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Migrant women: when protection is not in place

arton1682In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN-ECE) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) jointly organized an interactive discussion on “Women and Migration in Europe & the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)” on 4 November in Geneva.

The session brought together representatives from governments, UN entities as well as civil society in an innovative way as people in Brussels (Belgium), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Chisinau (Moldova) and Dushanbe (Tajikistan) were invited to actively participate and raise questions for the discussion through videoconferencing. Although, the connection with Kyrgyzstan could not be established, this allowed for a broad participation from people that are actively working on migration issues in the European and CIS region.

In her opening remarks, Jane Connors, Director of the Special Procedures Division of OHCHR, looked back at the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (for more information see further down), and in particular made reference to “general recommendation No. 26,” which was adopted by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)in 2008. This recommendation deals in particular with women migrant workers and aims to “contribute to the fulfilment of the obligations of States Parties to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of women migrant workers, alongside the legal obligations contained in other treaties, the commitments assumed under the plans of action of world conferences and the important work of migrant-focused treaty bodies, especially the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.”

After her opening remarks, Ms. Connors raised various questions to the panellists. She, for example, asked Violet Awori, a lawyer, women’s rights advocate and CEDAW member, to reflect on the common responsibilities that destination countries and countries of origin have with respect to protecting migrant women. According to Ms. Awori, States should formulate a comprehensive gender based and human rights based policy on the basis of equality and non-discrimination to ensure safe migration, including the safety of migrant workers. They should facilitate qualitative and quantitative research to further develop the knowledge base on migrant workers and to be able to better understand who is migrating, including why, where and how. She also mentioned the establishment of an authentic reliable recruitment system for jobs abroad. This would allow to better protect migrant workers. She further addressed the role of the media, which, according to her, should provide more information on migrant issues. Finally, with regard to destination countries, Ms. Awori noted that they should lift discriminatory regulation and provide equal labour conditions and protection of labour rights for migrant workers.

Filomenita Mongaya Hogsholm, representing WIDE, WIDE’s Danish platform KULU and the Philippine Women’s Network in Europe (BABAYLAN) and Virgina Wangare Greinder, Chair of the European Network of Migrant Women, reported on the experiences on the ground regarding human rights challenges for women migrant workers in Europe and the forms of multiple discrimination they are facing. From their experience it became clear that bilateral agreements between countries to protect migrant workers are generally lacking, which means that no State has to take responsibility in case something happens to a migrant worker. The fact that many migrant women do not have papers or contracts, as a result of trafficking or their illegal status, means that they have no place to go for protection, nor for services such as health care. Migrant women also often lack access to social benefits (e.g. pensions), and might therefore face poverty at old age. A further complication is that many migrant women that do domestic work are not protected, for example regarding domestic violence, as the ‘home’ by law is not seen as an official workplace, but as a private area.

Sergiu Sainciuc, Deputy Minister of Economy and Commerce of the Republic of Moldova, looked at the financial crisis and its impact on migrant women in his county and in the region. Moldova is a country that highly depends on remittances, and due to the crisis, remittances were down in 2009 with 34%. To strengthen the economy, the Moldovan government has developed a national employment strategy and a small and medium enterprise (SME) development strategy, both are also targeting women. Furthermore, the government has a partnership and mobility agreement with the European Union to legalise migration, to provide social protection to migrants and to stimulate circular and return migration.

One of the difficulties to protect migrant workers, raised by Mongaya Hogsholm, is that many migrant workers leave on their own initiative and do not go through official organizations or networks, nor do they seek advice with State institutions. This makes it very difficult for States to provide these migrant workers with support.

Other issues raised during the discussion ranged from good practice examples in training and education of migrant workers, which nowadays is primarily a task taken up by civil society and which many said should also become the responsibility of States, to the protection of families, domestic migration and national streamlining of migration policy among various ministries.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1979, and is one of the most comprehensive international human rights treaties for the promotion of women’s rights. It looks at women’s civil rights, their legal status, reproductive rights, but also cultural factors influencing women’s position in society and the enjoyment of their rights. For more information on the Convention, click here.

See also Thirtieth Anniversary of CEDAW: Special website launched

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