Women on the Move: A Look at Migration, Women and Cities

By Lee Kanthoul

Around the world, cities are welcoming migrants and displaced populations like never before, with women and girls arriving in unprecedented numbers. Not only do they make up nearly half of all international migrants, but they are also more likely than men and boys to migrate internally, most often settling in urban areas.

As urbanization continues to expand, it is becoming increasingly apparent that men and women use cities in different ways, in terms of public transit, public spaces and housing, for example. It is also becoming evident that cities also impact migrant men and women differently.

Women and girls are coming to cities with hopes of creating new opportunities, finding greater independence, gaining more security, and forging new lives for themselves and their families.

Whether migrating voluntarily or forced to leave their homes, many migrant women and girls are finding the education, jobs, networks and communities they are looking for, enriching and improving their lives in the process.

They are taking control of their lives in a new and often very challenging environment, sometimes a world away from what they have been used to.

But too often, their hopes are not realized. In many countries, as women and girls migrate, they risk being subjected to violence, exploitation and abuse. In some cases, they fall into the hands of human traffickers, who often offer false promises of employment or assistance.

Upon reaching their urban destination, new challenges can arise. Precariousness, withholding of earnings, and physical and sexual abuse are common threats for women and girls, particularly in the informal economy.

Stories of their plight, like those of the “Kayayei” in Ghana, are not uncommon. Other women may find themselves in a more formal situation, such as in care work or manufacturing, but still disadvantaged, in large part due to discrimination and unfair labour practices.

Female migrant workers in China, for example, despite representing only one third of all internal migrants, are vastly over-represented in low-paying, labour-intensive factories, where they are exposed to rights violations and sexual harassment and abuse by employers.

These difficulties are not only being felt by migrant women performing low-skilled work. In many high-income countries, skilled and highly skilled migrant women from different parts of the world settle in cities with hopes of continuing their careers.

But a variety of barriers—including the non-recognition of their qualifications, rigorous certification programmes, employment limitations on their residence permits, and discrimination based on gender, nationality and ethnicity—combine to confine these women to low-skilled occupations, often resulting in loss of their professional skills, or de-skilling.

A report published by IOM highlights the widespread nature of this problem and documents how migrant women are facing such challenges in Switzerland, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Yet for all the challenges that they hold, cities can also offer empowering opportunities for the millions of women and girls who have adopted these cities as their home. By earning their own income, they can discover newfound economic and social independence. They can increase their access to formal education that is so often viewed as a luxury for rural children, especially for girls, but is increasingly considered a necessity for securing decent employment in urban areas.

Migrating to cities can also have positive impacts on the reproductive and sexual health of women and girls, which can in turn allow them to gain more control over their lives. To start with, many of them come to cities to escape traditional customs and practices, such as early and forced marriage.

What is more, pregnancy and childbearing at very early ages are not as desirable in cities as they might be in rural areas, where pressures for women to stay at home and raise children tend to be stronger. Delaying childbirth can allow girls and young women to focus on their own development while they are still young.

To assist migrant women and girls to realize their full potential, many cities are implementing innovative measures to address the challenges that they face. In Barcelona, the city provides workshops to help migrant women, who are often isolated, become more autonomous and self-confident, enabling them to participate more in city life.

In Copenhagen, a Danish non-governmental organization has developed a mentoring programme that partners migrant women with Danish women to combat the professional and social isolation that migrant women often face.

And in response to a lack of information and access to health services among migrant women in Bilbao, city officials are training migrant women as “agents of empowerment” to become community leaders and reach out to other migrant women from marginalized communities on issues such as sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence.

As the leading organization working in the field of migration, IOM must work with migrant women and the cities that house them in order to mitigate the risks and capitalize on the opportunities that they face.

We must ensure that they are agents of their own destiny, and that they determine when and how to migrate and what course to take upon arrival. This is what it means to be empowered, and as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we must remember that the empowerment of women migrants, of all migrants, is what we are striving towards.