Written by Miranda A. Bocci
Research Associate at Law & Order
University of Toronto Graduate
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
In recent years, the gender gap among labour migrants in the European Union (EU) has persisted, despite an increase in the labour migration flows of non-national women. Labour markets have remained highly segregated, and migrant women, relative to migrant men, have continued to have only limited access to information, resources, and decision-making powers. This limited access has exposed migrant women to multiple forms of discrimination at each stage of integration and has posed an obstruction to their enjoyment of human rights.
Migration can lead to a better quality of life by providing women with the opportunity to build a stronger sense of autonomy and empowerment; however, without the right societal conditions in the receiving country, marginalization is the more likely result.
The “right societal conditions” for migrant women have been observed in countries that acknowledge and address the various dimensions of migration and that recognize the particular challenges that migrant women face. Accordingly, these countries take a proactive approach in designing policies that address these challenges by focusing on creating the right societal conditions.
Receiving societies have great power in mitigating and preventing undesirable outcomes for migrant women through the support of their political voice and dialogue facilitation with the appropriate decision-making bodies. In fact, ensuring that migrant women have room to voice their concerns and encouraging a sensitive environment to address them is a prerequisite to designing policies that better align with the contemporary reality of enhanced globalization.
Gender-sensitive policies can help offset various societal problems that hinder the attainment of a better quality of life for migrant women, including those relating to their level of education, sexuality, race, social class, and socio-economic status. They can also be used to integrate migrant women more effectively into the prevailing social order so that they are more politically active and involved in the various stages of the decision-making process. The diversity of migrant women’s experiences is not always acknowledged in policies that affect them, but a gender-responsive approach can do much to ease the path forward.
Political science research on labour migration policies has been primarily concerned with macro-level issues that place finance, trade, inflation, national employment levels, and economic growth (competitiveness and entrepreneurship) at the centre of analysis. The protection of young children, victims of domestic violence, people with disabilities, the elderly, and migrants as a way of anticipating, mitigating, and offsetting challenges to growth has been seen as a secondary priority after efficiency and economic growth.
However, this asymmetry has rarely benefited EU member states and often comes at a human cost, as exemplified by the Czech Republic’s 2015 decision to close its doors to immigrants due to fears that not doing so would result in negative consequences for the country’s economic health.
The European Court of Justice recently ruled that the Czech Republic broke European law in refusing to comply with the EU’s 2015 refugee programme to resettle refugees, and the country is now facing possible fines.
While the Czech Republic’s 2015 response to the refugee crisis is an extreme example of how a nation can refuse to acknowledge a group’s human rights in favour of economic interests, the case of migrant women is still not that different. Migrant women participate in all the categories mentioned above (trade, finance, employment, entrepreneurship, and a nation’s overall economic growth), but their personal experiences differ from those of migrant men. It needs to be asked, therefore, why gender is not being used as a valid analytical tool in the study of labour migration.
A number of established international commissions have published reports highlighting contemporary international trends and issues requiring policy responses. Among these, gender and migration have been identified as key areas the global community needs to address. Despite that, significant gaps persist in both policy and research. Many societal projects aiming to assist women have, in fact, been developed by protection organizations that focus exclusively on the subject of gender-based violence and the eradication of racism and discrimination from society. However, there is increasing concern that mainstream policy debates are not being adequately informed by the knowledge produced through gender research.
The most recent report by the European Migration Network (launched in June 2021) does not devote a specific section to gender, but instead references gender in all the areas discussed, therefore downplaying the severe discrepancy between the experiences of migrant men and women. Whether this report sufficiently addresses the rights of migrant women is debatable. Nevertheless, this report implies an urgent need to expand migrant women’s options by designing and implementing policies enabling them to create more self-directed, fulfilling lives. Such policies will carry the further benefit of creating an attractive, friendly, and advantageous political environment for all migrants—not just women.
Social policies that promote a gender-sensitive approach to migration can help foster a more tolerant, peaceful community and a thriving domestic economy.
Designing and implementing strategies that acknowledge the various forms of discrimination that migrant women face; ensuring that social protection programmes appropriately identify and address their needs, including taking into account household dynamics and the distribution of work and resources; working to eradicate negative stereotyping; making resources more accessible; and keeping their political participation with gender power relations in mind will ultimately lead to a safer society that promotes human rights.
A recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (launched on August 30, 2018) shows that it takes longer for migrant women to establish themselves in the labour market than it does for migrant men. Additionally, they are more likely to be employed in part-time positions and consequently have,
Lower levels of host-country language skills compared to men in the first two to three years after arrival, [which relates] to the fact that they frequently receive less integration support than men, both in terms of language training and active labour market measures (European Commission, 2018).
The report emphasizes that since half of refugees are women, there should be a sense of urgency in integrating migrant women.
Elderly migrant women who have recently immigrated to the EU and elderly women who have resided in the EU as non-nationals are particularly vulnerable to a serious violation of their human rights, a vulnerability compounded by society’s devaluation of domestic work and by sexism and age discrimination. Due to cultural barriers, elderly migrant women face excessive inequalities in accessing resources and pensions, leading to poor health, social isolation, and the risk of violence.
Social protection programmes might in fact be more efficient in preventing gender-based violence if greater focus were placed on generating discussion and debates on designing and implementing policies that identify and address the unique challenges women face. While women can be victimized for any number of reasons, the experience of violence itself is not specific to women. That reality does not downplay the seriousness of the matter but highlights the importance of policies based on women’s particular experiences of violence, as opposed to violence in general.
Gender-sensitive policies will help strengthen women’s role in society by improving society’s perception of women, thus pre-empting the potential for violence before it even arises. History has often demonstrated the lower likelihood of social groups holding the majority of power experiencing violence than those who are systemically disempowered or simply refused access to power. Clearly, one solution to the problem of gender-based violence and discrimination against migrant women is to design policies that empower them—a top-down approach. For effective, informed state and EU-level intervention to occur, however, sufficient knowledge must be generated through future research on gender and migration.
Nation-states are quick to acknowledge that a strong economy depends on a well-functioning society that has systems, structures, and procedures in place that allow states to operate autonomously, independently, and responsibly in the international arena. It is, therefore, in their interest to facilitate dialogue among the various social actors and to develop policies in line with shifting social realities and priorities. In doing so, EU states often achieve economic strength that not only sustains society but also moves it forward. Moreover, as the EU’s society continues to age, greater demand for domestic labour will make gender-sensitive policies crucial for creating a safer, more attractive destination for migrant women.
Yet the domestic setting is not the only arena that can potentially transform EU society and signal the way forward. The fields of law, education, engineering, and medicine in the EU might equally benefit from a higher ratio of foreign-trained women who are offered equal opportunities to their male counterparts. Their countries of origin might also be the beneficiaries of greater flows of remittances from migrant women.
On the whole, gender and migration research can play an important role in identifying and addressing these issues at the micro, meso, and macro levels within the cross-country sphere in which many migrant women are moving in the contemporary world. Doing so would help to generate trans-disciplinary discussion and facilitate dialogue between migrant women and policy-makers. Research on the personal experiences of migrant women in a labour, domestic, and social setting has a lot to offer in fostering a better understanding of how policy processes can impact or result in migration. It can also help to situate men and women migrants within the economy of gendered labour. Political researchers can help to explore questions pertaining to the changes that can be made by state actors or international institutions to enable gender-sensitive policies toward women migrants.
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