One of the most significant recent trends in migration has been the rise in the number of women using dangerous routes previously used mainly by men. More and more women – fleeing discrimination, violence, or poverty – are now taking the same risks as men in search of a better life for themselves and their children. This is desperation migration.
Indeed, while many women travel with their families, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is seeing an increasing number of women migrating on their own to an unknown, unpredictable, and often dangerous future. Women and children migrants are dying with increasing frequency at sea, crossing deserts, and on other hazardous routes.
What has changed?
Among the many factors pushing women to migrate are pervasive gender bias and social prejudices against single mothers or widows in their country of origin. But poverty is almost always the strongest force driving women to leave. In most poor countries, women are poorer than men, owing to the systematic discrimination that they face in education, health care, employment, and control of assets.
Of course, most migrant women do not encounter mistreatment or die on their journeys; in fact, many derive real benefits from migration. But, among the world’s estimated 111 million migrant women (half the total), violence and abuse can occur at any time, starting from the very outset of the migration process.
Throughout the migration cycle, women are more at risk from physical violence by fellow migrants, smugglers, and state officers, and can be forced to exchange sex for transportation, food, or accommodation. Unsurprisingly, migrant women are often victims of human trafficking, finding themselves enslaved as laborers, prostitutes, or participants in organized begging operations.
This is true regardless of why women migrate. When women run for their lives because of natural or man-made disasters, gender-based violence is one of the great risks they face. Displaced women, often destitute, are easy prey for criminals. This was one of my immediate concerns when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, and at my request a special program was instituted to alert and help women in peril.
Even when women migrants find a job in a host country, it is rarely easy for them. They are predominantly employed in domestic work, care-giving, agriculture, and entertainment – all low-paid, largely unregulated sectors that are rarely covered by national labor laws. They are often subject to punishingly long working hours, non-payment of wages, forced confinement, starvation, beating, sexual abuse, and threats and intimidation.
Many women migrants are unskilled or undocumented domestic workers. This makes them more vulnerable to violence, because they typically depend on a single employer and in many countries face deportation if they attempt to change jobs.
Moreover, social integration in a new country can be more difficult for women than for men. This is partly because women are often subject to harmful traditional practices, such as early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and so-called “honor” crimes, enforced by families who want to maintain a link with their country of origin. And it is especially difficult for women migrants to navigate between the tantalizing freedom of choice and expression in their host society and the traditional roles expected of them at home.
The rising number of migrant deaths – both women and men – at sea and in deserts is a wake-up call for the international community to act. IOM has called on all relevant actors – including countries of origin, transit countries, and destination countries – to address the plight of migrants attempting life-threatening journeys and find solutions. Protecting women migrants – often the most desperate of the desperate – should top their priorities.
In 2014, the international community will review the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which expire next year, and decide on a post-2015 development agenda. IOM believes that migrants, and in particular women migrants, who in the past have been largely invisible in the language of development, must be a part of this.
We must no longer ignore half the world’s migrants. Like all migrants, women on the move are entitled to personal security and basic dignity.