These recommendations focus on women human rights defenders at risk in migration contexts (hereinafter, migrant women human rights defenders)–that is, women, girls and gender-diverse persons of all ages who promote and protect the human rights of people on the move, whether they are migrants themselves or not, regardless of their migration status, and irrespective of whether they self-identify as a woman human rights defender or use human rights concepts and language to frame their work.
People move within and across national borders for a variety of reasons. Some people are driven to migrate by entrenched gender inequalities, poverty, food insecurity, unemployment and other sources of economic precarity, as well as climate change, conflict and generalized violence and persecution. Others move to further their studies, pursue careers, explore opportunities, form families and reunite with family members. While migration can be a choice for women, an expression of their agency and a vehicle for their empowerment, many migrant women and girls continue to face risks that are specific to their gender, migration status, the ways they migrate and the geopolitical contexts of their movement. Migrant women and girls are at heightened risk of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, forced labour and trafficking, particularly when they cannot access safe and regular migration pathways. They are at risk of labour exploitation, especially when they work in poorly regulated sectors or in the informal economy. The risks of human rights violations are further exacerbated for girls, especially those unaccompanied or separated from their families.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes the positive contribution of migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable development. However, migration policies and laws often reproduce or reinforce gender inequalities. The following are some examples of gender-based discrimination imposed on women, girls and gender diverse persons by States:
- Limiting their mobility by direct and indirect discrimination based on sex, gender, age, disability, nationality, HIV status, race and ethnicity, religion, marital and family status, migration status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, sex characteristics, health status, pregnancy, place of residence, and economic and social situation.
- Banning them from migrating or imposing gender discriminatory restrictions, such as requiring them to have permission from a male guardian to travel, obtain a passport or gain employment.
- Preventing them from migrating if they are pregnant or have young children; deporting migrant women when they are pregnant.
- Adopting visa schemes that discriminate against migrant women, for example, by restricting their employment to certain job categories.
- Prohibiting migrant women from marrying nationals or permanent residents or becoming pregnant.
- Imposing strict restrictions on those who wish to join their spouses in another country.
- Refusing to recognize their status and rights in domestic laws, in particular those who have been trafficked, those seeking asylum, and those who are stateless.
Within households, the migration experience often reinforces, reproduces and increases differences in the distribution of unpaid care and domestic work. The absence of local support networks, restricted access to care services and obstacles to sending children to school due to the regulations of destination countries, lead many migrant women to disproportionately assume household and care responsibilities. Many end up taking jobs in the informal economy with precarious working conditions— jobs often linked to cleaning and caring for others, which not only perpetuate occupational gender segregation but often come at the expense of their own children, as well as exposing them to higher risk of domestic violence.
Colonialism, ethnonationalism, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, gender inequalities, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia not only shape the direct and indirect discrimination and risks that migrant women and girls face but also influence the responses of State and non-State actors. The global phenomenon of shrinking civic space, whereby States control and restrict the formation and operation of civil society organizations, reduces the capacities of migrant women human rights defenders to carry out their work collectively and individually. The deepening securitization of migration, the increased use of surveillance technologies, the militarization and externalization of border controls, the over-reliance on detention and deportation, and the widespread practice of pushbacks at land and sea borders increase the risks that migrant women human rights defenders face.
Migrant women human rights defenders promote and protect the rights of a wide range of people on the move, including migrant workers and their families; victims of forced labour and trafficking; people seeking asylum, refugees and stateless persons; those displaced within and across borders by conflict, disasters and climate change; undocumented migrants; and migrant children, some of whom are unaccompanied or separated from their guardians. Migrant women human rights defenders operate in diverse contexts and geographical areas, promoting and protecting a wide range of rights such as the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion; and the right to privacy. They also work on the right to freedom from discrimination, harassment and violence, including that based on sexuality and gender; labour rights; the right to food, shelter, health and education; as well as access to justice and the right to redress for grievances. Some migrant women human rights defenders also promote the right to gender equality; the right to family life; sexual and reproductive rights; as well as the right of everyone to promote and protect human rights.
Migrant women human rights defenders promote and protect rights in numerous ways, including by providing food, water, shelter, transport, education, integration support and health and medical assistance; taking action to save lives, including rescues at sea; documenting and publicizing human rights violations; accompanying migrants through dangerous routes and searching for missing migrants; reuniting families; facilitating access to justice, including through legal aid; and advocating for laws, policies and practices to protect the human rights of migrants. They also create safe spaces for migrant women and girls to develop trust, empower themselves and mobilize, build networks and engage in collective bargaining.
Migrant women human rights defenders promote and protect rights both individually and collectively; as State and non-State actors in professional and employmen trelated roles and as volunteers. They include, among others, leaders, workers, organizers and service providers in civil society organizations (including women’s, migrant, community, neighbourhood faith-based, trade-union, domestic-worker, sex-worker, academic, humanitarian, health, social welfare, search and rescue); as well as lawyers and journalists. They come from diverse backgrounds and cultural contexts, including Indigenous women, women from racial, ethnic and religious minorities, Afro-descendant women and nomadic women.
Migrant women human rights defenders are targeted not only for the rights that they defend, but also because their work transgresses dominant gender roles. Consequently, gender—together with other factors such as sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, sex characteristics, race, ethnicity, religion, social status, age, health, disabilities, occupations and migration status— deeply shapes the types of risks and violence that they confront. They may be subjected to public shaming and smear campaigns; sexual and gender-based violence including sexual harassment, gendered slurs, and “sexuality baiting”; threats against family members; direct and indirect discrimination; judicial harassment and criminalization; censorship; restrictions and reprisals for engaging with human rights mechanisms; threats to their status as citizens, residents, migrants or refugees; physical incarceration or restrictions to movement; and torture, killings and enforced disappearances. They may also be subject to digital surveillance, hacking and cyber violence, with misogynistic attacks conducted in online spaces. Threats online sometimes translate into physical attacks. Women defenders also face distinct risks in the private sphere—for example, being forcibly confined at home, subjected to verbal and physical abuse, and separated from their children because of their human rights work. In some cases, women human rights defenders and their families have had to go into exile because of the dangers they face, some crossing international borders to seek refuge.
Migrant women human rights defenders also face gendered risks related to the migration contexts in which they operate. Those who are migrants themselves, particularly those who are undocumented or in an irregular situation, generally face greater risks. These include digital and physical surveillance, racial profiling and public stigmatization; sexual and gender-based violence in the world of work, in places of incarceration and in other public and private spaces; deprivation of status and deprivation of liberty; arrest, detention and deportation; refoulement; and torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and enforced disappearances. These threats and attacks affect not only migrant women and girls themselves but also their families, communities and organizations.
Of deep concern is the criminalization of migrant women human rights defenders through legislation aimed at managing immigration, countering terrorism, combating transnational organized crime, including trafficking in persons, and strengthening national security, among others. Migrant women human rights defenders face risks from a range of State actors, such as customs and border patrol agents, police, immigration officers, maritime patrols, security forces, intelligence officers, prosecutors and government officials. They also face risks from nonState actors, such as criminal gangs, paramilitaries, militias, fundamentalist and extremist groups, private security companies, private recruitment agencies, smugglers, traffickers as well as from their employers and other migrants. Impunity emboldens perpetrators of threats and attacks against migrant women human rights defenders.