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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Migration is Not Gender-Neutral

Over the years it has become blazingly obvious to me that men and women do not have the same migration experience.  They are not treated equally when they choose to leave their home countries and they are not treated the same in their country of destination.  Every more dramatic is that immigration laws and policies are often tailored to the "average" migrant who is presumed to be young and male.  These laws can have horrific impacts on women who get to suffer twice:  they are discriminated against as women and as foreigners.

I have been looking for an article or research on this topic for some time now.   It has not been an easy search.  Governments and international organizations do have basic statistics on male and female migration rates, workforce participation and levels of assimilation but that does not begin to tell the whole story.  Today I discovered this excellent article by Monica Boyd and Elizabeth Grieco:  Women and Migration: Incorporating Gender into International Migration Theory

Country of Origin
The story starts in the country of origin.  The family, the larger society and even the government, have the power to either prevent a woman from migrating or to deny her the resources and support she needs to be able to leave.    If she is married she may need her husband's permission to migrate and take any dependent children with her.

In addition, national policies may favor the migration of young men while putting barriers (sometimes said to be "protective") in the way of young women.

Country of Destination
There are several ways that the national immigration policies of the destination country impact women.

  • An assumption of "dependent" status.  A woman's immigration status is often linked to a relationship she has with a man (father or husband).  It is fascinating to read the "Foreign Brides" arguments on the Internet.  I tried but was unable to find the equivalent passion for or against "Foreign Grooms."  But they do exist.  Out of the relatively few mixed marriages in France (43,400 in 2004) only a slight majority involve Frenchmen marrying foreign women (about 55%).

I can attest to the fact that marriage to a citizen is a double-edged sword.  It does make the immigration process easier but consider this - you have been granted residency on the basis of your marriage, not because of your job skills, educational attainments or other legitimate talents that you have to offer the host country. Given the divorce rates in many countries, that is very shaky ground indeed in the first few years of residency.

  • It follows from this assumption of dependency that women are cast in the "family" category as wives, mothers or daughters.  It may be assumed that women "dependents" will not work or have a desire to work.  Men, on the other hand, are assumed to be independent and seeking employment regardless of whether they are married to a citizen or not.  
I would also argue that above impacts the economic equality of immigrant women within their marriages to citizens or to other legal residents.  In most countries it is a fact that women make less than men.  Many skilled immigrants are under-employed compared to their education level and skill sets during the time that they assimilate and learn the language.  If you combine the two, this means that the difference between the native husband's income and that of the foreign woman struggling (with little or no encouragement) to start or restart a career, can be enormous.  As a result of this inequality, she may have less power when it comes to deciding how the children are brought up, what language(s) to use in the home, and what traditions will be followed.

All of the above has a strong impact on assimilation.  A woman migrant's status when she enters the country can determine later access to resources in the target country:  language-classes, job training, even government programs. Without these things (which are often more readily available to unemployed or working male migrants) it is more difficult for a woman migrant to find work, to integrate and to later to seek citizenship in her own right.  From my own experience, I can attest to the fact that participating in the work force in my host country forced me to learn the language and customs very quickly.  At this time I am not a legal citizen but I nevertheless have come to feel (mainly through my work, but also through friends and family) that I am a member of this society even if I cannot vote.

And that, I would argue, is the "gold standard" for determining a successful level of integration - a sense of belonging.  Citizenship is just a legal category - being a productive member of society and feeling "at home" goes much deeper.  It is both a tragedy and a travesty that migrant women have so many barriers to overcome before they can achieve both.

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