Op-Ed: How migration alters gender dynamics

Migration has the capacity to provide labor and education opportunities that can alter gender dynamics and shift power within families and societies. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), gender identity and the societal implications of gender “significantly affect all aspects of the migration process, and can also be affected in new ways by migration.”

Gender underpins every step of the migratory experience. It can inform the decision to migrate, and it increases the physical perils of movement. Gender also plays a huge role in adaptation and acceptance in the receiving country, labor and education opportunities there and resulting familial dynamics.

Individuals of every gender identity are impacted differently by migration, but there is a lack of available research on gender and migration as it pertains to non-binary and trans-identifying individuals. An article by Donato et. al. in International Migration Review acknowledges the gendering of this discipline, stating that “[t]he gendering of the disciplines themselves, along with decidedly gendered professional and scholarly practices within disciplines, consistently worked to sidetrack or to marginalize theories and findings about gender.”

That said, this op-ed will focus on the impact migration has on gender dynamics and familial power dynamics specifically for the 48.4 percent of migrants who identify as female, according to the 2017 UN Migration Report, whom we have more accurate information on.

Migration is more dangerous for women and gender minorities than men, plain and simple. Even if the migration is not forced, gender-based violence may spur women to move in the first place. Once they’re on the move, they are susceptible to violence during the journey, whether through exorbitant smuggling fees, trafficking or other forms of abuse and violence.

Fortunately, most migration involving women is voluntary. Just like men, women choose to move based on rational incentives and expanded opportunities. More recent and inclusive scholarship notes that there is in fact a myriad of factors that influence the decision to migrate and that make it more or less possible for women. Boyd classifies these factors as relating to gender relations and hierarchies, status and roles of women and structural characteristics of the country of origin.

Voluntary migration poses an enormous opportunity for women, for personal, familial and economic growth. According to Donato et. al., through the process of migration and the resulting exposure to different norms, values and social structures, migrants “often become particularly aware of the relational and contextual nature of gender as they attempt to fulfill expectations of identity and behavior that may differ sharply in the several places they live”. Thus, subjugation and discrimination that they might have endured in their country of origination no longer becomes acceptable.

For many women, migration is seen as an escape from traditional patriarchy and, better yet, as an alternative to forced marriage. Once migrated, women are often able to further alter and reconstitute the patriarchy and the structure of their families through a redistribution of labor. Nazli Kibria argues that “[t]he transformation of the domestic division of work … is based upon the balance of power between men and women and their access to resources”.

Enhanced access to resources and opportunities, particularly economic ones, allows women to reclaim or create an identity for themselves. Economic opportunities for women generated by migration also have the ability to improve the global economy and familial well-being, explains Fleury. Through the process of remittances, in which portions of a migrants income are sent home to their origin country, women can help stimulate the economy of their origin country. In fact, the IOM’s research suggests that “women tend to send a higher proportion of their income … more regularly and for longer periods of time” back to their origin country than men, meaning that their economic impact is disproportionately positive.

Despite the myriad doors that migration opens for women, many female migrants still find doors being shut in front of them.

As a result of shifting gender dynamics caused by migration, familial tensions may worsen, as women’s migration may mean that the men left behind must take on additional domestic responsibilities, although “other female family members often take on the additional burden,” as a study by O’Neil et al. explains. Sijapati explains that returning migrants who have adopted new norms and skills may face “resistance or stigma and struggle to reintegrate into their families and communities.”

Migration through regular channels (i.e., not through trafficking or smuggling) has an immense capacity to empower women and girls. While these women are a powerful force who engage economically and change gender dynamics daily, it is important to note that they are still a vulnerable population.

How can we mitigate the unique challenges migrant women face? If you are interested in learning more about migration, join the Institute for Global Leadership and students from around the world at this year’s EPIIC Symposium: “Migration in a Turbulent World,” from March 7 to 9. A panel specifically on Gender and Migration is being held on Friday, March 8 at 12:30 PM.

The symposium will be three days of far-reaching discussions on issues critical to understanding the pressing challenges on migration. The full schedule and free tickets can be found here.