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Health CareTo Protect Women Migrants, Implement Feminist Migration Policies | #healthcare | #elderly | #seniors

To Protect Women Migrants, Implement Feminist Migration Policies | #healthcare | #elderly | #seniors


When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson left the hospital in April 2020 after having been treated for COVID-19, he released a widely viewed video address in which he thanked the nurses that had cared for him. In singling out two for special mention—Jenny from New Zealand and Luis from Portugal—he shone a spotlight on the critical role that migrants have played during the pandemic.

Throughout the world, migrants work essential jobs. Migrant women in particular play significant roles in the health care and domestic support industries, caring for patients and the elderly. Women make up nearly half of international migrants, and there is nothing new about them leaving their home countries in search of better lives abroad. Doing so often contributes to women’s development, but it also exposes them to new risks and vulnerabilities, more evident now than ever.

As governments pledge to build back better after the coronavirus pandemic, now is the time for them to transform migration policies as part of building more inclusive and equitable societies. In other words, it is time to implement feminist migration policies.

Feminist migration policies would be just, intersectional and inclusive. They would address economic, social and structural inequalities, and adhere to principles of human dignity. But formulating them requires an understanding of the risks and vulnerabilities that migrants and particularly female migrants face, due to the power differentials that often accompany and characterize their condition.

Two-thirds of all international migrants live in high-income countries, where migration policies largely favor highly skilled migrants. These policies overwhelmingly benefit men, who, more often than women, have advanced education, language skills and more professional experience. In contrast, women migrate in higher numbers for so-called lower-skilled jobs or to accompany a spouse.

Despite women making up almost half of all migrants worldwide, the policies and norms governing migration are often discriminatory against them in practice, resulting in inequities. Migrant women are often employed in more vulnerable positions, with a disproportionate number of them working in the informal economy, with few regulations and substandard working conditions.

Too often, migrant women also experience intersectional forms of discrimination. In addition to the challenges they face as women and migrants, they must also often overcome unfair treatment due to their race, age, religion, disability and/or sexual orientation.

As non-migrant women move up the employment ladder to take on better paid and higher status positions, female migrants often fill in the labor gaps they leave behind. Overwhelmingly, this means working in labor markets that have traditionally been considered gendered, such as child care, domestic work and health care. As these are jobs that society historically undervalues, it can trap migrant women into low-wage positions.

These jobs are also often demand-driven, meaning that migrants are recruited formally or informally to fill specific gaps in the labor market. This presents migrant women with one of two challenges. Either the visa systems in these sectors regularly tie workers to specific employers, or the work is not formally recognized, giving rise to irregular migration. As a result, migrant women are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitative, abusive working conditions, with longer working hours and lower wages than non-migrants. And the fear of job loss, withheld wages or deportation frequently limits or prevents them from making complaints or accessing support to defend their civil rights.

Women who move with their families also face restrictions under migration policies that skew the power relationship between men and women, increasing women’s vulnerability. Family visas often place limitations or conditions on the “dependent” family applicants. In some countries, they effectively prohibit women and girls from working. Where they can work, they are more likely to do so in lower-skilled jobs that pay less. The unfamiliar environments of their new country, combined with the loss of support networks and language barriers, create further obstacles keeping many migrant women from working in the formal economy. Often, they remain at home to care for the family household instead, increasing their social isolation.

Another problem facing migrant women is domestic violence, which regularly goes unreported. Migrant women affected by it may not have the support, financially or socially, to leave domestic abuse situations, while language or cultural barriers can hinder them from accessing victims’ support where it is available.

To truly build back better, governments must enact feminist migration policies that leave no one behind. When they do, all of society will benefit.

To build back better after the coronavirus pandemic, governments must address these inequities, establishing feminist migration policies to harness the potential of all migrants, without exacerbating existing inequalities. To do so, they must correct the inherent discriminatory effects of current policies and norms.

A place to start would be eliminating visas tied to specific jobs and employers and replacing them with open visas. This would reduce dependency and exploitation by empowering migrant women to leave exploitative jobs or violent homes without fear of losing their children or being deported. They could also register complaints or pursue legal recourse over employment practices or working conditions without fear of reprisal, thereby leveling the power dynamic with employers.

Another important intervention would be to incorporate jobs in traditionally gendered sectors, like domestic work, into official labor and migration strategies, which would reduce exploitation and irregular migration that make women more vulnerable. Including these kinds of jobs also provides value-enhancing recognition to work done by women and could also provide them with more opportunity to emigrate in their own right, particularly in countries with points-based systems.

More equitable migration policies must also be inclusive, designed to fully integrate migrants regardless of age, sex or employment status. This includes supporting women’s participation in programs to increase community engagement and build skills, such as community mentorship programs or crafting projects to help reduce isolation and build confidence.

It’s important to note that efforts to make the economy more equitable and inclusive—such as by compensating lower-skilled or unpaid jobs, many of which are now often considered essential, at their just value—would benefit all of society, not just migrants. That said, according to the International Labor Organization, migrants earn on average 13 percent less than national workers, and the gap can be as much as 42 percent. So it is critical to make fair wages for migrants a central objective of national economic and labor strategies.

Feminist migration policies would also put human dignity at the heart of migration policy. This includes enhancing migrants’ basic rights through social protections, including health care and legal coverage. Currently only 22 percent of migrants have access to formal social protections; access for women migrants is even lower, with many in precarious situations that compound their vulnerabilities.

One bitter irony of the pandemic is that frontline care workers, of whom most are female and many are migrants, have been expected to continue caring for children, the elderly and the sick, even though they often had no access to personal protective equipment, health care, insurance or care for their own children. The World Health Organization notes the paradox that migrant women who support health care systems in countries with shortages in these sectors are often unable to access care themselves.

To address the intersectoral dynamics of the inequalities faced by women migrants, feminist migration policies must be underpinned by partnerships. That begins with a whole-of-government approach combining the efforts of agencies overseeing labor, justice, social development as well as migration. But government can’t design or implement these policies alone. It requires a whole-of-society effort, in which partnerships with civil society, including women migrant organizations and women migrants themselves, are essential. Employers, unions and governments of origin should also be engaged to ensure agreements are gender-responsive.

As the world reopens and people begin to move again, migration will increase, driven by changing technologies, demands for labor and aging populations. Now is the time for political leaders to act boldly to design progressive, inclusive and dignified migration policies to harness women’s potential to help drive social change and economic development.

To truly build back better, governments must enact feminist migration policies that leave no one behind. When they do, all of society will benefit.

Lea Matheson has over 20 years of experience as an international relations practitioner with a focus on migration. Most recently, she served as a senior adviser to the president of the United Nations General Assembly.


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