Preferences for Women Migrants from Gender-Unequal Countries: A Win for Migrants, Host, and Home Countries

December 20, 2016

Last week, surrounded by policymakers, civil society representatives, and migrants themselves from all over the world, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri addressed the Global Forum on Migration and Development. Her remarks emphasized the importance of making migration both “a right and an opportunity” for women, specifically by incorporating a gender perspective into the proposed Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Puri’s message is well taken: women currently make up half of the international migrant population, but continue to face unique risks and obstacles in migrating due to their gender. In an attempt to mitigate at least some of these gender-specific barriers, we’ve put together a new proposal, which focuses on providing entry preference to female economic migrants from “gender-unequal” countries.

The triple loss of gender discrimination in migration

The benefits of migration to migrating women themselves, sending, and receiving countries are well-documented. But across the world, women face higher barriers to migration than do men: in accessing the education and work experience that can help qualify them for visas, or in finding the resources necessary to move. And in some countries, women need the permission of husbands or fathers to get a job, to travel, or to obtain a passport. This is a loss to those who want to migrate and a self-inflicted wound on the countries they come from. It is also a loss to destination countries, which are denied the drive and talent of the women who don’t arrive. Recipient countries can help rebalance this inequality with a triple-win policy that benefits migrants, sending countries and themselves alike.

The triple win of selective preferences

Women coming from gender-unequal countries have the cards stacked against them before they even get on the plane. Their ability to emigrate despite this disadvantage suggests a higher capacity relative to male migrants coming from these same contexts, or migrants coming from gender-equal countries who face fewer barriers. And that suggests they are likely to contribute relatively more to recipient countries as well as increase flows of financial and social remittances back to their origin countries. Comparatively gender-equal countries using a points system as part of their immigration decision-making processes could give additional points to women from gender-unequal countries migrating for economic reasons to help reap these relative gains.

Canada’s immigration system, for example, works on a point system that considers six factors: language, education, experience, age, arranged employment, and adaptability. The country could add a seventh factor under this proposal giving points to women migrants from countries that legally discriminate against women in terms of freedom to travel, as it might be. Within countries that do not use a points system (e.g., the United States), policymakers should find other ways to preference these women—potentially introducing a visa quota category for female principal visa-holders from gender-unequal countries under employment-based visas.

There is a lot of work to be done to ensure that women benefit equally with men from migration—the biggest force for development that we know. Implementing an entry preference system would be a first step to ensuring that all people seeking to migrate in search of better opportunities do so on a more level playing field—and reap the benefits for themselves, their families, and their countries (both home and host) in the process. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.