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MIGRATION-LATIN AMERICA: Many Women Seek New Life Across Borders

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Mar 3 2006 (IPS) - Seven years ago, Melania decided to leave her native Peru to try her luck as a domestic employee in Chile, prompted by the difficult economic situation in her home country. She was followed soon after by her boyfriend and, later, her two sisters.

Melania, 36, is one of millions of women who leave their home countries every year to look for work abroad, although their life in a new country may be as or more difficult than the one they left behind.

“I was the first person in my family to travel abroad, and I was afraid that I would miss my parents and sisters very much,” Melania told IPS.

She worked for four years as a live-in maid, with one day off a week. Her salary was large enough for her to send remittances to her family, and this motivated her two sisters to come to Santiago where they also worked in private homes, cooking, cleaning and ironing.

Although Melania, who got married and had a child in Chile, has been fortunate enough not to have personally experienced discrimination or abuses of her labour rights, she has heard of such cases when meeting fellow Peruvians living in Chile, who tell of long working hours, no employment contracts and no access to social benefits.

Their situation is described in detail in the study “Migrant Women of Latin America and the Caribbean: Human Rights, Myths and Harsh Realities,” published on Feb. 22 by the Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Centre (CELADE), the Population Division of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

The study investigated the human rights situation of women migrants from the region, identified their main problems, the international legal instruments that exist for the promotion and protection of their rights, and the challenges that remain. The statistics showed that there were 180 million international migrants worldwide, of whom almost half were women, many of them travelling alone, usually in search of better labour markets.

The trend towards increasing participation by women in migration flows is seen all over the world, but Latin America was the first region to reach parity in the numbers of men and women migrants.

Latin American women basically migrate to neighbouring countries that have a higher level of development, the United States, and powerful countries in other regions, such as Spain and Japan.

In 2000, the South American countries that absorbed the most migrants were Argentina (35.1 percent) and Venezuela (25.4 percent). There were considerable flows of Colombian women to Venezuela and Ecuador, Nicaraguan women to Costa Rica, and Peruvian women to Chile.

According to the 2002 census, 195,320 foreign nationals were residing in Chile: 50,448 Argentines, 39,084 Peruvians, 11,649 Bolivians and 9,762 Spaniards. However, it has been estimated that as many as 100,000 Peruvians actually live in Chile.

Migration of Peruvian women to Chile rose from 50 percent of the total in 1992 to 60.8 percent in 2002, mainly due to the demand for domestic employees.

Many Latin American women who decide to seek a new life abroad are fleeing armed conflicts, poverty, environmental degradation or the effects of natural disasters, the CELADE report states. Others were victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or culture-specific customs that deprive them of opportunities for growth and personal development.

Many migrants are single mothers who are the main economic providers for their families, sending remittances that alleviate poverty in their countries and communities of origin.

While a large proportion of migrant women do find jobs in their host countries, these are usually in domestic and caregiving work, street vending, or waitressing in bars and restaurants, even if they are qualified teachers, nurses or secretaries.

According to the study, migrant women are vulnerable to racism, xenophobia, physical, psychological and sexual violence, abuse of labour rights, forced labour, sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

The decision to emigrate usually depends upon an arrangement within the family, since women who are mothers must leave their children in the care of a trusted person while they are far away. This task normally falls to grandparents, aunts or sisters.

“Separation from families, the economic responsibility of women migrants for their families back home, and the delegation of childcare have created a new kind of transnational household,” says the report, which adds that this reality must be urgently addressed by the countries of origin and reception.

But not all women who choose to leave home are victims. Many of them find good jobs, build strong emotional ties in the host countries, and improve their quality of life. These are generally young, single women with some professional training.

The study also points out that there are many international instruments for the defence of human rights that uphold the special case of migrants.

One of the most important of these is the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 18, 1990, which came into effect in 2003.

By November 2005, the Convention had been signed by 49 countries and ratified by 34. However, no industrialised nation had signed it. Nor had the Latin American countries that receive large flows of immigrants, such as Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.

The most recent step towards guaranteeing the rights of migrants was the U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, which came into effect on Sept. 29, 2003. Drawn up as supplements to the treaty were the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air.

“Most countries in Latin America don’t have public policies focusing on immigrants, and problems in this area tend to be dealt with as and when they occur, in an ad hoc manner,” Carlos Zanzi, of the non-governmental Ideas Foundation which does research on political and social exclusion, told IPS.

Along with other civil society organisations, the Foundation is promoting a regional dialogue on migrants, in order to generate policies, standards, regulations, and instruments to protect their rights.

In Chile, president-elect Michelle Bachelet, who will take office on Mar. 11, has promised to promote a new immigration law, and include the issue of migration in integration treaties, multilateral agreements, and school curriculums.

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