Migrant women and girls in Central America risk their lives in search of a better future

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Central America migrant woman with her daughter Central America migrant woman with her daughter

In 2020, almost 49 percent of the 16.2 million migrants from Central America and Mexico were women. The migration phenomenon in Central America particularly affects women and girls, who face challenges at all stages of the journey, including gender-based violence, discrimination, and vulnerability to trafficking, kidnapping, and murder .

The figures are alarming. According to a UNHCR report, on the Panama-Colombia border at least one in every four migrant women, refugees, and asylum seekers have experienced harassment or abuse on their journey, 25 percent of family groups travel with a woman or girl, with transit being the riskiest stage (IOM, 2019). There are many reasons why women migrants and returnees may feel reluctant to file complaints . Some of these reasons include fear of being deported to their countries of origin in uncertain conditions, risk of abuse or harassment by authorities, fear of being re-victimized by the perpetrator, lack of information about available services, and long distances that make it difficult to access such services during their transit journey.

The reality in the Darién Gap
In 2022, approximately 250,000 migrants crossed the Darién Gap, one of the most dangerous routes in the world, which stretches across approximately 160 km between Panama and Colombia , representing a physical barrier between Central America and South America. The trip can take from 7 to 14 days, depending on the route and the physical condition of the traveler, however, due to extreme danger, lack of trails, and the presence of armed groups, it is not advisable to enter this area. Although there was a temporary decrease in migrants in the last quarter of 2022, the trend suggests a new increase in flows, with more than 80,000 persons crossing in the first three months of 2023.

Two out of every ten migrant women and girls reported being survivors of gender-based violence (sexual, physical, and psychological) while crossing the Darien jungle, a figure that is widely believed to be underestimated. Accounts from both women and service providers have been recorded indicating the prevalence of mass rapes in the jungle, primarily by unknown individuals working with smugglers. Cases have also been documented in which male partners offer women as "tokens" to continue the journey North.

"During the trip, there was a time when we were kidnapped for about an hour and a half and it is something that will never leave my mind, to know that we depended on someone else for money.”

Olinda, returned migrant in Honduras

According to data collected by the UNHCR, official figures on gender-based violence in displacement situations are limited and not systematized. However, based on the qualitative information that the World Bank has collected in the field, it has been observed that much of this violence is also perpetrated directly by the partners of women migrants and returnees, which reflects a common trend in this type of situation. In addition, it is estimated that at least 5% of the migrant women who crossed were pregnant or breastfeeding.   

This is compounded by minimal care services for women and girls during the journey and very limited coverage. Only 39% of service providers for survivors of gender-based violence in Central America are accessible within a 1-kilometer radius; that is, 15 minutes on foot to the closest transit route. This reaffirms the need to expand coverage within the first kilometer of common transit routes. Most women have to travel up to 10 kilometers (equivalent to a two-hour walk) to access services and may not be served if they do not present a valid identification document .



Percentage of service providers for survivors of gender-based violence along the closest transit route in Central America
Source: "Harnessing opportunities from migration in Central America and the Dominican Republic” report. World Bank (2023)

The lack of services and resources for host communities represents another major issue in tackling gender-based violence. This is largely due to:

  • The normalization of violence, especially gender-based violence, which has led to these risks not being adequately identified and addressed. 
  • The lack of institutional protocols for care, case referral, and specialized response also contributes to the inadequacy of services, making it difficult to identify and care for survivors of gender-based violence. 
  • The lack of psychosocial support services and training for women and the public servants who handle their cases.
  • The lack of public resources and insufficient financing for programs for combatting gender-based violence providing support to host communities.
drawing made by this teenage Central American/Honduran returnee
The drawing made by this teenage Central American/Honduran returnee shows a heart divided in red and black, symbolizing anger and pain, but also emotional strength. The red blotches suggest isolation and anger toward others. Photo Credit: World Bank

Benefits of collaboration between humanitarian and development agencies for a more effective response
There are several programs in Latin America and the Caribbean designed to prevent gender-based violence among female migrants and refugees and promote their integration into the community. The World Bank, along with United Nations agencies, supports protection measures, the strengthening of access to services during the journey and regularization as a means of long-term integration into destination communities. 

The initiative called "SAFE Migration: Gender-Based Violence Services for Women Migrants in Central America" helps providers to improve the information, accessibility, and quality of support and response services . The World Bank-supported program funded by the State and Peacebuilding Fund (SPF), in partnership with the IOM and UNHCR, enables migrant women in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama to access these services. 

Migrant and refugee women face unique challenges that demand differentiated policies and solutions, based on an understanding of the complexity and multidimensional nature of the causes, such as prevalent societal gender roles and unequal power dynamics. These challenges must be addressed urgently with humanitarian responses and at the same time there must be investment in long-term sustainable solutions, ensuring that their rights are respected and guaranteed throughout their transit journey. By pooling efforts and resources, we can offer hope and support to these brave women in their search for a better and safer future.


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Michel Kerf

Country Director for Central America and the Dominican Republic

Manuel Contreras-Urbina

Senior Social Development Specialist for the Latin America and Caribbean on gender-based violence

Ana I. Aguilera

Social Development Specialist

Erika Padron

Psychosocial Specialist at the World Bank

Carlos Xavier Muñoz Burgos

Crime and violence prevention and conflict reduction specialist in the World Bank

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