Female migrant workers: challenges and strengths

Female migrant workers: challenges and strengths


BULLETIN 2022 | #7

Female migrant workers: challenges and strengths


Despite the stereotypes of migrant women as mere dependents of men or moving just for family reunification, there has been a long history of women migrating for employment, with numbers increasing over the past decade. These migratory flows are often influenced by the lack of decent work and equal rights for women in countries of origin and the increase in the demand for female labour in destination countries. 

Migrant women often face various challenges and obstacles. Stereotypical beliefs about women’s suitability for certain roles have limited their job opportunities in host countries. As a consequence, female migrants have no choice but to look for jobs in “invisible sectors”, which exposes them to the risk of misinformation, indecent work, human trafficking, extortion, and abuse. Once they can get a job, female migrant workers are often unable to access formal remittance transfer systems and often find themselves excluded from the right to family reunification and the right to having children in host countries. 

Finally, female women workers’ health, well-being, and livelihoods have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, and, despite the emphasis that they do essential jobs during the pandemic, many have had to return to their countries. Upon returning home, they frequently face stigma and a pervasive lack of reintegration services or employment opportunities.

This bulletin intends to promote the protection and empowerment of female migrant workers’ rights. They can contribute to host countries by filling key gaps in labour markets, besides elevating their families out of poverty and supporting their country of origin through remittance flows. To this end, this Bulletin presents some best practices and statements designed to ensure the inclusion of migrant women and the development of their full potential. 

Protection and empowerment of female migrant workers

In the Encyclical
Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis calls for a new society where no one should remain excluded. Drawing a similarity between vulnerable groups, he compares women and migrants: “As it is unacceptable that some have fewer rights by virtue of being women, it is likewise unacceptable that the mere place of one’s birth or residence should result in his or her possessing fewer opportunities for a developed and dignified life.” In addition, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Evangelization of the Philippines, the Holy Father dedicated words of praise to Filipino women in Rome, defining them as “smugglers of faith, […] because wherever they go to work, they sow the faith.” And, he thanked them for the joy they bring to the whole world and to Christian communities. It’s a missionary experience. “The Gospel message of God’s closeness cries out to be expressed in love for our brothers and sisters,” he said. He reminded that the Church has the same mission to welcome and bring Christ to others.

Archbishop Bernardito Auza, former Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and Apostolic Nuncio, attended the 3rd Committee on the Advancement of Women. On this occasion, he voiced concern about the violence and discrimination faced by migrant women, including female migrant workers, who “endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence.” The Apostolic Nuncio affirmed that “these women deserve to be welcomed, protected, and integrated within our communities with dignity. They also deserve full and equal recognition before the law, including through access to the justice system.” In that regard, he pointed out the important framework represented by the Global Compact on Migration, but also the need for effective legislation and enforcement to prevent trafficking in persons and forced labour. 

In occupations such as domestic work, female migrant workers often find themselves excluded from the right to family reunification and the right to have children in host countries. In that regard, n. 14 of the Twenty Action Points for the Global Compacts reads: “Encourage States to adopt policies and practices which promote and preserve the integrity and well-being of the family regardless of migratory status.” Among various examples, it is worth mentioning the request to “enact laws which allow for the reunification of refugees and migrants with their families and that recognize the right of these family members to work” and “policies which facilitate family tracing and reunification.” 

Within the project Volti per le Migrazioni, FOCSIV produced a background paper analysing the question of gender migration (IT). Starting from the framework of the international community, the document presents the sustainable development objectives and the Global Compact on Migration as promoters of migration policy that take gender issues into priority account. The paper also reports the causes of women migration and challenges they have to face. The analysis reveals a double discrimination: as women, they are relegated to marginal positions in the world of work; and as migrants, they are subject to trafficking and exploitation. Finally, good practices from Italy and the European Union are presented, so as to demonstrate that European and Italian cooperation can play an important role in fostering safe channels of migration for women, their rights, and thus their contribution to sustainable development.

Good practices by Catholic actors

Catholic actors work towards supporting the integration of female migrant workers into host countries as well as taking care of those who return to their country of origin. The following are some examples of their commitment:

In the city of Ferrol, Spain, migrant women learn the secrets of tailoring at the Caritas textile workshop, but they also forge bonds and carry out activities helping them to integrate into the social environment. In the tailoring shop, there are two fashion students who have started a circular fashion project that seeks to educate migrant women to launch a brand dedicated to the creative recycling of used clothing. This is called “upcycling”. Starting from the clothes Caritas receives as a gift, other garments are created. Through this project, named Facendo realidade a moda circular e sustentable en proximidade (ES), migrant women are guided both in the most creative part of the process such as redesigning the clothing used to turn it into another garment, in training for creation and implementation of their own brand, as well as in digital marketing notions to promote it on social media.

The Scalabrinian Sisters in Fortaleza, Brazil, with the help of some pastoral migrant volunteers, took care of many migrant women (PT), mothers with children, who were left without work, food, and housing because of the pandemic. The missionaries went from house to house to offer migrant women food baskets and masks. Moreover, weekly online meetings promoted by the Pastoral Ministry have allowed these migrant women to invest in forms of income generation to ensure livelihood for their families. A specialist in business explained step-by-step to each of them how to start their own business. After more than a year of guidance, each of the migrant women now runs a small business. The Ministry also assists women mothers who, in need and without information, fall victim to trafficking, accompanying them together with the Prison Ministry and the Public Defender’s Office, as bridges to streamline the process and promote alternatives to detention.

Although Syrians have the right to work in Turkey, many employers are reluctant to initiate the proper paperwork, thus leaving many of these workers unprotected and vulnerable. However, poverty, lack of social assistance, and unemployment particularly affect women because of low levels of education and, consequently, poor technical and linguistic skills. Caritas Italy and Caritas Turkey have launched a project (IT) aimed at encouraging a path of female autonomy for 50 migrant women, thanks to vocational training activities and subsequent employment. So doing, they want to foster access to professional training courses and internships at local companies. In addition, the organisation is trying to promote the creation of micro-enterprises through ad hoc training and financial support.

Many Bangladeshi women and underage girls migrating for work overseas experience exploitation and abuses in the workplace. In response to this situation, CAFOD – together with OKUP, a grassroots migrant organisation in Bangladesh – is undertaking a three-year project entitled “Empowerment of Women and Girl Migrant Workers, Communities and Key Institutions to Protect and Promote Migrant Workers’ Rights and Access to Justice”. The CAFOD and EU-funded project hopes to ensure that women and girl migrant workers and their communities are more resilient to and united against unsafe migration, trafficking, and exploitation, and their rights are better protected through improved institutional justice mechanisms. The Access to Justice report highlights the challenges and barriers to justice faced by female migrants and puts forward recommendations for improvement. 

Stories and testimonies

Gabriela arrived in Italy in 2018 from Brazil. Despite having a degree in journalism and speaking several languages, in four years she struggled to find a job in her area of competence. Nevertheless, she did not lose heart and found several occasional jobs to make ends meet. Finally, in 2022, thanks to the
“E-Library on the move” project (IT) from the CSER – Centro Studi Emigrazione of the Missionaries of St Charles – she does what she used to do in Brazil: communications, social education and collaboration in a library. The project aims for professional integration in the field of digital libraries of qualified migrant and refugee women, who in Italy very often work in sectors and positions requiring menial tasks and low qualifications. Gabriela is enthusiastic to participate in the “E-Library on the move”, as it gives her the chance to acquire new technical skills in an inclusive and stimulating work environment.

Hugette’s is the story of a mother who fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo hoping to find a safer and better life for herself and her children. But when she arrived in South Africa, she realised that life was tougher than expected. Then, a friend told her about the JRS livelihoods programme. Now that she graduated, she shares her hopes for the future: “I have the knowledge, I can move up with my life and be independent. Now I know how to do nails, massage, and make-up. My dream is to open my own business, rent a space and hire people to help me.” Michelle, a teacher in the programme, said: “Many of the women in our programme have limited education, are unemployed, and struggling to look after their families. We give everyone a chance regardless of their educational background. We facilitate you becoming a professional. We also give hope.” 

In the book Driven by the Depth of Love, by ICMC, the photojournalist Christian Tasso presents numerous stories of migrant workers from different parts of the globe. Among them, we can find stories of migrant women living in Chicago, United States, who narrate their experience of migration, from the troubled journey to the cultural, social and economic difficulties encountered in their integration process. The common thread that links these stories is their relation with the Pastoral Migratoria, an immigrant-led ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago for service, justice, and accompaniment actions in parish communities with large immigrant populations. The parish-based ministry, created in 2008, is working to address labour rights, documentation, and other issues that are central for migrant communities, and helped all these women to find their place in the host society.


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