Opinion: How can the international community guarantee women's rights during migration?

Venezuelan migrants line up to apply for admission at a UNHCR camp in Maicao, Colombia. Photo by: REUTERS / Luisa Gonzalez

In the courtyard of a soup kitchen on the outskirts of Cúcuta, Colombia, a 24-year-old Venezuelan woman named Maydelis says that she’s afraid to leave her young daughters alone when she goes out in search of work. She’s heard stories of children being sexually abused while their parents are out earning an income.

Maydelis is one of many Venezuelan women who sell “tinto” — a kind of black coffee — on the roadside, and the money she earns barely covers the rent of a shared room. There are no child care services available to her, and if she doesn’t earn money, Maydelis and her daughters could have no other option but to sleep on the street and be exposed to additional forms of violence.

Maydelis’ dilemma is not unique. Since 2015, over 4 million people have fled Venezuela to neighboring countries, and the United Nations predicts this number to rise to 6.5 million by the end of 2020, surpassing the number of refugees from the Syrian crisis.

This week, high-level government ministers, United Nations experts, policymakers, and practitioners from around the world are gathering in Ecuador at the Global Forum on Migration and Development to work on “upholding rights, strengthening state agency, and advancing development through partnerships and collective action.”

We’re asking delegates in the capital city of Quito to make pledges and commitments that uphold women’s rights in the context of migration. This requires a focused look at the specific challenges that migrant women face as individuals and, as a recent U.N. Women report shows, as family members.

The need for such a perspective is evident in our work as researchers at Ladysmith. We’re currently collecting data on gender-based violence in the context of the Venezuelan migration crisis. One of our most salient observations is that women’s experiences of violence are fundamentally linked to their gendered roles and responsibilities as mothers, daughters, caretakers, and providers.

Recognizing gendered risks, upholding women’s rights

As in many other contexts of migration, Venezuelan families are now dispersed across the continent: a father in Chile, a sister in Peru, a mother and children in Colombia, and a grandmother who stayed behind in Caracas. In practice, this means that both emotional and financial support networks are stretched across borders.

As these families separate, women remain largely responsible for domestic and caring tasks, including care for the sick, elderly, children, and loved ones with disabilities. As caretakers, they face additional stresses and vulnerabilities. Many bear the burden of securing access to health care, registering children for school, and finding consistent food and safe shelter. In Colombian cities, maternity wards are overflowing with Venezuelan women who have no access to maternal health care at home and travel to give birth across the border, often alone.

In a crisis, of course, not everyone always leaves. Elderly family members sometimes remain behind. In addition to often needing care themselves, elderly Venezuelans take care of family assets, including homes, as well as children and other family members who were prevented from leaving due to a serious illness or disability. Elder care is often — though certainly not always — the responsibility of daughters; we’ve met many women working, or searching for work, in order to send money to their elderly parents back home.

Efforts are falling short

The Venezuelan refugee crisis is days away from becoming the largest in modern history; it is also the most underfunded. Four years in, the international community has only spent $580 million in humanitarian aid, or about $125 per refugee. In comparison, $19.5 billion has been raised for the Syrian crisis, which works out at $1,500 per refugee. In November, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration put out an appeal for an additional $1.35 billion for Venezuelan refugees, migrants, and their host countries.

Despite herculean efforts on behalf of the Colombian state, international humanitarian agencies, faith groups, and grassroots initiatives to provide an effective response, this funding shortfall undercuts the realization of women and girls’ human rights. For example, we’ve seen in our own work that prevention and response programming around gender-based violence is deprioritized, that existing services lack effective coordination and necessary reach, and that state institutions such as maternity wards are ill-equipped for an influx of demand.

Lack of access to humanitarian support and decent work exposes women to violence during migration journeys and in host communities. For example, women are subject to sexual violence at the hands of armed groups when they pass through illegal borders crossings and then struggle to access justice and adequate care. When cash transfers and decent work are lacking, some Venezuelan migrants sell coffee, small electronics, or sweets in the informal economy. Others sell their hair for money. Still others engage in transactional sex — often in risky and dangerous circumstances — to be able to feed their children, purchase medicines and health care, pay rent, and support dependent family members back home.

How can the international community guarantee women’s rights during migration?

Maydelis is but one migrant in one migratory movement. By the end of 2018, there were 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide — a figure that the United Nations predicts will only grow in 2020 — and that doesn’t even include the millions more who move because of environmental degradation and climate change.

In order to support Maydelis, her family, and others who find themselves in a similar position, here are some key asks:

  • Ensure access to universal social protection and public services, including health, education and child care, as well as opportunities for decent work, irrespective of legal or migratory status.

  • Support grassroots women’s organizations. Local civil society organizations and solidarity networks are sometimes women’s only point of contact. But donors often impose bureaucratic and administrative constraints, including those for monitoring and evaluation, which grassroots organizations typically do not have the capacity to handle.

  • Earmark sufficient funds for gender-based violence prevention and response. History shows that GBV occurs in every humanitarian crisis, but because it is assumed to be a “private” issue and often remains hidden, it isn’t prioritized. Gender-sensitive data collection mechanisms may be important tools for generating action-oriented information and promoting accountability.

Above all else, guaranteeing women’s rights in the context of migration requires political will and commitment from governments and donors.

For Maydelis, there is some hope. She managed to enroll her eldest daughter in the local public school, and she’s now eligible to receive vouchers from the World Food Programme. For now though, her exposure to violence at work, securing safe shelter for her children, and the question of whether they’ll be able to return home remain sources of insecurity.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Julia Zulver

    Dr. Julia Zulver is a research affiliate at Ladysmith. She is also a Marie Sklodowska-Curie research fellow at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the University of Oxford (2020-2023). Her work focuses on women’s high-risk mobilization in Latin America.
  • Tara Patricia Cookson

    Dr. Tara Patricia Cookson is the director and co-founder of Ladysmith, a feminist research consultancy, and an SSHRC research fellow at the University of British Columbia. Her work focuses on women’s rights and access to social protection.