Published on People Move

Who will be our migrants of the future? Celebrating International Migrants’ Day with a keen eye on the growing gender gap

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    In Observance of International Migrants Day (December 18)

    Since the #MeToo movement became a global phenomenon, women around the world have engaged in a vital debate about sexual abuse, harassment, and gender equality, challenging the discrimination faced by women in society and ushering in a new era of awareness. Yet there remains a sector of society in which little progress has been made, and where women recount experiences of discrimination, abuse and sexual harassment, but often their courageous words are met with little action. 

    Migrant women are some of the most vulnerable women in our society today, and COVID-19 has made an already precarious situation worse. IOM’s 2022 World Migration Report shows that there are an estimated 117.6 million female migrants of working age, around 70 million of whom are migrant workers. A large proportion of female migrants find themselves in highly gendered sectors like domestic and care work, where they are often isolated and dependent on their employee, putting them at greater risk of exploitation and abuse. This sectoral dimension is highlighted in the new KNOMAD paper on gender and migration data by Guy Abel.

    It is important to note, however, that migration is not a negative choice in itself. In fact, migration can open up a wealth of opportunities for women, who are often vectors for development globally. 

    International migration is a form of betterment, with people moving to other countries to seek better employment, education opportunities, social standing, and other positive benefits. Female migrants bring diverse talent and experience to their destination countries. They also share the benefits of migration with female family members in countries of origin. This can be through international remittances, which help raise living standards and create the conditions for female relatives to access better healthcare and education. On their return, they can help shape social and cultural norms.   

    For countries with a poor record on women’s rights, migration can offer women a means of escape from abusive or repressive situations. Around a third of women who leave Afghanistan cite domestic violence as a factor. Other gender-specific practices which migration can offer an escape from include forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and limits on female participation in the workforce. 

    Because migration can offer many benefits to women around the world, we should be concerned that the World Migration Report shows a widening gap in the number of male and female migrants. 

    For many years, that gender gap had been shrinking, leading to scholars hailing a new ‘feminization’ of migration. That this trend appears to be in reverse must give us pause to explore the reasons. In 2019, male migrant workers outnumbered female migrant workers by 58.5% to 41.5%. This is a shift from 2013, when the split was 55.7% male to 44.3 % female. 

    A key reason for this widening gap is recent growth in migration towards the Arab States and Southern Asia, where the demand is largely for traditionally male-gendered work such as construction. In Southern Asia, there are 5.7 million male migrant workers compared with 1.4 million female, while in the Arab States that division is even starker, with 19.9 million males compared with 4.2 million females. 

    Working towards greater gender equality across all sectors and challenging discrimination in employment practices are some measures that could help level the playing field for women. 
    But if we are to encourage policies to raise the participation of women in the migrant workforce, we must also ensure the safeguards are in place to protect them. 

    The COVID-19 pandemic had been particularly damaging for female migrant workers, as outlined in this research report on gender, migration and COVID-19. Women migrant workers are more likely to be employed without a contract and with limited coverage from labour laws, meaning their employees can terminate their jobs with ease. UN Women estimate that 8.5 million migrant women’s jobs were at risk because of the pandemic. 

    However, the pandemic also showed how vital female migrant workers were to society, with these women often front-line workers in healthcare, nursing, cleaning and the services industry. 

    On this International Migrants’ Day, it is time to recognize the huge contribution that migrant women make to society and take action to turn the growing gender gap in migration around. Gender equality, and the empowerment and protection of women and girls, should be central to all migration policy, allowing women to realize their potential and support human development back home without having to fear for their safety and security. 



    Marie McAuliffe

    Head of Migration Research Division, IOM

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