Migrant women can serve as both caregivers and human rights defenders, according to psychologist and sociologist Arancha Garcia del Soto.
“Universally, women tend to be kind of the effective providers within their families, right?” Del Soto said. “What happens when the situation is deeply unequal, or there’s a conflict going on? Usually, women are forced to become economic providers.”
In a presentation sponsored by Boston College’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice on Friday afternoon, Del Soto discussed how migrant women as well as gender roles as a whole can change when adapting to the cultures of new countries.
“What we tend to get now in many places, are the new roles of young migrant women in having to raise their families by themselves—you can find them in almost every single country,” Del Soto said. “From a sociological perspective, where we need to be very aware of history, many of these women become politically engaged or are already activists before they leave their countries.”
Migrating can result in women having to adopt new responsibilities as they navigate their new geographical contexts, according to Del Soto. Ongoing violent social conflict also significantly affects women who recently migrated, often subjecting them to gender-based violence.
“It’s proven that many of the women … experience sexual violence in conflict,” Del Soto said. “Think about the conflict in the Central African Republic, or some of the past conflicts in Colombia. On top of being sexually abused, many of them also experienced domestic abuse afterwards.”
According to Del Soto, migrant women also often experience changes in their relationships with their children when they migrate to new countries. Growing up in countries different from their country of origin often furthers generational divides, Del Soto said.
“Only today, we were spending some time this morning with this woman that was talking to us, originally from Puerto Rico, about her two kids, and how they are completely fluent in English, while she doesn’t speak it,” Del Soto said.
Del Soto also said another challenge migrant women face is learning how to participate in the economies of their new countries, citing the experiences of Spanish immigrants as an example.
“Two-thirds of the manual workers in the official caregiving sectors are foreigners,” Del Soto said. “The majority of them come from Latin America and Asia. The reality of the job market in Spain is not only that when these women arrive they don’t have the right support network, but they also don’t have the knowledge of their rights and the legal system in Spain.”
According to Del Soto, feminist groups are now discussing the importance of giving migrant women the opportunity to choose whether to serve as a family caregiver, rather than just immediately forcing them into the role.
“If you get to talk to different feminist groups, they will tell you that it is ultimately about having options: Women can take care of their family members, but shouldn’t feel as if they had to,” Del Soto said. “The ideal situation here is having the opportunity to make a decision.”