On 5 March 2020, the EU adopted its long-awaited gender equality strategy 2020-2025. Less than one week later, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

The pandemic has revealed in stark terms the gender-related dimensions of inequality. It has exposed and worsened systemic inequalities linked to: under-regulated and under-protected forms of work in our economy, where women are often overrepresented; porous social safety nets that fail to protect all those in need; and structural racism that is driving disparate health outcomes for people of colour. It has underscored the need for an inclusive and intersectional approach to gender equality that reaches across policy domains to ensure and protect women’s safety, social and economic rights, while engaging with them as critical agents of change.

In the case of migrant women, the pandemic has exposed the profound undervaluing of their work in areas like health care, education, cleaning, food services, farm work, child and elder care. Confinement and physical distancing measures have cut off their access to vital sources of support and exposed some to a greater risk of violence in their homes or workplaces.

Underpinning this reality are migration systems that entrench structural asymmetries of power and opportunity. Access to decent work permits in Europe is largely restricted to highly qualified people who can secure high incomes, excluding people of all genders with lower socio-economic status. Racism – on personal, institutional and structural levels – is also a major barrier to access high-income employment. Women, transgender and gender non-binary also face gender-based discrimination throughout the migration process. This results in numerous barriers to getting the jobs that would grant them decent and stable work permits and the incomes needed to bring their families with them. They are at particular risk of high levels of sexual and other violence when they travel in an irregular manner. Women are also more likely to be on spouse-dependent visas than men. If the relationship on which their status depends breaks down – for instance, because of domestic violence – they risk becoming undocumented.

Once undocumented, measures aiming to reduce irregular migration through border, control, criminalisation, detention and deportation, have specific and discriminatory effects on safety, security and rights. Women, transgender and gender non-binary people face restrictions on services and justice when they are undocumented, which can have gender-specific impacts, and heighten their risk of living in situations of economic and social precarity. As they are often women of colour with a low income, undocumented women experience specific, intersecting forms of discrimination.

PICUM welcomes the EU’s commitment to developing and implementing a gender strategy and urges the implementation of a forward-thinking and inclusive program of work that strives to achieve real change in the lives of all women, without discrimination.

Part of this must include specific and concrete efforts to develop a gender-responsive approach to EU migration and asylum, so that policies integrate and address the rights and interests of women and girls, particularly in areas of regular migration, international protection, detention and return. EU migration and asylum policies should be re-oriented towards sustainable, humane, non-criminalising approaches to both regular and irregular migration.

Cover: jhudel baguio on Unsplash

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