Challenges and Solutions for the Economic Empowerment of Forcibly Displaced Women.


It’s an honour to be a part of this panel of women leading the charge for women’s rights against all odds.  The determination on this panel and in this room uniquely brings together work that pushes back against the barriers that women have long faced, and the barriers created by the global crisis of forced migration. 

In discussing the problem, I would acknowledge some foundational truths.

At the very inception, the causes of forced migration are gendered. Conflict and persecution are exacerbated by how gender interacts with poverty, violence, exploitation, climate change – and power.

And we know how discrimination intersects. Forcibly displaced women are subject to discrimination and violence: as women yes, but as refugees and migrants, and due to other parts of their identities be it their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or disability. Together, these can be used to narrow the ability of women to take up decisions and be able to act in their own best interests. 

Perhaps as dangerously, it can create the perception that women do not have the ability, agency or authority to take up decisions and actions to improve their situation – relegating them to the passive role of victim only in the creation of law, policy and economic approaches. Let it be clear that a woman’s place is in those discussions!

The ability of women, their families and communities to cope with and rise out of cycles of displacement centres on women’s ability to gain access to their rights: education, decent work and health care, including sexual and reproductive rights. 

Limiting this discussion to tackling violence and economic empowerment in displacement, however, would be like trying to heal a diseased tree by removing the branches.

I would ask: how can we tackle the structures that compel the inequality that keeps women down, the violence and misogyny?

At Oxfam, we’re trying to do this in a number of ways.  We implement programming that supports protection and economic independence in displacement whilst challenging a rigged economy that thrives on keeping women down – regardless of their status. 

Women make up almost half of the quarter billion people who live outside their countries of birth, but gendered labor and stereotypes push them into precarious jobs on farms, in factories, and in private service positions that are under-regulated, if at all, and that provide no opportunities for redress when injuries or exploitation occur. UN Women, Women Working Worldwide: A Situational Analysis of Women Migrant Workers (September 2016). Refugees, migrants and other marginalized women are at the greatest risk.
The Commission on the Status of Women must recognise that making the economy work for women means fundamentally challenging the gender bias in the economy, the bias against informal and migrant workers, and enabling women to gain choice over the terms of the work they undertake. 

At Oxfam we know that three fundamental principles underlie how to achieve this: first, by focusing on ensuring that the poorest women, often refugees, migrants or indigenous women, gain access to decent work as part of the Agenda 2030 principle to ‘leave no one behind’. 

Secondly, by ensuring women are at the heart of designing the reforms needed to bolster their rights, as part of the principle of ‘nothing for us, without us’. And finally, by championing work environments for women, regardless of status, that reflect principles and rights embedded in international human and business frameworks and standards. 

Through the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, on which Oxfam International’s ED serves, and through Oxfam’s work, we’ve set out some specific approaches to do this that can be useful here. 

We’ve looked at the work that women do – paid and unpaid. In much of the world, refugee, migrant and other marginalized women do the vast majority of unpaid, or poorly paid, care work - challenging negative social norms around this type of labor is critical to achieving transformative change. 

So are policies for women in paid work that hold employers accountable for safe and decent working environments and hourly wages, establishing credible and effective complaint mechanisms, and so on, irrespective of migration status. 

There are also programmatic examples we can turn to. Oxfam works on the CLARA program in partnership with local groups and the Women’s Refugee Commission in Iraq and South Sudan. It’s an example of thoughtful, gendered programming that’s designed to promote the rights and needs of women, and the benefits are twofold: by bolstering protection and economic empowerment, and at the same time  building resilience among families and communities. 

Achieving women's economic empowerment in places of origin, transit and destination goes well beyond the immediate protection and resilience it extends to the individual woman involved. 

I’d like to share a story that exemplifies this: of the organizing of one “forcibly displaced” woman in a rural community in Sinaloa, Mexico. She led her community to demand that their displacement and persecution be recognized by the government and that their rights to protection, shelter, education and health care be realized. 

In 2012, Rosa and her entire community were forced from their ranches by organized criminal groups in the mountains of the Sierra Madre. Overnight, hundreds of people fled their ranches, cattle, crops, and way of life, not knowing when or if they would return. 

After days making their way through mountain roads and rural villages, they settled in a small city, sharing housing and whatever they had been able to bring with them. But without birth certificates, documentation, or connections, men and women could not find work, and children could not go to school. 

Although not a leader in the community before, Rosa took on this role now. She methodically wrote the names, ages, skills and education of every woman and man. She recorded the names, ages, and education needs of every child. She figured out how to get in touch with the Mexican Commission on Human Rights hundreds of miles away, and she sent this ‘census of sorts’ to the commission and demanded that the Commission recognize and help her community. 

Things were slow moving, and Rosa grew frustrated, but she continued to organize and speak out about the persecution and rights of her community. She was targeted and received death threats. She continued. 

More than a year later, her community received the first ever visit based on internal displacement from a national human rights commissioner. The experience of her community and their rights received media coverage and a national organization partnered with them to push for recognition. Families started gaining documentation of their identities and children started attending school. The host community helped with ongoing shelter and work access. 

Rosa is working now too. Her livelihood is used to support her son and first grandchild, continue her organizing, and help other community members in their struggles. Rosa’s community is surviving. There is no happy ending, but there is a new beginning

Rosa’s is a story of grit and courage in the face of persecution and devastation. Her fierceness is not unique among women forced to leave their homes.   

As her story demonstrates, while women are often the targets of violence and exclusion before, during and after displacement, they are also the lynchpin of families and proactive actors in the rebuilding of security and community regardless of location and circumstance. 

I end with three propositions: 

First: we know that right now Member States are engaged in the creation of two new global compacts on refugees and migration. 

These could be transformative if the measures put forward are gender-responsive and rights-based. And if they respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of women and girl refugees and migrants. 

As UNHCR, the IOM and DESA support member states through these processes, I would urge us all to push for the leadership and engagement of women refugees and migrants in policy formulation and their full and equal participation in decision-making. 

Secondly: I would urge that we take a holistic approach to forcibly displaced women’s economic empowerment. 

I would specifically urge decision-makers to do more to acknowledge the substantial contributions that women make to sustainable development and social change in countries of origin, transit and destination. 

This should include a prohibition on the criminalization of migrants and refugees wholly because of their status, and ensuring that refugee and migrant women have the same administrative and labor rights and protections as all other workers. 

But focusing simply on increased income for displaced women risks adding additional pressures; and may continue to push women into precarious and unsafe work. 

Instead we should aim to remove discrimination in laws; ensuring opportunities are equally accessible between men and women, girls and boys - be it in education, training, or access to productive resources; as well as increased control over decisions on how income is spent within the home, alongside greater investment to tackle harmful social norms that gender the experience of displacement. 

And finally: women’s human rights won’t be fulfilled until their voices are heard at all decision making levels from the local to the global, whether they are nationals, refugees, or migrants. 

Regardless of status, women should enjoy access to their economic, social, civil and political rights equal to that of men similarly situated in all contexts.  We build women’s economic leadership by building our influence and voice on governance, in decision-making institutions and at the household level. 

Upcoming global, regional, and national processes, including the UN compacts, but also peacebuilding conferences in Syria, South Sudan and so many other countries, must include female leadership very deliberatively and concretely – by putting women at the heart of agenda creation and among the table of decision-makers. 

Let’s explore this further in the discussion. Thank you. 


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