COVID Does Not Discriminate, An Unequal World Does

Policies recommendations and responses should be framed based on effective monitoring and evaluation of well-documented gender-based data.

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Statistics by the United Nations/ Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN/DESA) reveal that there are 172 million migrant workers worldwide and women constitute roughly 40 per cent of this population. Women migrants form a huge percentage of the workforce of many countries, including India, contributing significantly to the global economy. Yet, they are among the most vulnerable population groups as many reports have documented that women workers are majorly concentrated in the informal economy characterised by precarious living conditions, low wages, no social protection, and immense discrimination. The phenomenon of migration is not new in India, albeit, the immensity of the dependence of the economy on the migrant workforce is a new realisation. The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 has emanated an unparalleled impact on the complexities of the already marginalised women migrant workers. The consequences of this pandemic are worse for women migrant workers since their concerns are invisible, their work is undocumented and they face increasing levels of abuse and violence, especially those employed as domestic workers and caregivers.


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Even during these times, when migration issues and challenges are widely discussed on every public platform, there are hardly any reports or news articles specifically arguing for the rights and issues of women migrant workers.

The important question to be addressed here is why there is an inherent tendency to not see women and recognise their work, while discussing migration challenges.

In the similar context, the Global Research Forum on Diaspora and Transnationalism (GRFDT) organised a webinar titled ‘Migration, Gender, and COVID-19: Socio-Economic and Policy Perspectives’ on 18 May 2020. Eminent scholars and experts worldwide shared their experiences and insights on the subject and provided policy suggestions to tackle the challenges involving women’s migration and COVID-19.

Discrimination in an Unequal World
COVID does not discriminate, an unequal world does, said Prof. Kamala Ganesh, Scholar in Residence, Shiv Nadar University. While moderating the panel discussion, shesaid that due to the gendered division of labour and persuasive patriarchal norms, women are expected to be the primary caregivers. The implication of the pandemic and nationwide lockdown on women has resulted in increased labour as schools, colleges, and workplaces are closed and people are at home.It is far more challenging for women working in the organised sector with white-collar jobs, since they are constantly struggling between maintaining their professional responsibilities and work at home. The main concern about the current topic of migration is those people who are working in the informal sector and low-end jobs, as they are the most vulnerable populations for COVID.

Prof. Margaret Walton-Roberts, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, highlighted the significance of care labour in the health economy and domination of women migrants in the health sector. She said women’s paid inclusion in the labour market has increased globally, but the fact remains that men have not taken up much of the double burden of social reproductive tasks.Hence, in many higher-income nations such as the US or Canada, there’s increased reliance and often marginalisationto provide child and elder, a low-paid care and domestic service.

Ambassador Manju Seth,Former Ambassador to Madagascar, observed that there is invisible and undocumented work of women migrants which needs to be brought into forefront. COVID-19 has affected everybody, but the women domestic workers are the most affected groups. Their living conditions do not allow social distancing and they have limited or no access to health care services. These women are trapped in difficult and fragile situations and cannot even return to their home countries owing to abusive and complicated procedures.


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Aparna Rayaprol, Professor and Former Head, Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad, spoke on the impact of COVID-19 on the issue of gender and migration. She said the care economy is the place that is extremely gendered whether in terms of nurses, domestic workers, and the caregivers to the large aging population of our country, especially during the spread of the virus. The care economy prefers to have a female worker inside the homes, rather than male workers.The focus on gender and migration is extremely significant in all directions incorporating the intersectionalities and invisiblisation of work of these women.

Informal Sector Women Remain the Most Vulnerable

Paddy Siyanga Knudsen, Migration Governance Analyst based in Malaysia, observed that the informal economy is largely dominated by women in trade and services because they couldn’t get space in the public and formal sectors of employment.

There has been a lot of rural migration, particularly where women are working as domestic workers.

Hence,migration is driven by work within the urban centres. It is a growing informal sector, but women are mainly left behind with no literacy rate.

Immigrant women not as victims, rather as game changers and fighters

Prof. Annapurna Pandey, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA, observed thatin the COVID-19 pandemic migrants are main victims. The US is putting all kinds of restrictions to stop migration by using COVID-19 as an excuse. There has been tremendous discrimination when it comes to the visa situation in the states. Women, those who are migrating, become dependants, who are mostly very highly educated professional, but they are not allowed to work which reflects the tremendous disparity in terms of women’s empowerment in the US.

There has been only limited freedom of movement during the lockdown to seek alternative solutions for the living expenses, or at best to go home. These are unlikely during the strict regulations of national health systems. This strict lockdown also exposes migrant women and girls for gender-based violence, where they are restricted to move around for secure places.

The Way Forward

There is a need to implement policies and measures incorporating and adopting a feminist agenda for making the invisible work of women migrants visible, voicing their issues fearlessly, and breaking the vicious cycle of abuse and discrimination. There should be the inclusion of women migrant workers in the COVID-19 policy responses to ensure recognition of social justice and equality. Government should incorporate women migrant workers as their target population for various frameworks related to COVID-19 policies, with special attention to the concerns of women, such as access to health services, their safety during the lockdown, and the increased cases of gender-based violence. Women migrant workers, who are working as health care providers against COVID-19, should be provided with necessary safety equipment, legal, social protection, and financial entitlements. Policies recommendations and responses should be framed based on effective monitoring and evaluation of well-documented gender-based data.