IS MIGRATION FOR DEVELOPMENT A GENDER NEUTRAL ISSUE?
The feminization of migration is not a recent phenomenon, but has been presenting new and challenging features. Historically, women always migrated for marriage or family reunification. However, over the last few decades we have witnessed an increase in women who migrate for different purposes. In fact, “women are on the move in all parts of the world, drawn by the opportunities and forces of globalization”.
The empowerment of women through migration is an indisputable fact. It embodies both an intrinsic value in itself and an instrumental value for the development of their own communities. Nevertheless, the gender impacts of migration are not always as clear-cut as one may suppose. The reality is that there are still many preconceptions facing women willing to migrate. Those preconceptions have to do with the appropriateness of the foreseen employment abroad according to gender-biased parameters, meaning that women are expected to migrate with a view to an appropriate occupation, under appropriate conditions. These are constraints that do not even tend to come from migrants’ families or communities – on the contrary, they are structural, coming generally from governmental policies and employer practices. If we also take into account the pressure naturally exerted on women by idealising family as an entity where everyone acts according to the social expectations – acknowledging that women are particularly sensitive to and affected by such idealisation – we realise that it may lead to an underlying but constant imbalance when it comes to make a decision, notwithstanding its positive effect of enhancing economic and social development.
Moreover, and even when the decision to leave is not constrained by that imbalance, other imbalances emerge further in the process. Statistically, men are always more likely to occupy high-skilled and better-paid jobs, even when women qualify equally. This factor often limits migrant women to occupations such as domestic work or caretaking; in many cases sex work is the only option left. Altogether, it means low wages, lack of social security and precariousness for migrant women, which not only originates from discrimination but also causes discrimination.
On the other hand, the push factors in many countries of origin, namely the patriarchal traditions and the socio-economic conditions, also play an important role in the decision to move. In this process, women tend to face great constraints, and are generally not as free to decide as men. According to this year’s HDR, twenty countries currently restrict the exit of women (including Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Swaziland), and in Morocco this was even expressed as a cause of frustration for many young women. However, for those who overcome the inevitable constraints, to migrate may represent a whole new world of opportunities. But the price to be paid can be very high – the dark side of migration becomes even darker when it comes to women. Human and sexual trafficking, rape, labour exploitation, deskilling jobs, all in the name of emancipation, on the one hand, and of the welfare of families left behind, on the other.
In fact, families left behind often do improve their living conditions due to migration. More importantly, communities as a whole can benefit greatly from the phenomenon of migration. Evidence suggests that increasing women’s access to economic / financial resources is decisive not only for achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, but also for supporting broader processes of development, having positive multiplier effects for other key development goals, including poverty reduction and economic growth. Women’s labour has proved to be of vital importance, and access to economic resources is even enabling families to recover from the current economic crisis.
Migrant women can remit in financial terms, but they often and most importantly remit in social terms (sending ideas, skills, attitudes, knowledge, etc.). These social remittances have the effect of boosting socio-economic development and promoting human rights and gender equality, since emancipated migrant women broadcast a different image of what it means to be a woman for their families and communities. The paradigmatic cases of a Dominican village, Miraflores, and of the Pakistani village of Karachi clearly show how migration can have great impacts on gender dynamics.
One can also find impressive ongoing examples of how migration can work simultaneously for women’s empowerment and for the development of their communities. An IOM programme, Migrant Women for Development in Africa, has been targeting migrant West African women residing in Italy, intending to engage them in the development of their countries of origin. This is to be achieved by supporting the establishment of joint ventures with Italian partners and host communities, in order to create SMEs in their countries back in Africa. Data on concrete benefits are not yet available, as the project is still fairly new. Nonetheless, IOM recognises the involvement of these women, even from afar, as playing an important role in local development, poverty reduction and peacekeeping in many African countries. Howsoever, some of the achievements are to be expected, since the project builds upon an existing IOM Programme (Migration for Development in Africa - MIDA). MIDA is aimed at effectively using migration in the processes of developing the institutional capacities of Africa, both by and with the migrants. The strategy has been generating some very rewarding experiences all across Africa, and is now being implemented with an innovative focus on gender.
Similarly, a JMDI project in the Philippines, Maria 4 the MDGs, is also addressing the mobilisation of diaspora women towards rural development in countries of origin. The idea is to create multi-stakeholder partnerships for the realization of women-run social enterprises and collective economic facilities in rural areas of the southern Philippines. This project has the ability of achieving a rapid impact on livelihoods and on the position of women, by involving counterpart local institutions from Europe and by up-scaling diaspora women's engagement in rural investments. It also builds upon a prototype project (Maria-Goes-To-Town) which has accomplished great success. The original project presented a new model of gender empowerment focused on economic empowerment, allowing women to successfully run their micro-enterprises and to become self-sufficient, despite the stubborn resistance and manoeuvres of the patriarchal community leaders, who struggled to maintain their privileged position and boycotted the project. That self-sufficiency eventually transformed many relationships, as men began to respect women’s own capacities and contribution to the betterment of the family. This is a particularly relevant success, given the constant prediction of failure of these enterprises by the community.
The migration experience need not be so demanding for women, especially when it has proven to be such a positive occurrence for so many millions in sending and receiving communities. In a nutshell, the empowerment of women through the phenomenon of migration is – along with promoting capacity building and formal education for girls – one of the best tools to improve their negotiating position within the household and social recognition from the community as a whole. And that is a way forward for gender equality. At the same time, women are reliable agents of economic growth and social progress, and generally the best multipliers of its effects. And that is a way forward for development. Wide awareness of these two factors for clearly defining the framework for protection and the parameters of relevant interventions is the imperative new challenge ahead.
Gender, Remittances and Development – Feminization of Migration, UN-INSTRAW Working Paper, 2007
Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development, Human Development Report 2009
A Passage to Hope – Women and International Migration, UNFPA State of the World Population 2006
 A Passage to Hope – Women and International Migration, UNFPA State of the World Population 2006, p. 22
 Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development, Human Development Report 2009, p. 22