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International Women’s Day 2014 Women Migrants Must Not Be Left Behind


By   William Lacy Swing   Director General, The International Organization for Migration  

ONE of the most significant recent trends in migration has been the rise in the number of women using dangerous migration routes previously mainly used by men. 

More and more women, fleeing hardship, violence, war and poverty, are now taking the same desperate risks as men in search of a better life for themselves and their children. This is desperation migration.

While many women travel with their families, IOM is seeing an increasing number of women migrating on their own to an unknown, unpredictable and often dangerous future. Woman and children migrants die all the time at sea, crossing deserts and other dangerous routes. What has changed?

There are many factors pushing women to migrate.  They include discrimination in the job market and social prejudices against single mothers or widows in their country of origin. But poverty is almost always the strongest driving force that causes migrant women to leave. 

In most developing countries, women are poorer than men because of the systemic discrimination that they face in accessing education, health care, employment and control of assets.

Many migrant women, of course, do not encounter abuse and in fact derive real benefits from migration.  But among the world’s estimated 111 million migrant women (half the total number of migrants) violence and discrimination can begin at the very outset of the migration process.

Migrant women are also more at risk from physical violence by fellow migrants, smugglers and state officers, throughout the migration cycle. While travelling, they can be forced to exchange sex for transportation, food or accommodation.

They are often the first victims of one of the worst crimes on earth - human trafficking – where they find themselves enslaved in forced labor, sexual exploitation or organized begging.  When women run for their lives because of  natural or man-made disasters, one of the great risks they face.

Often destitute, displaced women are easy prey for the criminal-minded, who will not hesitate to take advantage of their distress. This was one of my immediate concerns when the Haiyan typhoon struck the Philippines and at my request a special program was put in place to alert and help the displaced women in peril.

Even when they manage to find a job in a host country, it is rarely easy for them. Women migrants are predominantly employed in domestic work, care-giving, agriculture and entertainment -   all of them low-paying sectors with limited upward mobility, largely unregulated and rarely covered by national labor laws.

They can often find themselves exposed to various forms of violence - exploitative and long working hours, non-payment of wages, forced confinement, starvation, beating, rape, sexual abuse, exploitation and threats.

Many are unskilled or undocumented domestic workers, who are more vulnerable to violence as they often depend on a single employer and in many countries face deportation if they attempt to change jobs.

Integration in a new country can also be more difficult for women than men. This is because they are often subject to harmful traditional practices, such as early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation and so-called “honor” crimes by families who want to maintain a link with their country or origin.

It is especially difficult for women migrants navigating the tantalized freedom of choice and expression on one hand in their new society and the traditional societal pressure on the other hand.

The death of migrants – women and men - at sea or in the desert is wake-up call for the international community to act. IOM has called on all actors to address the situation of migrants attempting life-threatening journeys.

Countries of origin, transit and destination must sit down together to address the issue and find solutions. The issue of the protection of women migrants should top the agenda, because they are often the most desperate among the desperate.

In 2014 the international community will review the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and decide on a post-2015 development agenda.  IOM believes that migrants, and in particular women migrants, who in the past have been largely invisible in the language of development, must be a critical part of this new framework..

No longer can we ignore half of the world’s migrants.  No one should be left behind.