INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY and FEMALE MIGRANTS – The unsung heroes of our societies



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Smaro Pegiou



Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, and as we will listen to the song UN WOMEN has dedicated to women worldwide and to everyone who wants join the drive for women's rights and gender equality, I would like us to pay special tribute to the many courageous female migrants who have crossed borders. To those women, who contribute through their daily commitment to the development of their countries of origin and promote the equal rights of other women, and are doing so more often than not in conditions of difficulty. These women, in my opinion, are often the unsung heroes of our modern societies.

Like men, women also migrate in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. Migrant women today make up almost half of the migrants worldwide, as the traditional sex disparity that used to mark international mobility has progressively disappeared over the past five decades. This trend can be associated with the growing independence that women were able to achieve and it shows an increasing number of women who have crossed borders alone and voluntarily in search for a better future.

Living outside their home countries may make women migrants a vulnerable social category therefore making the protection of their rights as human beings, and as migrants, imperative. Statistics also show that an overwhelming majority of victims of severe forms of trafficking are women and children, and psychological and physical abuses are a common feature of this sad reality. Even those women, who chose independently to migrate, often experience considerable levels of xenophobia, stigma, prejudice and discrimination upon their arrival in the host society. Many scholars and social workers have pointed out the fact that migrant women are prone to become “triply disadvantaged”, as gender inequalities frequently combine with those of ethnicity and they are also the ones risking being over-represented in the informal sector and in marginal and poorly-paid jobs.


These realities can prevent female migrants to become effective actors of development. The deprivation of their rights will eventually prevent them from producing their capacities, hence it will restrain development. We generally see that women are underrepresented with regard to the engagement within Diaspora organizations. As stated by the IOM, women are more often than not given secondary participation in these organizations (such as secretarial or event-organizing roles), letting men assume the decision-making positions[1]. There is a need to encourage female migrants to participate actively in communities working for country of origin development, to strengthen their voices, so they can make their concerns, needs and priorities heard by policy-makers and practitioners, and included in concrete development projects. As it is observed, female migrants tend to remit more of their income to their families back home than do male migrants. Therefore, their inclusion in migration and development programmes is very fundamental.

MIGRANT WOMEN are EMPOWERING themselves and others

Cross-border movements also have the potential to reconfigure gender relations and power inequalities. Migration can provide new opportunities for women and men to improve their lives, escape oppressive social relations, and support those who are left behind. There have been some pioneer examples of female migrant associations that are community based, such as the Project of Women Circle in Kébémer in Senegal where women that have migrated to Italy helped in organizing a circle of women engaging in the production of fruit juice. The NGO Stretta di Mano, founded by Senegalese migrants in Italy, provided seed funding of EUR 40,000 to buy equipment and run the business for three years. The commune of Kébémer jointed the activity and provided a space for it. About 50 women work on derivate of locally produced fruit, which increases the processes along the value chain and provides income to these women and their families. In another part of the building that the commune provided, the women circle is maintaining a small restaurant. The returnee also joined the communal council as a non-elected member to represent the concern and interests of the migrant population and their families.

Many migrant women have paved the way with their activities for a better position of women into society around the world. Most migrant women, single, married, those who had to leave their families back home and migrate, have in one way or another contributed the development of their country of origin and destination. Organizations, such as the UNDP, have supported these women through initiatives specifically focusing on their role and the potential challenges that could prevent them from being successful in their efforts. The ongoing project called Pourakhi (meaning self-reliant) is implemented in all regions of Nepal aiming at safe migration for migrant women at all stages of their journey (from pre-departure information to reintegration). It was founded in 2003 by Manju Gurung after her own experiences as an undocumented worker in Japan. Pourakhi now has a strong voice in government committees dealing with foreign employment and is actively trying to ensure that the rights and entitlements of women migrant workers at home and abroad are secured.

It is an undeniable fact that the position of women has improved compared with their status in society in the past. Women have struggled to change the way society perceives them and establish various different roles of them that were previously unthinkable. However, while rules and laws have changed and women have in general gained equality and freedom to determine their own lives, including the choice to migrate, there is still a great deal to be done to eliminate inequalities and sexual discrimination altogether. International Women’s Day in 2013 is declaring that violence and discrimination against women and girls has no place in the 21st century. A lot has been achieved but more remains to be done. It is time for governments, national and international institutions to take up responsibility and protect human rights in line with the international conventions that they signed into.

A woman brought us to this world; let’s bring the world to this woman.

Let’s sing together the ‘ONE WOMAN’ song today….and think about the brave female migrants who have crossed borders and are moving mountains.


[1] IOM, `Integration of a gender perspective in the Migration and Development debate´, IOM´s Contribution to the Global Forum on Migration and Development, 2007, Roundtable 1: Human capital development and labour mobility: Maximizing opportunities and minimizing risks, p. 6.