whether it is the ongoing conflict in Syria, post-earthquake recovery in Nepal, or the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the level of human suffering has reached critical levels. Unfortunately, women and girls are disproportionately affected, and gender equality is often not a priority when it comes to humanitarian assistance. In times of crisis, gender inequalities can worsen, leading to increased levels of gender-based violence, exclusion from essential services, and limited mobility to get help due to physical insecurity.


Gender plays a crucial role in shaping the various aspects of human mobility, including the decision to migrate, transit through borders, settle in the host country, or opt to return home. To be precise, it has been estimated that 48% of the international migrant population in midyear 2020 consisted of females. This figure emphasises the importance of recognising and addressing the unique challenges and experiences encountered by women who migrate, and ultimately stresses the importance of a gender-sensitive approach.


It's important to remember that women make up not only half of the world's 281 million migrants but 42 % of the estimated 164 million migrant workers as well. To put it in perspective, nearly two-thirds of all migrant women are active in the labour force, compared to just under half of non-migrant women. Many of these women are driven by the desire for better job opportunities and financial stability. In fact, a survey conducted among migrant women from Libya, East Africa, and West Africa showed that inadequate pay in their home countries was the reason behind 33 to 37 % of their decision to migrate. 


Although many migrant women embark on their journey in search of better economic opportunities, the reality they face is often far different from what they hoped for. The absence of safe and regular migration pathways, as well as gender-responsive migration policies, can have serious short- and long-term consequences. These are amplified for migrant women who work in the informal economy, where inadequate enforcement of labour protections leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, sexual and gender-based violence, racism, and xenophobia.


It is noteworthy that approximately 13% of migrant women are subjected to labour and human rights abuses while working in domestic jobs. Their vulnerability stems from the isolation and dependence inherent in their work environment, where they live and work in the same place and rely on their employer for their work permit. This dependency in turn exacerbates the unequal power dynamic that may result in unfair treatment and discrimination. Social isolation due to language and cultural differences, along with the limited availability of accurate information, can leave them feeling vulnerable and alone. To make matters worse, gender-specific barriers often prevent them from sending remittances to support their families, as they may lack the digital literacy and modern technologies that are vital in today's world.


What is more, gender-based violence, including sexual abuse and early/forced marriage, frequently increases during crises when protection mechanisms weaken, depriving women and girls of their rights to exist free from violence.  Unfortunately, it is estimated that 1 in 5 refugees or displaced women in humanitarian settings have suffered sexual violence. Particularly those with irregular migration status also face heightened risk of trafficking, comprising the vast majority of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. Moreover, access to essential services (for example justice, health, and social services) is often limited for the survivors of violence with a migrant background.

Refugees and migrants face a high risk of adverse physical and mental health outcomes, both while they are in transit and after they arrive at their destinations, and that alone can be more difficult on women. In general, the difficulties in accessing health services lead to worse health outcomes compared to the host populations. For female refugees especially, sexual and reproductive health is an essential need and right, but access is often limited, increasing pre-existing health risks. Despite progress in providing sexual and reproductive health care in crisis-affected settings over the past 30 years, significant gaps still exist. 


Accessing necessary health services can be hindered by several factors such as political, administrative, and financial hurdles, as well as social determinants like education, income, employment and working conditions, and social support networks. In order to tackle these underlying causes and work towards removing these barriers comprehensive care during and after an emergency, is necessary to address these gaps. Examples include access to contraception and family planning for refugees, ensuring that adequate reproductive health care supplies are available and accessible, and providing sexual and reproductive health care for adolescents. This is exemplified in SDG 3 and the target of achieving Universal Health Care (UHC), as well as in the UN Declaration on UHC, which clearly states: “leave no one behind, reaching the furthest behind first”.


As indicated above, gender is a significant factor shaping every aspect of human mobility – one that is evident in various stages of migration, from the decision to relocate to settling in a new country or choosing to return home. It's important to recognize that access to key services and opportunities can be greatly impacted by a migrant's gender. This includes vital resources such as labour opportunities, health services, and other benefits. Incorporating gender-focused as well as human-centric approaches to migration is key to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Global Compact for Migration. Addressing systematic gender inequalities and formulating gender-responsive migration policies and actions can contribute to real change. By acknowledging these gender-based disparities, we can foster a more inclusive and equitable society for all.


In order to create migration policies and programs that cater to the specific needs and realities of all migrants, particularly women, it is important to involve them in the design and development process. The feminist principle of "nothing about us without us" reminds us of the importance of taking into account and addressing the lived experiences of migrant women in migration programming and policymaking. By empowering migrant women to share their experiences, knowledge and expertise, we can create a world where everyone's needs are considered and addressed in a meaningful way.


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