TWO hundred years ago, women made up less than one-third of immigrants to the US. Today, almost half of all international migrants are women.
While the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) latest Human Development Report shows that 48% of international migrants are women — little changed from the 1960s figure of 47% — developments in migration show gender roles are changing in developing countries.
A growing number of women migrants are skilled professionals, who emigrate to take advantage of opportunities outside their own countries, where cultural or other barriers prevent their advancement, the report says.
Women with tertiary degrees are 40% more likely to emigrate to developed nations from countries such as Ghana, Malawi, Togo, Uganda and Zambia.
“The majority of the migration is dynamic, (with) skilled women taking advantage of opportunities,” says UNDP regional director for Africa Tegegnework Gettu.
Global demographic changes suggest this tendency will increase. By 2050, every continent except Africa will have more elderly people (over 60) than children (under 15). The average age in developing countries will be 38, while in developed countries it will be 45, according to the UNDP report, titled Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development. As a result, the opportunities for African immigrants to fill gaps in labour markets will grow.
Of course, much migration does not take place by choice and where violence and conflict displace people, women suffer heavily.
UN Population Fund figures show that the number of internally displaced people grew to 26-million in 2007 from 24,5-million the previous year.
The International Organisation for Migration says the majority of women migrants are engaged in temporary labour migration, with the Middle East, Southeast Asia and east Asia the main destinations.
Still, female migrants display different behaviour from their male counterparts. For starters, they tend to send a greater proportion of their earnings home, even if they earn less than men. Colombian women working in Spain, for example, remit 68% of their income on average, while Colombian men send home 54%, figures cited in the report show.
Migration is changing the balance of power between men and women in some countries, the report says. While the conventional view is that women are subordinate when it comes to migration decisions, Peru, for example, showed that many women move by themselves to work in Argentina because they are able to find work more quickly than their partners, who later follow with their children.
Another effect of migration is that cultural practices and norms can flow back to immigrants’ countries of origin.
In a Dominican Republic village, from which two-thirds of families sent family members to Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1990s, women’s roles changed — not only in Boston, where they went to work, but also back in the village of Miraflores, where they started to enjoy a greater level of equality generally. Norms such as a higher marriage age and greater educational expectations for girls can also filter back to immigrants’ countries of origin.
“This has been confirmed by recent findings regarding the transfer of fertility norms from migrants to the extended family and friends at places of origin: lower numbers of children at the national level became the norm in both places,” the report says.
Overall, however, evidence is mixed about the effect migration plays on gender roles, the report cautions. Where women take on greater authority because their men migrate, those gains can quickly be reversed when the men return.
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