by Rosemary Vargas-Lundius, David Suttie and Anja Lund
Increased flows of information and the falling cost of transportation make migration increasingly viable for rural women and men today. Most of the rural people who decide to migrate arrive in larger towns and cities within their own country. In fact, the majority of global migration occurs within countries, with conservative estimates placing the number of internal migrants globally at 740 million, compared to 200 million international migrants.
One of the most significant changes in migration is that today more women are migrating than ever before. Women now constitute half the international migrant population, and trends seem to be similar for internal migration too, though data is scarce. In many countries the majority of migrants are now women. For example, in Sri Lanka and in the Philippines, female migrants are about 74 percent and 55 percent of total outflows respectively.
These trends are creating important opportunities for poverty reduction and women’s empowerment. The poverty reducing benefits of migration broadly are well documented. So too is the role that migration and remittances play in improving food security and alleviating poverty among poor rural households.The benefits of migration apply also to migrants’ destination communities. In Brazil higher rates of internal migration are associated with reductions in poverty in destination cities (among both the local population and migrants) and increased access to infrastructure services. Far from placing additional pressure on urban labour markets as is sometimes feared, local households have been shown to benefit from complementarities of locals and migrants in productive tasks.
Migration offers opportunities for the empowerment of women in terms of access to paid employment outside the family, access to services and relaxation of the rigid gender norms which prevail throughout many rural societies. In cases where the migrating family member has been male, this has often enabled women to take on greater decision-making and management responsibilities on family farms, with remittances sometimes allowing them to hire labour to reduce their own workloads.
But what about the challenges? Migrating women are likely to continue experiencing forms of gender discrimination and are not always well placed to benefit from the prosperity of their destination towns and cities. According to UN-HABITAT, “gender gaps in labour and employment, decent work, pay, tenure rights, access to and accumulation of assets, personal security and safety, and representation in formal structures of urban governance, show that women are often the last to benefit from the prosperity of cities.”
Women and girls are the most affected by many governments’ struggles to maintain services and infrastructure. Expensive public transport systems hinder women’s mobility, and many are forced to live in poor housing in the face of escalating living costs. Migrant women living in poor urban neighbourhoods often have to compensate for a lack of services and infrastructure by working longer hours, caring for children who are frequently ill as a result of inadequate water and sanitation. Urban crime can also be a serious problem for migrant women. In addition, social relations can be more fragmented and despite urban areas having better equipped health clinics and more doctors, residence related access and the expense of such healthcare often puts it out of the reach of migrant women.
So, how can policy-makers support migrating women in light of these realities? Broadly, more attention is needed on promoting mobility. This should include removing disincentives such as residency based social protection (as is often the case with health and education schemes) and urban housing policies that are biased against migrants. But equally important will be addressing the gender dimensions of migration.
Introducing gender sensitive labour and migration legislation that enshrines international standards for the legal protection of migrants and promoting women’s groups and migrant associations are key aspects of this. So is including women in discussions between governments, employers, trade unions, civil society and migrant communities to ensure the contribution of migrants is recognized and their rights are protected. Initiatives to improve the safety of migrants, especially women, during their journeys as well as in their destinations are also needed. Only by empowering and supporting the role of women in migration can its potential poverty reducing impact be realized.
Rosemary Vargas-Lundius, David Suttie and Anja Lund work for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Rosemary is also a member of Migrating out of Poverty's Consortium Advisory Group.