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A World of Mobile Women

By Donna R. Gabaccia, Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota

How fortunate that the U.N. released its report on the state of world population 2006 as domestic commentators were pronouncing the death of immigration reform.

This accident of timing enabled its big news about women migrants to make the headlines. That, in itself, is big news for a world that often ignores migrants’ gender.

The U.N. Report is available online and it’s well worth reading. So are the follow-up reports that link local stories around the world to the report’s main themes: http://www.unfpa.org/swp/2006/english/introduction.html

Specialists have long known about the “feminization? of migration worldwide. Once less than a third of the mobile, women today make up almost half the total of the 180 million people who live outside their countries of birth. While many women work for low wages in service jobs or in factories, about a third are instead highly educated participants in a global market for professional and technical workers.

What is surprising about the U.N. report is the upbeat view it takes of this change. While acknowledging problems such as women’s invisibility to policy makers and the problems of trafficking and low wages, the U.N. report portrays women migrants as major economic players in the global economy.

The report suggests that the savings that women send home collectively constitute important international investments. These remittances far surpass the amounts rich nations offer poor nations as development aid. And remittances—some economic historians now tell us--explain how over the course of a century some of the most important countries of emigration (such as Ireland and Italy) now number among the global rich.

That’s not the portrait of immigrant women or remittances we’ve typically seen recently in either U.S. or European debates about migration.

In the U.S. both restrictionists and advocates consistently view immigrant women and their children as poor. For restrictionists, they are drains on welfare, health and education services not threats to American women’s jobs. For more sympathetic observers, immigrant women need greater protection to prevent their abuse, whether by criminal traffickers or exploitative employers.

In Europe, reports about immigrant women also focus on abuse but more often focus on their vulnerability to male tyrants, especially in Moslem families, and especially in the form of “honor killings? of daughters who reject arranged marriages. See for example: Deaths of South Asian women highlights tensions with immigrant communities in Italy


This week, California newspapers generally responded to the U.N. report by locating and speaking with immigrant women who work hard for low wages and who send remittances home to support their children.
Immigrant women make up 95 million of total migrant population
Report: Female immigrants earn less, but send more home

Predictably, the women interviewed were all poor Mexican women--not female engineers from Iraq or Bulgaria. Still, their individual voices were confident and clear. These are among the most detailed and upbeat portraits of articulate and savvy female immigrants to appear in the American media in quite some time.

Is the future economic development of the world increasingly in female hands? The immigrant women interviewed, unsurprisingly, are mainly concerned with their own children and their own families. Still, it’s a possibility worth pondering.
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Donna R. Gabaccia Director, Immigration History Research Center 311
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