The experiences of women in world affairs are often invisible. We commonly see men as the central actors in the world, with women appearing only in our peripheral vision. Mainstream news, reports, and research about Europe’s migrant crisis have largely left the stories of women untold. But important new research conducted by Amnesty International reveals that women migrants fleeing from Syria and Iraq to Europe face a high risk of violence, both sexual and physical, throughout their journey.
The canary in the coal mine for these recent challenges was the sexual exploitation of women from Africa and Eastern Europe in earlier waves of women escaping conflicts and economic instability—for example, in Nigeria, Libya, the former Yugoslavia, and former satellites of the Soviet Union (following the fall of the Berlin Wall).
The feminization of migration is reflected in the increasing number of female migrants and changing migration patterns. Female migrants are not only migrating as part of a household, but exercise increased agency in migrating on their own, as migrant workers, students or refugees, for instance.
Until the late 1970s, most writings on international migration either focused explicitly only on male migrants (usually assumed to be workers) or seemed to assume implicitly that most migrants were male. That assumption was particularly prevalent when attention was focused on the economic aspects of international migration, because it was widely believed that the participation of women in international labour migration was negligible. These beliefs were rarely based on statistical evidence since, both then and now, data on international migrants often were not classified by sex.
Till the 1970s, mainstream literature on international migration focused explicitly on male migrants who were assumed to be workers. By contrast women migrants were perceived as dependents of migrating males.
While sex-disaggregated data on international migration was then scarce, current statistical evidence, however inadequate, points to the feminization of labour migration. This is manifested in the growing pace, magnitude and global reach of women migrating for work into a feminized labour sector. It is grounded in interfacing global and local processes – socio-economic and political – underscored by intersecting class, gender, ethnic and nationality concerns.
Until recently, a comprehensive set of global estimates permitting an assessment of the extent of female migration was not available. The first such set, containing estimates for the period 1965-1990, was released by the United Nations Population Division in 1998. Estimates at the country level were derived from the number of foreign-born persons enumerated by population censuses, complemented by information on the number of refugees. In 2002, the UN extended estimates of the overall number of migrants (both sexes combined) to 2000, setting the stage for a similar extension of the estimates by sex. As a result, it is now possible to trace the evolution of the number of female migrants from 1960 to 2000.
The share of female migrants has not changed significantly in the past 60 years. However, more female migrants are migrating independently for work, education and as heads of households. Despite these improvements, female migrants may still face stronger discrimination, are more vulnerable to mistreatment, and can experience double discrimination as both migrants and as women in their host country in comparison to male migrants. Nonetheless, male migrants are also exposed to vulnerabilities in the migration processes. Therefore, gender-responsive data on migration have potential to promote greater equality and offer opportunities for disadvantaged groups.
Female migrants as a share of all international migrants, 2000, 2010 and 2019
Females migrants somewhat less than half, 130 million or 47.9%, of the global international migrant stock. The share of female migrants has declined from 49.1% in 2000 to 47.9% in 2019, whereas the proportion of male migrants grew from 50.7% in 2000 to 52.1% in 2019. There were more male international migrant workers, 83.7 million or 55.7%, than female, 66.6 million or 44.3% in 2013. The larger presence of males in the international migrant stock is also reflected in the proportion of male migrant workers. In 2017, migrant workers were estimated to be 58.4% male and 41.6% female. At 63.5% and 48.1% respectively, the labour force participation rate of migrant women was higher than that of non-migrant women in 2017. This pattern holds true in all groups of countries except low-income countries. Since 2013, the labour force participation rates of female migrants are higher than that of non-migrant women, but there is little difference in the labour force participation rates of male migrants compared to non-migrant males.
Female migrants outnumber male migrants in the North, whereas male migrants outnumber female migrants in the South. In 2019, 47.9% of all international migrants were women, but that percentage ranged from 43.4% in the less developed regions to 51.5% in the more developed regions. Although female migrants outnumber male migrants in Northern America (51.8%), Europe (51.4%) and Oceania (50.4 per cent), they are less numerous in Latin America and the Caribbean (49.9%), Central and Southern Asia (49.4%), Eastern and South Eastern Asia (49.3%), sub-Saharan Africa (47.5%) and Northern Africa and Western Asia (35.5%).
Between 2000 and 2019, the percentage of female migrants increased in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Southern Asia, Oceania and Northern America, while it decreased in Northern Africa and Western Asia, Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and Europe. These regional differences result from a combination of factors, such as varying levels of labour migration, population ageing of migrants and forced migration.
Asia and Africa
From 2000-2019, the estimated stock of male international migrants grew tremendously by 84 per cent in Asia, to 49 million. This growth has been fuelled by the increasing demand for male migrant workers in oil-producing countries of Western Asia. Even though only 5.3% of female migrant workers globally are found in Arab states, they make up about 39.9% of the labour force in the region. Similar developments can be observed in Africa, which experienced more growth among male migrants (41.8% during 2000-2017) than among female migrants (37.1%). The share of female migrants is much lower both in Asia (41.5 per cent) and in Africa (47%). Thus, male international migrants significantly outnumber female international migrants in these regions.
Europe and Northern America
Female migrants comprise slightly more than half of all international migrants in Europe and Northern America. In 2019, the share of females among all international migrants reached 51.4% in Europe and 51.8% in Northern America. The larger presence of females in the international migrant stock is also reflected in the proportion of female migrant workers in these regions. 39.8% and 25.8% of all female migrant workers worldwide reside in Europe and Northern America respectively while 26.3% and 21.1% of all male migrant workers live in Europe and Northern America respectively. The larger portion of female migrants in these regions is because of a combination of two factors: the presence of older migrants in the population and the tendency of longer life expectancies of female migrants in comparison with males.
Latin America, Oceania and the Caribbean
In 2019, female international migrants (49.9%) were slightly outnumbered by the proportion of male international migrants (50.1%) in these major areas. Moreover, during 2000-2019, the stock of female international migrants grew faster than that of male international migrants. Conversely, the share of male migrant workers (2.9%) is almost on par with the share of female migrant workers (2.5%) in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Female migrant workers
Female migration is nothing new. Across the globe, women have been on the move for as long as men have. What has changed over recent decades is the proportion of women in the migrant workforce, their motivations to migrate, and the role they play in the global economy -- trends broadly described as the "feminisation of migration".
These trends are particularly evident in Southeast Asia, where migration was male-dominated up to the 1980s. Today, women account for 48% of the 9.87 million migrants in the region, and their prominence is increasing by the day. Traditionally, women in the region migrated by association -- often for marriage, family reunification or to accompany a spouse migrating for work. This continues to be case in Thailand, where many migrant women from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia follow their husbands to work alongside them in agriculture, construction sites and factories.
But the rising number of women who now migrate independently suggests that this is changing. For millions of women today, migrating for work is now an attractive option. It provides an opportunity to advance socially, economically, and professionally; to improve the lives of families back home; and to obtain empowerment and autonomy.
The contributions of these women must not be discounted. For countries of origin, female migrants are an important source of remittances. We now know that migrant women, despite earning less, send a greater portion of their income home more frequently and over longer periods of time than their male counterparts. These funds often support entire families and are an effective means of poverty reduction.
For the host countries such as Thailand, migrant women now fill major gaps in the labour market. In some sectors, the participation of migrant women is staggeringly high. The construction industry, for example, employs over 200,000 women - almost 40% of all migrant construction workers. Migrant women also fill huge numbers of jobs perceived as "low status", including domestic work, caregiving, hospitality and nursing. While often shunned by locals, these jobs are crucial and demand for workers in these sectors will increase as the population ages.
While women constituted a significant proportion of all migrants worldwide for several decades, they were still a small proportion of the workforce. This trend has been changing since the late 1970s. In 1976, women were less than 15% of the 146,400 Asian overseas workers, but by 2000 they constituted about 50% or more of the migrant workforce in Asia and Latin America, and growing proportions elsewhere.
In countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, women overseas migrant workers exceed the numbers of male migrant workers. While in 1995, women accounted for 52% of overseas Filipino workers, this increased to 69% in the first half of 2000. In Sri Lanka in 1999, overseas women migrant workers constituted 64% (115,610) of a total of 179,114 overseas Sri Lankan migrant workers. In 2000, this rose to 68.2% (117,192) of a total of 171,726. Overseas labour migration from Indonesia in 2002 was estimated at 480,393, of which 76% (365,099) were women. women recruited into skilled and unskilled woman-oriented jobs.
Women are recruited into woman-specific skilled and unskilled jobs in the formal and informal service and manufacturing sectors. These include nursing, teaching, secretarial work, medical practice, managerial jobs, IT work, domestic labour, ‘hospitality services’, restaurant/ hotel work and/or assembly line jobs.
The heaviest concentration of women is at the lower end of the job hierarchy in domestic work and prostitution, where they suffer gross human rights violations. In 1999, while 76% (87,710) of the 115,610 Sri Lankan overseas women migrants went as domestic workers, in 2000 this increased to 81% of the 117,192 Sri Lankan women migrating overseas for work. In 1998, 50% of the estimated number of Filipinos going overseas were service workers – nurses, domestic workers, entertainers and care-givers, while in 1999-2000, about 97% of out-migrating Filipinos worked as domestic workers and entertainers. Ninety-four per cent of the 365,098 Indonesian overseas women migrant workers are employed as domestic workers in West Asian, East and Southeast Asian countries.
Migrant women also tend to be relegated to gender-specific job categories in industries that are less regulated. These include domestic work and entertainment, where wages are low and protection is minimal, leaving many vulnerable to exploitation. Far too often we read horror stories of domestic workers forced to work excessive hours, denied days off, subjected to physical and mental abuse, and, in extreme cases, assaulted, sometimes fatally, by their employers.
This has direct implications for earnings and therefore for the ability (apart from the willingness) to send remittances back to migrants’ homes. Male migrant workers are much more immediately affected by business cycles in the host economies, tending to lose jobs or experience reduced incomes, which thereby affects the remittances they can send.
Remittances sent by women migrants
Women international migrants are earning less than men but send a larger part of their income home, the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
"Female international migrants send approximately the same total amount of remittances as their male counterparts, sending a higher proportion of their income, even though they generally earn less than men, according to International Organization for Migration," money transfer company Western Union said in a statement Friday. IOM also noted that women usually send money more regularly and for longer periods of time.
Women international migrants are more likely than men to act as "safety net for families back home" during emergencies and bad economic times, Western Union said.
"Women have emerged from the margins of the international migration equation to become decision makers and essential contributors to the financial well-being of their families and communities,” Western Union president and CEO Hikmet Ersek said.
Meanwhile, the United Nations noted that international migrants prefer to send remittances to women where about two-thirds of receivers are women, "reinforcing the global finding that women are the household financial managers.
"Studies show international women senders and receivers channel remittances in ways that directly benefit the family, including food, education, healthcare, housing and savings," the company noted.
Western Union said its analysis suggests that male remittance receivers tend to spend "slightly more" on the consumption of goods. Women comprise about 50 percent of international migrants and remit half of the World Bank's estimated $582 billion in global remittance.
Environmental migration of women
“Environmental migration is a gendered process, but discussions within public, policy, and academia regarding environmental migration are often gender-neutral, few studies making the link between migration, environment and gender,” said International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in 2014, flagging the gap when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fifth Assessment Report said, “Climate change is projected to increase the displacement of people throughout this century.”
According to IOM, vulnerabilities, experiences, needs and priorities of environmental migrants vary according to women’s and men’s different roles, as do responsibilities, access to information, resources, education, physical security and employment opportunities.
After repeated extreme or slow onset weather events have reduced a rural family to extreme poverty, the migration of younger women, usually daughters (even minors) increasingly appear as the best option for the entire family, finds an IOM study.
Vulnerability of women migrants
There are a number of factors that keep migrant women in a perpetual state of vulnerability. Firstly, they are often from rural environments and are unable to operate optimally in a more sophisticated domestic environment. They struggle to function in a foreign cultural and linguistic context, and are mistreated because of this. Secondly, their virtual isolation means they have limited social contact and are entirely at the mercy of their employer's whims, with little or no recourse to support. Finally, there is an absence of structures like helplines, associations and legal assistance to which they can turn.
Women migrants with a low-level of skills and education are also less able to claim their rights and are at a higher risk of exploitation. They are more likely to be employed and (be forced to) accept working in unsafe and unregulated sectors as they rarely have an alternative.
IMAGE CREDIT: United Nations