Women Migrants: Equal Numbers, Disproportionate Challenges

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2009 Human Development Report calls for extending rights and removing unfair practices

Migration often liberates women and leads to significant gains in their income, levels of empowerment and education. But for too many women migration also presents risks of exploitation and harsh conditions, according to the 2009 Human Development Report launched here today.

Women account for almost half of all migrants, a share that has changed little in the last 20 years. But as the Report, Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development, points out, the relative equality in gender shares hides significant differences in the gains and costs from mobility for women.

"Equal opportunities along with rights and safeguards for women must be included in migration policy reforms in both developed and developing countries," says the Report's lead author Jeni Klugman.

This is the latest publication in a series of global Human Development Reports, which aim to frame debates on some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity, from climate change to human rights. It is an independent report commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Gaining from migration

In most developing countries emigration rates for skilled workers are substantially higher among women than men. Women with tertiary degrees are at least 40 percent more likely than male graduates to emigrate to developed economies from a wide range of countries, including Afghanistan, Ghana, Guatemala, Malawi, Papua New Guinea, Togo, Uganda and Zambia.

For women migrants with low levels of formal skills from developing countries, labour market opportunities tend to be highly concentrated in care activities, paid domestic work and the informal sector. These women may become trapped in enclaves: low wage jobs with few benefits and limited career opportunities that reinforce their social disadvantages. Even so, women more frequently send a larger proportion of their incomes home than do men.

For those women who move elsewhere within their own country, empowerment often occurs when they migrate from rural to urban areas, even as they leave behind family and friends. Taking paid work outside the home, they enjoy greater choices and opportunities.
Obstacles and barriers

Women face many obstacles to migration and experience a number of dangers when they do migrate. For example, over 20 countries do not allow women to apply for passports on their own while others, including Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Swaziland, restrict the exit of women. When women do manage to migrate, some destination countries exclude migrant women from normal worker protections. For example, if a single female migrant in the Gulf Cooperation Council States becomes pregnant, she is deported.

Research conducted in the Arab States found that the abusive and exploitative working conditions sometimes as¬sociated with domestic work and the lack of reparation mechanisms can trap migrant women in a vicious circle of poverty and HIV vulnerability. The same study found that many countries test migrants for HIV and deport those found to carry the virus; few source countries have reintegration programs for migrants who are forced to return as a result of their HIV status.

The most atrocious cases arise where promises of well-paid jobs abroad may lure women into a trafficking network. Victims may be stripped of their travel documents and isolated, making escape difficult. They may end up in debt bondage in places where language, social and physical barriers frustrate their efforts to seek help. With their irregular status, such migrants are usually reluctant to identify themselves because they risk legal sanctions or criminal prosecution.

Extending the same rights of protection to these women that are already available to citizens and authorized migrants would help prevent and prosecute such crimes. Anti-trafficking enforcement has burgeoned in recent years and is an important avenue for protecting the rights of migrants. Effective ways to tackle trafficking are by educating migrant women about the dangers of human trafficking, giving them ways to seek help and improving their economic opportunities and status in their places of origin.

Overcoming barriers provides a robust case for removing the obstacles that exacerbate inequalities and unfair work practices. It finds that reforms in this direction would give all migrants greater opportunities and protections, especially women. The Report lays out a core package of policy reforms which stress protecting rights for migrants and ensuring benefits for migrants and destination communities alike, aiming to make it easier for people to move within their own countries. The Report also recommends mainstreaming migration into national social and economic development strategies.

To access the Human Development Report and the complete press kit please visit: http://hdr.undp.org

About this report: The Human Development Report continues to frame debates on some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity. It is an independent report commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Jeni Klugman is the lead author of the 2009 Report. The Report is translated into more than a dozen languages and launched in more than 100 countries annually. The 2009 Human Development Report is published in English by Palgrave Macmillan.

About human development: Human Development is the expansion of the freedoms that people have to live their lives as they choose. This conception--inspired by the path-breaking work of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and the leadership of the late Mahbub ul Haq, and known also as the capabilities approach because of its emphasis on the freedom that people have to achieve vital 'beings and doings'--has been at the core of UNDP's approach since the first Human Development Report in 1990, and is as relevant as ever to the design of effective policies to combat poverty and deprivation. This approach has proved powerful in reshaping thinking about topics as diverse as gender, human security and climate change.

About UNDP: UNDP is the UN's global development network, advocating for change and connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life. We are on the ground in 166 countries, working with them on their own solutions to global and national development challenges. As they develop local capacity, they draw on the people of UNDP and our wide range of partners. Please visit: http://www.undp.org

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Jean-Yves Hamel
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