Written by Ana Beatriz B. Pelicioni

Regardless of the motivations underlying people’s decisions to move, being a migrant implies many risks and difficult situations to be dealt with. It can affect people on a variety of levels, depending on their individual migration process. As posed by Dal Lago (2009), the conditions and reasons for migrating oscillate between necessity and freedom, and between precarious security and insecurity, to which the search for changes in a new life is consigned. Migrants’ vulnerability starts before their journey, accompanies them all the way, and may persist for a lifetime. Up-and-down social mobility after migration,  international and national social and economic inequalities, and different labour and living conditions make migrants even more vulnerable in a highly competitive society. 

It is imperative that given all the vulnerabilities that affect migrants, some particularities be considered in the analysis. Including a gender perspective in migration studies can bring up important aspects, similarities, and differences experienced by people and help inform policy-making, contributing to empowerment, equality, and inclusion. This article aims to shed light particularly on the agenda of migrant women, the importance of intersectionality when analysing migrations, the causes of higher susceptibility of women to violence or abuse, and the importance of creating protection and community networks in the new country, using the case of an initiative made by migrants for migrants. 

The importance of Intersectionality

The debates about intersectionality started with the fights and theorizations about the feminist movements in the United States and the United Kingdom between 1970 and 1980. As a result, Black Feminism became crucial in the academic production and development of feminist theories. Thanks to the growing number of women in academia, it was possible to have more debates and sociological research on the topic, increasing the strength of women’s fights and arguments worldwide. However, it was only in 1989 that the term was systematised by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American feminist theorist and professor specialising in issues of race and gender.

According to Crenshaw, intersectionality is

“A conceptualization of the problem that seeks to capture the structural and dynamic consequences of the interaction between two or more axes of subordination. It specifically addresses how racism, patriarchy, class oppression, and other discriminatory systems create basic inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities, classes, and others. Furthermore, intersectionality deals with how specific actions and policies generate oppressions that flow along such axes, constituting dynamic or active aspects of disempowerment” (Crenshaw, 2002).

In this sense, the term “intersectionality” describes a transdisciplinary theory that aims to develop a comprehensive strategy that can account for the multiplicity of identities and social injustices. It focuses on how these intersect to create and maintain social inequalities, going beyond the acknowledgement of the diversity of oppressive systems and the various axes of social distinction such as sex/gender, class, colour, ethnicity, age, disability, and sexual orientation (Bilge, 2009).

Crenshaw (2002) also explains that these axes are distinct and mutually exclusive. For example, racism is different from patriarchy, which in turn is different from class oppression. But often, they can intertwine, creating complex intersections where two, three, or four axes end up intersecting.

It is crucial to emphasise that gender is not just about women even if this article is using the gender lens to convey a subject that will be exclusively about women. As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO, n.d.), gender refers to characteristics of women, men, and other gender groups that are socially constructed and the unequal relations between them and society. Gender debates frequently centre on women because they are the most affected by gender inequality (IOM GMDAC 2021). Gender hierarchies shape migrants’ experiences, as the reasons for migration and the entire migration process are experienced differently, and gender inequalities in the societies of destination affect men and women differently (Marujo 2009). 

From a historical perspective, the scholarship developed in the late 20th century that combines gender and migration was crucial towards an inclusive definition of migration that pays attention to the idiosyncrasies of men and women and their roles in migration and how they are affected by its consequences (Sinke, 2006).

There are many examples where the gender perspective would be an additional asset to the discussion of economic theories of migration. For instance, the neoclassical theory of migration assumes a risk-neutral individual, and has been criticised because of the many risks that must be considered before making the decision to migrate. Going further, it is possible to analyse the variation in risks that affect men and women in their decision to migrate, as women, for instance, must consider the higher risks of sexual harassment. The new economics of labour migration underlines the importance of the household in migration decisions. In fact,it is important to investigate distinct household compositions and dynamics and the role of women, as mothers and/or family leaders, in the decision to migrate. The segmented labour market migration theory addresses social issues that are frequently associated with labour migration, such as labour market discrimination. The different types of discrimination against women and how they may affect migration decisions can be analysed from a gender perspective (e.g., all prejudices around gender fluidity or sexuality and how they are implied in migrants’ lives). One may discuss the information shared through social networks and community building (e.g., shared information in the LGBTQAI+ community to avoid abuses, women’s networks, etc.) that could encourage or discourage mobility based on previous experiences, as well as change the experience of settling in a new country (Karpestam and Andersson, 2013).

Nevertheless, assembling migration theories with a gender perspective is becoming more necessary every day to understand migration particularities. An engendered overview can consider diversity and see intersectional discrimination. 

In what ways are migrant women more vulnerable?

The decision to migrate can vary and is still difficult to understand given the data that is currently available, or lack thereof. Nevertheless, a 2017 ILO analysis indicated that in 24 of the 63 countries surveyed, the proportion of women in the working-age migrant population has increased over the preceding decade. It also showed that 42 percent of the 164 million migrant workers were women (ILO, 2017). Today, an increasing number of women migrate, seeking employment in destinations where they might be better paid than within their own nation. According to estimates, about half of today’s migrant labourers worldwide are women. Since these positions are characterized by a strong bond of subordination between the employer and the employee and, more importantly, because those sectors are typically excluded from the scope of legal protection on employment, particularly from the nationals labour codes, this “feminization” is sometimes characterised by an over-representation of women migrants in extremely vulnerable positions (United Nations – Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005).

For either men or women, the economic and political context of their country of origin usually affects migration decisions and (United Nations – Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2004). Migration may offer women new opportunities such as financial independence and can also lead to the improvement of their homes and community status. Migrant women are increasingly important members of family household structures, and many are significant contributors to the economies of their home countries through remittances (Rakotonarivo 2020). Yet, gender relations, hierarchies, policies, and practices in the societies of destination can shape the effects of migration for migrant women (United Nations – Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2004). Population movements can be remarkably gender-specific, with women and men travelling for various causes along various paths and with various outcomes. At either the country of origin or country of destination, the majority of migration-related rules and regulations have not been updated to account for a gender-based perspective on migration and its consequences (ILO, 2003). Policies are either absent or ignore how migration is gendered, which has unforeseen repercussions for women (ibidem).

Despite the possibility of increasing their income, there are numerous risks and disadvantages that women face when migrating compared to men. Many women when deciding to migrate might do so with some unrealistic expectations due to the lack of proper information, incomplete knowledge of the immigration laws and procedures, and limited career options. Women migrant workers are typically more specialised in fewer occupations than men are (Kawar, 2004). In general, women commonly have a lower employment-to-population ratio than males, but among migrants, the gender wage gap is typically worse. Overall, female migrants are less likely than male migrants to be employed (Rakotonarivo 2020), and when they are employed, women constantly face a significant gender pay gap. Women also outnumber men in the unregulated and socially unprotected informal sectors (Ibidem). Women migrants themselves are unprepared, distrust the authorities, and are unaware of their rights (Ibidem).

Additionally, women and girls are more vulnerable to human trafficking than men and boys. The intersections between gender-based discrimination and discrimination based on other forms of “otherness,” such as non national or foreigner status, race, ethnicity, religion, and economic status can place women in situations of double, triple, or even fourfold discrimination, disadvantage, marginalisation, and/or vulnerability.  (Robbers, Lazdane, and Sethi, 2016).

Nevertheless, women, whether they are migrants or not, are also more subjugated to sexual violence than men. According to estimates made by the World Health Organization, around 30 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate relationship abuse or non-partner sexual violence at some point in their lives. The majority of this violence occurs between intimate partners (WHO, 2016). 

Migrant women are more likely to suffer sexual violence during their journey than men. Throughout the migration process, women and girls may face a variety of gender-based violence, ranging from bullying and verbal, physical, and psychological abuse to sexual violence. Violence often occurs more than once, including while travelling through the country of origin, while in transit, upon arriving in the country of destination, and when returning (UN – Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2004). 

A study by Doctors Without Borders at the US border showed that “31.4 percent of women and 17.2 percent of men had been sexually abused during their transit through Mexico” (MSF, 2017). Sexual violence refers to an act that targets a woman’s sexuality, harming her physical, mental, and psychic integrity. Examples of such acts include sexual assault and the threat of sexual assault, and it usually has the following characteristics:  threats that are physical, metaphorical, or both, which a migrant woman perceives as an offence to her sexuality and, implicitly, to her psychological, emotional, and/or physical characteristics as a woman; an attack on the physical features of her body—her breasts and genitalia—that biologically define her as a woman and are central to her sense of self; and an aggression that violates cultural and societal conventions that influence behaviour, particularly sexual behaviour toward the feminine body (Marrujo 2009). Furthermore, sexual violence can be differently perceived and understood by migrant women regarding their background, how they built themselves as women, their sexuality, the power relations regarding gender in their home societies, and the sociocultural landscape (Ibidem).

Implications and solutions

The prospect of a quicker and more seamless assimilation into the new society is made even more remote by the absence of clear information during and after the migration process. Both men and women, being migrants, will not likely be as local citizens of that nation, regardless of how long they have lived there or their ultimate return project (even if they are in a regular legal condition). Furthermore, they would no longer be seen as a citizen of their home country because the binomial time-space in which they lived, which serves as the basis for subjectivity, differs from that of his native nation (OIM, 2021). This “in betweenness” leads not only to identity issues that are widely discussed in migration scholarship, but also to the lack of effectiveness of public policies in assimilating immigrants in a responsible manner, respecting their individuality, and working to advance equality between humans. This should be the aim of all nations, not just those that have human rights protections in their internal laws and are signatories to international agreements, but especially those that do. 

In a context where immigrants are typically described as “extra-community,” “immigrant,” “clandestine,” and “irregular,” with these terms referring to what they are not in terms of social categories rather than any aspect of who they are (they are not European, not native, not citizens, not regular) (Dal Lago, 2009), it is critical to disseminate accessible and accurate information and have institutions in both home and host countries. Furthermore, migrant women require special attention because they are more likely to be exploited, harassed, and sexually abused during the migration process, as shown before.

Faced with the many shortcomings in the assistance provided to immigrants, and especially immigrant women, the action of non-governmental organisations is extremely important to support all those individuals who need help. Non-governmental organisations must take action to support all those in need, especially immigrant women. These organisations have agendas, strategies, and established, functioning networks. Regarding Europe, there are also an expanding number of groups that deal with racism and migration. Additionally, there are a large number of international NGOs that focus specifically on migration. The activities of these associations, NGOs, and other civil society organisations that focus on the concerns of women are highly diverse (Kawar, 2004).

The European Support Network for Brazilian Victims of Domestic Violence (REVIBRA) was created in 2012 by a group of friends, among whom were also migrant women, in order to help other migrant women face possible events of gender violence. Since then, REVIBRA has strived to offer legal and psychological assistance to women, victims of domestic or gender violence, and mothers in international disputes over the custody of minors in the Brazilian community of Germany, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and other countries of the European Union. According to OIM (OIM, 2021), REVIBRA provided 1,600 consultations between November 2019 and December 2020, assisting 180 individuals in 150 cases. According to the statistics, out of every 10 cases handled, seven involved marital violence, seven involved reported instances of psychological abuse, six involved administrative violence, and three involved physical assault. In three out of every ten incidents, the victim knew the aggressor.

As we can see in the case above, the women migrants themselves mobilise to carry out actions to support and welcome others. It is interesting to notice that REVIBRA, an organisation founded by Brazilian women, has a particular interest in the Brazilian women’s community in Europe. This makes it simpler for migrants to cope with or report cases of violence since they can feel more secure, identify themselves better, feel more comfortable, and do so without encountering a language barrier. There are several organisations connected to the European Union as well as organisations from the countries of destination, and this is only one example of an organisation created by immigrants for immigrants. However, these volunteer support networks cannot resolve the issues that immigrant women face on a daily basis. States must develop their policies with a gender lens and take into account all the intersectionalities that exist in the lives of the immigrant community.


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