Strengthening policy responses to advance all women’s, including migrant women’s, empowerment and gender equality during COVID-19

IOM Office UN (NY)
6 min readJun 21, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic should be seen as a pivotal opportunity to reset the dial on access to rights for migrant women, and promote their agency and leadership in order to build back better. This was one of IOM, the UN Migration Agency’s key messages when driving the discussion at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)’s 65th session.

This year’s CSW65, the United Nations’ largest gathering on gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s rights, has set out robust blueprint in eliminating gender-based violence and in strengthening women’s leadership and participation in public life, including for women on the move.

The agreed conclusions, which UN Member States adopted unanimously under the priority theme of women’s participation, contain recommendations to adopt national gender-responsive migration policies and legislation; to protect the human rights of all migrant women and girls, regardless of migration status; to protect migrant women and girls against all forms of violence, exploitation and abuse. It also recognize the positive contribution of migrant women and girls and their potential to foster inclusive growth and sustainable development in their countries of origin, transit and destination.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a “shadow epidemic” of violence against women, this strong pledge is a vital step to ensure migrant women are included in recovery decisions that protect their rights, meet their demands, and acknowledge their contributions on the road to achieve sustainable development.

Opening of Sixty-fifth Session of Commission on Status of Women © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

It is encouraging to see that gender and migration being more systematically incorporated into global policy frameworks. According to the IOM’s World Migration Report 2020, migrant women represent around 74% of the service industry, which includes domestic work, who in many cases experience job insecurity. Some initial assessments have shown that they have been amongst the hardest hit by COVID-19 related unemployment. Due to the subsequent movement restrictions, jobs losses, cramped living situations and economic pressures with support services which remain temporarily closed, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence has intensified. Migrant women and girls are particularly vulnerable in these situations due to language and information barriers. Migrant women are still “left behind” when policies, laws and programmes fail to consider migrants’ needs from a gender perspective and to recognize migration and development are inextricably linked.

Going forward, concrete actions are needed to scale up support to all women, including migrant women, who may be in need of services, protect them from harmful repercussions of the crisis, and ensure they are included in accessing the COVID-19 measures implemented by the destination countries including financial support packages and social protection. Doing so would also strongly acknowledge their vital role for their families and communities, as well as the value of migrant women’s labour in keeping many countries’ health and social care systems and households running during this crisis.

Afghanistan © Angela Wells/IOM 2021

IOM worked to advocate and build awareness on this issue together with UN Women and partners at the Commission. Dialogues were organized to draw attention to the realities of the situation faced by women during COVID-19, to advocate for all COVID-19 related preparedness and recovery plans to address violence against women and girls and ensure that these efforts are adequately resourced, to advocate for women’s equitable access to essential services, gender-responsive legal protections, so as to realize the economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights of migrant women.

A high-level virtual event was co-organized by IOM and UN Women on “the importance of eliminating gender-based violence to help ensure migrant women’s effective participation and decision-making in public life”, in partnership with the Group of Friends of Migration, the European Union, UNFPA, UNICEF and Women in Migration Network. The event was moderated by IOM Deputy Director General, Laura Thompson. Opening remarks was delivered by H.E. Amb. Alicia Buenrostro, Deputy Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations. A moderated panel discussion featured speakers from European Commission, UN Women, UNFPA, UNICEF, Women in Migration Network (WIMN), and concluding remarks was provided by H.E. Amb. Brian Flynn, Deputy Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations.

Ms. Wen Li, Director of Department of International Cooperation and Partnerships participated as a panelist in a side event entitled “COVID-19 and Violence Against Women in Migration: Policy Responses” organized by the NGO Committee on Migration, and called for ensuring women’s participation in decision making, as well as for strengthening advocacy on the increased risk of GBV during the pandemic, targeting particularly employers, law enforcement and social service providers.

Bangladesh © Amanda Nero/IOM 2016

An IOM institutional statement was delivered during the general discussion. Main messages include:

Firstly, there is no “one size fits all approach” in responding to this crisis: If we don’t address the specific needs and vulnerabilities of people on the move in an intersectional way, then these groups will fall through the cracks, which will further compound inequality levels and negatively impact sustainable development. It is vital to apply a gender lens to the design of fiscal stimulus packages and social assistance programmes to achieve greater equality, opportunities, and social protection.

Secondly, promoting inclusion of migrants: Migration is essential for creating a cohesive and inclusive society. It is important to include migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, stateless persons and IDPs, are able to access health services, and be included in the pandemic response, such as having access to the vaccine. This can be achieved through a range of efforts aimed at disseminating accurate information based on facts, fostering tolerance, bringing communities together through meaningful engagement, and taking positive measures that lift barriers leading to discrimination.

Thirdly, addressing structural inequalities so no one is left behind: We must “build better forward” to achieve a sustainable world by tackling structural inequalities based on ethnicity and race, for example, through affirmative action and positive inclusive measures, laws and policies, as well as by communicating, advocating, and acting through actions and programs that ensure effective equal access to opportunities and rights for all, in the areas of health, education and work.

Last, the development of the Global Compact for Migration, and the creation of the UN Network on Migration, presents an important framework for States to continue enhancing the international framework for protecting the rights of women and girls on the move.

“We need to move beyond fixing women and instead fix our systems. We must also support women leaders in all their diversity and abilities — including young women, migrant women, indigenous women, women with disabilities, women of colour and LGBTIQ+.” — United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at the opening of CSW65

Bentiu, South Sudan © Amanda Nero/IOM 2016

It has been clear that the agreed conclusions attested the Commission’s commitment to leave no one behind and represented the strong unity of women’s voices, including those on the move. The hard work now begins to ensure these commitments are reflected in progress at regional, national and sub-national levels, with the full engagement of stakeholders, to ensure governments design and implement policies that provide real impact to address the lives of women and girls.

The article was written by Xin Guo, Migration Policy Officer of IOM Office to the United Nations



IOM Office UN (NY)

International Organization for Migration UN Office | Promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all | IOM Global: IOM - UN Migration