Women and girls are likely to experience a continuum of gender-based violence at all stages of migration, from bullying and verbal, physical and psychological abuse to sexual violence. Incidences of violence often take place not once but multiple times, along the route in the country of origin, while in transit, on arrival in the country of destination and upon return. Along certain migration routes, the risk of gender-based violence is particularly high. For instance, in one study conducted with migrants who had travelled along the Mediterranean route from Northern Africa to Italy, it was estimated that 90 per cent of the women and girls who participated in the study were raped at some point during their journeys. In addition, some migrant women, particularly those who are using irregular channels, face increased risk of becoming victims of trafficking in persons, especially for the purpose of sexual exploitation, as well as labor exploitation and domestic servitude.
The threat or experience of gender-based violence can be a factor compelling women and girls to migrate. In the Horn of Africa, for example, women and girls migrate to escape gender-based violence and other harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage. In some instances, women’s decision to migrate can lead to increased risks of violence from parents or guardians, intimate partners or community members that do not agree with their decision.
Migration policies and laws often reproduce or reinforce gender inequalities. Gender-specific restrictions and bans, including those that aim to protect women and girls from risks of exploitation and abuse, may result in further limiting women’s and girls’ opportunities to access regular migration channels, thereby increasing their risk of gender-based violence along irregular and riskier routes. Gender-based violence is committed by a variety of actors including smugglers, human traffickers, authorities (i.e. police and border guards), intimate partners or other migrants. Smugglers are key perpetrators of violence against migrant women and girls worldwide; a survey of nearly 2,000 respondents who experienced or witnessed gender-based violence revealed that along the East and Horn of Africa migration corridor, smugglers were responsible for 90 per cent of such incidents. Often using ‘go now, pay later’ schemes, smugglers charge exorbitant fees for migrants to continue their journey, often resulting in debt bondage and increasing migrant women’s risk of forced labor, sexual exploitation, including forced prostitution, and survival sex, i.e. providing sex as ‘payment’ for safe passage.
Aware of the high risk of gender-based violence, many migrant women take precautions as a way to prevent unwanted pregnancy in cases of rape. For Eritrean women transiting through Libya on their way to southern Europe, it was reported that such precautions not only included taking injectable contraceptives, but also in some cases traveling while pregnant or with younger children in an effort to prevent the risk of experiencing violence. However, it is unknown whether this increased the risk to the children with whom they were traveling. Furthermore, many married women migrating through North Africa do so separately from their husbands, as they are aware that if their husbands attempted to intervene if they were being assaulted, they would likely be killed.
In countries of transit or destination, migrant women, especially those who are undocumented, often lack access to decent work and social protection. They are therefore more likely to accept deplorable working conditions, with many working in the informal economy with limited or no labor protection, exacerbating their risk of gender-based violence, abuse and exploitation in the workplace.Migrant women are less likely to report cases of gender-based violence for fear of losing their job, partner or residency status. For example, in the United States, low-paid migrant farm workers and janitors are often subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault by their supervisors, which they tend not to report for fear of repercussions.
Migrant women whose residency status is dependent on their partners are at high risk of intimate partner violence and domestic violence, and do not report such incidences for fear of deportation. Furthermore, sponsorship systems, such as the Kafala system found in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, place migrant women in situations of heightened vulnerability, as they cannot freely enter or leave the country or resign from or change employment, forcing them to endure violence and harassment.
In addition, migrant women who are victims of trafficking may not report their situation of exploitation due to fear for their personal safety and of reprisals from traffickers, as well as due to the fear of being treated by state authorities as criminals or offenders. Rather than respecting the safety and rights of trafficking victims, authorities often use the threat of criminal and administrative charges, including deportation, in order to get them to coercively assist in investigations.