New Role Models: Amplifying migrant women’s voices in policy is the key to creating truly gender equal Europe

What policies can help create a more positive narrative around migrants, especially women, who are trying to enter the local workforce? Banner image: Shutterstock/Clive Chilvers
New Role Models: Amplifying migrant women’s voices in policy is the key to creating truly gender equal Europe

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Many migrant women face challenges when searching for employment in new communities, or are forced to take jobs they are overqualified for because their work experience and education are often not recognised by their host country. Newcomers are forced to wait months or even years before they receive recognition of skills—if they receive recognition at all. 

On top of this, important information about the job market is also missing: where jobs are advertised, how interviews are conducted and differences in culture often hinder many women from finding job opportunities. Employers are more likely to hire native-born employees, so even if you manage to navigate the system the likelihood of securing the position over someone from the host community can be lower. 

Migrant women, and of them especially refugees, have faced new barriers resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The disproportionate representation of women at the front line of care in essential industries—combined with the general lack of preventative measures and access to medical care and insurance—resulted in higher rates of infection in migrant communities, often combined with inadequate treatment options. At the same time, the crisis has been an opportunity to reveal the significant proportion of migrant workers in the healthcare sector, and their fundamental role in helping governments respond to the pandemic. While being a health crisis, the pandemic has also brought into stark contrast the gendered inequalities that exist in our societies, demonstrated by the increase in gender-based violence and disproportionate home and family responsibilities. With the digital switch resulting from COVID-19, many women don’t have access to laptops or mobile phones, and we are missing these women in our COVID-19 responses.

Read more on the Forum Network: Why We Must Act Now to Ensure Immigrants Have Equal Opportunity for Economic Mobility by Esther Benjamin, CEO and Executive Director, World Education Services (WES)

These are just a few examples of the barriers faced by migrant women in host communities. In our work, New Women Connectors has found that one of the main barriers to inclusion faced by migrant women—which is connected to all challenges to successful integration—is the negative image of migrant and refugee women in Europe. Many newcomer women report feeling stigmatised in daily life and activities, and suffer negative responses to their visual appearance and clothing. Since the reframing of refugee men from persons at risk to persons of risk post 2015, the idea that all women are oppressed by their male counterparts has taken hold in their host countries. This image of refugee women as passive victims creates a hierarchy between “helpers” and those “receiving help”. 

Women are often victimised in their host communities, and this victimisation transforms refugee women from active agents into passive beneficiaries of assistance. Even with “good intentions”, the image that policy makers and host communities hold of migrant women, and in particular  refugees, is often biased, perceiving them as uneducated housewives, when in reality they are often overqualified for the positions they are hired for. This bias filters into every narrative about them and every policy created for them; until it is addressed, migrant and refugee women will never be able to fully participate in their host communities. 

To address these issues and foster more inclusive economies and societies, we must first and foremost adopt a bottom-up approach to policy making, which promotes the active participation of migrant women, especially those who are refugees and/or stateless. There is a clear absence of migrant women’s voices in policy design and debate. Migrant women living in Europe are rarely consulted on the issues affecting them, so many details are missed and the possibilities to adapt services and access according to their actual needs remain limited. It is essential for refugee women and refugee-led organisations to be partnered with, funded and consulted to enable them to have a voice in decision-making processes. More inclusive policy making and consultation processes are necessary to overcome the gaps between policies and affected people. 

That being said, we must engage in genuinely meaningful participation to ensure that we avoid the tokenisation of newcomer women. Institutions, civil society organisations and policy makers need to start practising deep listening. When migrant, especially refugee and stateless women speak up, we deserve for our expertise and lived experiences to be listened to with respect and compassion. For us, this is the first step of solidarity needed in order to tackle the issue of gender equality and migration in Europe. Even when included in policy conversations, the concerns of migrant and refugee women are far too often considered as mere opinions and background noise, and are not truly considered in decision-making. The stories of migrant and refugee women should be told by the people who live them, and  used to  change  the  system, avoid  tokenism  and  create  new  and  inclusive structures. 

While there are many barriers and challenges in achieving social and economic inclusion of refugee and more generally migrant women living in Europe, if we address and tackle the underlying root causes, and co-ordinate our efforts between social movements, we can work towards—and achieve—a truly inclusive and equal Europe.  

  • Upgrade immigrant women’s responsibility in designing integration policy and settlement services, and promote “enabling policies” to allow equal access opportunities to integration and labour market services while avoiding stigmatisation. Adequate resourcing is required for consistent and sustainable participation. We recommend investment in a “Gender Equality Expert Women Migrant Advisory Board” to create systemic engagement in the policy design process.
  • Change the narrative on immigrant women from burdens to assets. Since 2015, my advocacy for equal and inclusive integration policies has reminded me that we need to make sure using “change the narrative” in policymaking is not just a catchphrase. There is a clear need to demonstrate how to rewrite and effectively communicate migrant women’s narrative, moving from “passive receivers” to “resilient doers”; in fact, we need to address our very understanding of, and practice towards narratives. Evaluating our internal approaches—as well as what are specifically aiming to change—means unpacking what our own narrative about it is. 

The voices and lived experiences of women are invaluable if we are to create inclusive policies—if we are to be treated as equal partners in the planning, implementation and evaluation of programmes, policies and laws that affect us. Women migrant-led organisations connect lived experiences that need visibility, more resources and an enabling environment, and multi-stakeholder action on migration must prioritise and facilitate opportunities co-designed by them. 

As it has been acknowledged, inclusive policies require the involvement of women migrants in their planning, implementation, and evaluation. So: 

  • How can we change the current narrative of migrant women as victims and incorporate these considerations into the policy evaluation process?
  • How can we create indicators that measure migrant women’s involvement in policy design as co-developers/co-designers rather than only as beneficiaries? Similarly, how can we track our progress changing narratives and avoiding tokenisation?
  • How can we ensure that there are sufficient investments in policies and programmes to advance gender equality for migrant women and meet their needs?
  • How can the allocation of flexible investments towards diverse, women-migrant led efforts become a priority instead of an afterthought?

Find more about global migration in the OECD International Migration Outlook 2021

Learn more on how COVID-19 affected immigrants and their children in the OECD Covid-19 Policy Response

Related Topics

Migrants' Integration Tackling COVID-19 Gender Equality


Go to the profile of Lily
7 months ago

Excellent article Anila! I agree with your observations and proposed solutions. It calls for deliberate and joint action to change the status quo. Most of the time we think that we understand problems that affect refugees and migrant women, in fact we believe that we have the answers/solutions and take lightly their input, then we are surprised why our efforts are not having the kind of impact we had hoped for. Happy to connect to see how I can be of help.