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South American women on the move

This article considers international female migration within and from South America.

South American migration offers important insights into the role of women in international migration. As Tanja Bastia notes in her video interview, here the proportion of women among migrants is relatively high compared to much of the world.

This is the case for both the internal rural-to-urban migration that took place during the last century and the intra-regional migration that has occurred since the 1950s. For example, roughly 60% of Peruvians in Chile and 57% of Paraguayans in Argentina are women.

During the last two decades, women also account for the majority of migrants who have headed to the United States and Europe, especially Spain and Italy.

Here we consider some main differences between those women who move between countries in South America and those who instead decide to migrate to the Global North.

1. Migration within South America has long been a driving factor for the expansion of women’s participation in the workforce, albeit often in low-paid sectors such as domestic labour and the garment industry. Historically, women migrants tended to be young and unmarried, and as independent and mobile individuals they challenged some of the traditional gender roles of women, e.g. as confined to the family and dependent on men.

More recently, older women, married and sometimes with children, have been the first of the family to migrate to work in cities in the relatively richer countries of Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Economic growth and the rise of an urban middle class in cities such as Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile have depended upon female migrant care workers in the absence of local public alternatives.

Women have had to endure very low-paid, insecure and socially isolated jobs and have often had to accept worse conditions during periods of economic crisis, such as the one that hit Argentina in the early 2000s. With the rise in migration of indigenous women over the last twenty years, especially from Bolivia and Paraguay, many have also faced discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity. At the same time, the proximity to countries of origin makes it easier for women to maintain transnational family and community ties when they migrate alone. Women have also established support networks in destination cities that facilitate female chain migration.

2. Since the 1990s there has been a marked increase in female migration to the United States and Europe, especially from Ecuador and Peru. Today, for instance, women comprise roughly 52% of the Ecuadorian population in Spain that numbers around 500,000 people and accounts for roughly 10% of the foreign population in the Spanish job market.

In contrast to the dominant pattern in Central America and Mexico, where men are usually the first family members to migrate to the US, South American women are just as likely to initiate migration as they head to Europe: it is often they who develop social networks upon reaching destinations, find housing and jobs, and organise the reunification of family members.

A key pull factor to migrate to Spain and Italy has been the sustained demand for care providers as more local women have entered the labour force. Simultaneously, the reduction of opportunities in South America in the face of successive economic downturns since the 1980s has pushed more people to migrate further afield.

Ecuadorian and Peruvian women in Europe tend to work in low-skilled sectors, such as domestic and care work and the restaurant and hotel industries, although working conditions vary considerably depending on one’s immigration status, time of arrival and the level of formality of employment. For instance, women who arrived in Spain prior to 2005 and who had overstayed their initial visa were able to legalise their status during the regularisation process of the same year, which allowed them to bring over their families, to look for better work and, if necessary, to receive unemployment compensation.

This situation contrasts starkly to the US where South American women have often remained undocumented long after their arrival and have thus experienced more acutely economic and social exclusion. This said, the vast majority of Peruvian and Ecuadorian workers in Italy and Spain remain in the lowest positions of the labour market and very few have experienced upward social mobility.

Since the global economic crisis began in 2008 there has been a notable rise in return migration to South America. For instance, the Ecuadorian population in Spain dropped by 56,466 between 2013 and 2014. During this period men, many of whom employed in the worst-hit sectors such as construction, experienced a greater growth in unemployment. While net employment in the domestic and care sectors has not decreased, the increase of women of other nationalities, e.g. Romanians, willing to take on jobs has led to a drop in pay and conditions. As a consequence, children have sometimes been sent back home to relieve migrant women of immediate family care and to lower the overall cost of living.

In sum, the ‘feminization’ of South American migration has been characterized by two main flows: migration to neighbouring countries where it easier to maintain family ties despite often extremely low-paid work, and migration to the Global North, usually to work in similar sectors but with relatively more opportunities for more secure employment.

Why do you think it is important to consider the issue of gender when we address migration? From your own experience and/or knowledge, are there any specific differences between men and women in relation to migration? Do you know of other examples where women represent the majority of a migrant group? If so, why do you think this is the case? Share your thoughts with your fellow learners in the comments.

© European University Institute
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