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Migrant women: an invisible group in data

UK Baytree Fatima project

Where is the data on migrant women in published research?

As part of the FATIMA project, I helped to gather data on migrant women living in Europe. I started the task confidently. I thought, how hard can it be? How wrong I was in that initial optimism. I quickly found myself disheartened and frustrated.

Although there was lots of data and literature on migrants across Europe, these rarely distinguished between gender and women were often absent. When I video called Lia, a fellow internee also working on the project, I found that she too was struggling.

I was therefore not surprised to find that others had also noted this lack. Most reports that did focus on migrant women continuously called for more research and improved data collection on migrant women.

In response to a recent report, The European Network of Migrant Women wrote “there is practically no mention of female migrants as if this group does not exist”. This statement sums up a much wider problem in migration studies.

Some possible reasons…

But why is there so little data on migrant women and what are the roots of a ‘male bias embedded in migration studies’? Whilst it is true that historically men have always made up the largest group of migrants, there has been a dramatic shift over the past decades.

Recent studies show that women now make up around half of the 244 million individuals who live and work outside of their country of origin. Less and less of whom are migrating as a partner or family member of a male migrant but are moving independently in search of job opportunities.

Despite this, women are typically viewed as connected to husbands or other family members. The stock image of migrant women is one of ‘traditional’ who doesn’t contribute to society. This means they are often forgotten or simply seen as irrelevant to national statistics, public policy and other research. This reflects a global under-reporting of women’s jobs and roles in society.

Migrant women and the care economy

One of the most common job areas for migrant women is the domestic and care sector. This also happens to be one of the most invisible. Work within this sector is often highly informal, unregulated and poorly paid. This results in poor working conditions, exploitation and lack of recognition.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says: “these migrant women care workers act as a cushion for states lacking adequate public provision for long-term care, childcare and care for the sick”. However, states continue to ignore them and their work.

The lack of recognition of migrant women in statistics and their portrayal as ‘outside of the economy’ is directly linked to the lack of regulation and informality of migrant womens’ work.

Unsociable working hours and family duties

Care work often involves long shifts during unsociable hours in private domains. On top of this, migrant women often find themselves taking the brunt of childcare and family duties. This can mean that even those researchers seeking contact with female migrants may find it difficult.

During my own research, female migrants were almost always absent. On one occasion, I met a female migrant who explained: “we just don’t have the time, we have work, we have families, children. We can’t come to these things”. Working night shifts at a care home and looking after her family left her little time to join social or educational meetings.

The problem that myself and Lia faced whilst writing our reports must be understood within this wider context. Female migrants face specific marginalisation and exploitation in the economic, political and social spheres. That includes their work in the care sector, their unpaid labour at home and their invisibility in policy.

If researchers continue to view the migrant as a male, the experiences of women will continue to be unheard. In turn, their exploitation, marginalisation and exclusion will be even greater. We need more data on migrant women if we are going to have truly representative research and make positive changes to their lives.

Author: Charlot Schneider, volunteer at WONDER Foundation

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