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Migration and the Perpetuating Discrimination Against Women’s Health: A Public Health Perspective

In literary terms, migration typically involves the movement of individuals internationally; from undeveloped countries to higher developed ones or nationally; from rural to urban areas. This move is primarily incentivized by economic stability, employment and an overall amelioration of socio-economic status. The ideal nature of migration is best captured by Ben Ki-Moon; a South-Korean politician, who edified it as an “expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future” which is a part of the “makeup of the social fabric”. In recent cases, however, the reality contrasts this idyllic image almost entirely.  Rather it is prevalent in the form of displacement and an abysmal search of refuge from war and disease inflicted areas; termed more commonly as involuntary or forced movement. As a result of which, a large number of these migrants constitute women and children; raising public health concerns surrounding women’s health.

According to a report conducted by United Nations in 2017, 48.4% of the approximate 258 million migrants worldwide were women. In some countries, including in Ghana, Guatemala, and India, this number has exceeded to over 56%. Many of these migrants, upon arrival in host cities, countries, etc. occupy minimum waged jobs in hopes to settle quickly – most commonly by men who are pressurized into providing for the family. Regardless of their educational backgrounds or prior experiences, migrants are left with jobs that vary from labour jobs at warehouses, construction, to even working overtime in retail stores with a simple goal of providing for their family. Candidates are selected for such jobs based primarily on gender, age, as well as their ability to speak the native language of the host region. Historically, women in underdeveloped nations are less likely to have access to educational opportunities, which does not bode well with adapting to higher educational standards. This again, most commonly discriminates against women, especially of older age who are also unable to lift heavy weights or work long hours compared to men.

The need to escape, whether it is domestic violence, war, disease, or the poor living conditions, justifies the actions of many women to seek advice and shelter from external sources. The road to such resources, however, is quite often full of unbidden turbulence involving people who promise safety in host regions – more often that not, border authorities are also bribed to safely escort migrant women and children to “safer” places. This process is most evident in North Korean defector cases, where women and children bribe typically bribe either North Korean or Chinese authorities to help them flee the country. In most cases, the defectors are caught by the government and sanctioned for a death penalty. However, in ones, where their attempts to cross borders are successful, the journey is unfathomably difficult.

Many take this journey up by foot travelling through many countries including Singapore, Malaysia, China – left to starve for days until they reach the host country; South Korea. Contrarily, others are exploited and assaulted to their own end. Women lose their more than just freedom, and young girls lose more than their virginity. The terrors tear up their dignity, integrity, and their human rights into shreds. Unprotected from the justice system, females also face an escalated risk of contracting various sexually transmitted diseases. They are left to choose between returning back to North Korea where they will be sentenced to a brutal death or living through the assault and experiencing the never before whiff of freedom from a grisly regime. For many, it is the latter of the two. Consequentially, the unbearable psychological and physiological scars leave majority of the migrants traumatized for the rest of their lives.

For countless women globally, the unspeakable terrors of seeking refuge exacerbate an already elevated vulnerability to exploitation, sexual violence, and many other brutal forms of oppression. Fundamentally, the root causes of exploitation lie within the type of immigration; i.e., a woman who is involuntarily migrating into a country is more likely to face greater exploitation than a woman who moves voluntarily. Doubtlessly, involuntary movement comes with greater complications that involve a lack of proper documentation, or a lack of access to their documents by their employers or escorts who bring them into a host nation, city, etc. This is rooted in the dangers of sex trafficking especially prominent in young girls; who once recruited into this process are given little to no autonomy over their bodies or their documents. Indeed, the best way for them to stay alive is to continue working under the oppressive rule of their escorts (traffickers).

Furthermore, the unawareness of laws and inability to speak the host nation’s native language can prohibit these women further from seeking redress from legal authorities in a “foreign land”. The fear of facing the unknown in a new land can hence be worsened when supplemented with these complications. Leaving these women vulnerable to sexual assaults and exploitation simply to remain safe or seek economic stability. As many immigrant women would describe it as “paying with their bodies”. This is not a survival tactic perpetrated by these women, rather an obligation to provide for and protect their families amidst an unknown environment.

Melvin, a 35-year-old mother from Guatemala reveals the aforementioned vulnerability and “risking it all” to pursue a journey from Guatemala to Texas via the Rio Grande on a raft. She had paid men in the United States to safely get her settled in Texas, in hopes to start a new life with her children. Rather, her reality was altered when these same men drugged her with cocaine and other intoxicating pills simply to place her in a room where she would be assaulted and raped countless times over the course of four months. She states that “she had been raped to the point where they didn’t even see her as a human being”. Melvin’s story is one of many migrant women across the globe, of whom over 70% of them go unreported and unprosecuted every year. Men whose authority seems to define a country’s legal system to such vulnerable women, disregard their basic human rights in scrutinizing ways. Though women speak about such brutality in open courtrooms, many are still in the shadows of feminist movements, worried about their safety every breathing minute.   

Read : In a Border Courtroom, a Migrant Woman Confronts Her Biggest Fear

The increased vulnerability to sexual exploitation causes women to live precariously as is, however, when supplemented with high poverty rates and a pandemic, these conditions get much worse. As in many parts of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has cost the jobs of many individuals and escalated numerous companies into bankruptcy. But for the less fortunate, the lack of jobs has come with starvation, a lack of health care, and for the women – a surprisingly increasing risk of domestic violence leading to life-threatening reproductive disorders including HIV and other STD’s. Approximately 55% of migrant women informed CARE international regarding the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on not only their physical health but also described it as an “unpaid source of stress and psychological trauma”. Alongside poor living conditions, women constitute majority of the informal sector (individuals that work or operate businesses in unprotected or unlicensed areas); which has been hit the hardest in this pandemic. As a result, women in developing or underdeveloped nations face worse reproductive or menstrual hygiene than they previously did. Not only does this pandemic effect their reproductive hygiene, it has drastic effects on the mental health especially psychological development of young girls. Gender based violence has reached its peak since the start of COVID-19 and continues to detriment the livelihood, mental health, and basic hygiene of women worldwide.

Such is the case in India, a country that reached a poverty ranking of 49 in a mere two months and poverty strikes nearly 22% of the population. In order to seek employment, individuals (mostly men) migrate from areas including Bihar, Assam, etc. to the bigger Metropolitan cities such as Maharashtra and Delhi, totalling around 54 million migrants. With the lockdown in place, individuals fear financial crisis but most importantly, the impending fear of starvation. Furthermore, an absence of transport facilities during this time, migrant labourers, infants, pregnant women, and even the elderly walked thousands of miles barefoot to their native areas. On top of the fear of starvation and financial crisis, the pregnant women were at risks of miscarriage and other life-threatening conditions. While some were able to reach home safely, others weren’t so lucky and lost theirs alongside the lives of their unborn children. This isn’t the fault of a man who fails to take care of his wife, rather the nation’s public health department that has failed to take care of those most vulnerable to the side effects of the pandemic. Reverse migration i.e. migration back to the native land, is highly likely to affect the country negatively, alongside raising the jeopardy of contamination and infection. Along the process of migration, numerous elderlies, women – especially pregnant women are prone to suicidal tendencies in a belief that their families will not be able to afford health care or the basic necessities of food and shelter.

Alongside neglecting basic necessities of women in developing and underdeveloped nations, the unspeakable laws of social membership have forgotten the essential elements of human rights. The mystery isn’t deciphering the cause of migration for these women, rather determining how the prevalence of involuntary cases leads to greater obstacles in obtaining adequate health care in host countries. The need for an activist endeavor against this discrimination is very well encapsulated in Susan B. Anthony’s infamous quote “The true republic: men, their rights, and nothing more: women, their rights and nothing less.” The change mustn’t just occur within the legal system to protect the unprotected, but also within the community to normalize raising a voice against brutal oppression. 

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