Global Development Institute Blog

Dr Matthew Walsham, Research Associate, Global Development Institute and Dr Tanja Bastia, Reader, Global Development Institute

In this blog, we mark this year’s International Women’s Day by reflecting on the heavy toll that Covid-19 has had on migrants across the world and how the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the gendered inequalities that many migrant women face. We draw on our ongoing research to focus particularly on the links between gender, intersectionality and migration in South-South migration and also show how knowledge of these issues can be essential in understanding wider migration dynamics.

In our work on gender and migration, we explore how gender relations shape – and are shaped by – the experiences of migrant women, migrant men and their families at both origin and destination. These relations do not function in isolation and their intersection with other categories of disadvantage and difference – such as race, ethnicity, age, class, disability and sexuality – usually have a profound effect on migrant’s decisions, experiences and outcomes.

Tanja’s research with Bolivian migrants moving both within Latin America and further afield has shown how gender, class and ethnicity intersect to shape processes of social change. Over twenty years of working with a transnational community of migrants – explored in detail in the recent book ‘Gender, migration and social transformation: Intersectionality in Bolivian itinerant migrations’ – traced how in response to the decline of the mining industry in Bolivia, miners began migrating to Cochabamba city and, subsequently, to Argentina. While these migrants were initially mostly men, women from within the same community also began looking for paid work in the garment sector in Buenos Aires. The experiences of these migrants were shaped by gender, but also by the xenophobia and racism they encountered in Argentina. Further, as we return to below, recurrent crises played a key role in shaping these migration flows – first within Bolivia, then regionally to Argentina, then later to Spain.

A new survey of the global literature on South-South migration, gender and intersectionality – conducted by Matthew and Lorena Izaguirre for MIDEQ, a five-year research project exploring South-South migration and inequality – supports these findings. It suggests that, while migration streams within the Global South reflect the significant social and economic diversity that characterises Latin America, Africa and Asia (whatever definition of the ‘South’ is used), streams of migrant labour are dominated by precarious workers in both the formal and informal economy. While men are the majority in most migration corridors in the Global South, the share of migrant women is increasing in many contexts, including internal and international migrant labour in the garment sector and other factory work. The capacity to migrate, the opportunities at the destination and the long-term consequences for migrants and their families are fundamentally gendered at origin and destination. Further, the women and men who migrate in this manner do not experience racism, patriarchy, class hierarchies and xenophobia as separate phenomena. Rather, as we argue, these forms of oppression are “interconnected, interdependent and embedded in overlapping norms, institutions and behaviours”.

Existing research on South-South migration with a gender and intersectional lens is relatively limited in nature. Those studies that do exist highlight the value of the approach for understanding the experiences of migrant women as well as gender relations between men and women at both origin and destination. Further, it draws attention to new potential research agendas. For example, the very limited attention that is currently given to migration and sexuality; or to the migration of highly educated women moving within the Global South, on whose experiences there is very little research at all, and where gendered intersections between disadvantage and relative privilege may create distinctive configurations of opportunity and oppression.

Given the scale of South-South migration flows, which by many estimates exceed those from the Global South to the Global North, these issues are of very considerable significance in their own right. However, the experiences of transnational Bolivian migrants shows how the very strong participation of women in migration from Bolivia to Spain following the Argentinean crisis in 2001 can only be understood in relation to previous changes in migration patterns between Bolivia and Argentina. The feminisation of this regional migration flow was an essential component of the subsequent growth in migration to Spain that was dominated by women. This shift generated moral panic in some quarters and concerns over the dissolution of traditional – and patriarchal – family structures. In practice, not only was it grounded in pre-existing changes to regional migration flows, but these shifts have had a complex legacy in relation to gender norms in Bolivia. For example, while some changes to gender roles certainly occurred, many women were also reluctant to rupture relationships with their husbands and undertook strategies to ‘return’ them their breadwinning role, by investing in their businesses or buying them a taxi. Part of the reason why changes in gender roles did not lead to wider changes in gender relations and gender ideology is related to the fact that migration, in this case, was linked to a strategy of individual social mobility, rather than embedded in broader political actions that push for social change.

However, migrant women across the world are mobilising to improve not just their working conditions but to shift the fundamental frameworks that underpin global migrations towards greater respect for human and labour rights, including for migrant workers. Examples include the Women in Migration Network, Respect, Kalayaan, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, among others.

This brief overview of gender, intersectionality and South-South migration can only touch on the wide range of factors that shape – and are shaped by – the gendered experiences of migrants and their families across the Global South. COVID is certainly highlighting and exacerbating many of the inequalities that structure these migration flows. But International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on continuities as well as changes in these dynamics, for example, the key role crises have always played in initiating and sustaining migration flows across the world. In our research, we will continue to look for both changes and continuities shaping the experiences of migrant women and their families and using an intersectional lens to illuminate and understand how these gendered experiences connect with other forms of disadvantage and oppression as well as agency and opportunity.

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