In search of opportunities
© United Archives/DEA/picture-alliance
Some 12 % of Guatemala’s total population live in the USA, and more than one fourth of them are women. People at a bus stop in Guatemala
In the past, Latin American women experienced discrimination in all spheres of social life, including education, politics and the labour market. In tough struggles, they have achieved some improvements in past decades, so many of them now get better educations. There are also more opportunities for political participation. However, the barriers to their full inclusion in the workforce remain.
In Guatemala, as in most countries of the world, more women than men have informal jobs. Working conditions in the informal sector are often precarious, pay is bad and there is no social security in the sense of health insurance, unemployment benefits or an old-age pension system. According to data from Guatemala’s Presidential Secretariat for Planning, only 37 % of Guatemalan women have formal, remunerated jobs. The comparative share for men is 67 %. Women, moreover, are responsible for their families’ households and must handle domestic chores. They tend to be overburdened, which impacts on their health and limits their scope for professional advancement.
On top of these challenges, women often become victims of violence – at work as well as at home. Many are single mothers, because their husbands have abandoned their family. The women want to take care of their children responsibly and cannot find decent job opportunities in their home country. Therefore, many Guatemalan women consider migration an alternative.
On the move
Increasing migration is a mark of our times. Millions of people around the world leave their home countries in search of new opportunities. They want income opportunities that will allow them and their families to survive.
Thousands of people from Guatemala, including women and children, migrate to southern Mexico every year, and thousands of others move on from there to the United States. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), more than 1.5 million Guatemalans – 12 % of the country’s total population – were living in the United States in 2008; and 400,000 of them were women. Many migrants hope to find jobs on Mexican coffee plantations and other agricultural businesses. Especially young women, however, often become domestic servants in urban households.
The majority of migrants do not have documents when they travel across thousands of kilometers of Mexican territory. They face dangers that range from harsh weather conditions like extreme heat or cold to human rights violations and crimes like robbery, kidnapping, extortion and even murder. Thousands of women and girls are exposed to sexual abuse and rape. The perpetrators include members of gangs and organised crime, human traffickers, employers and staff of government agencies.
After female migrants manage to cross the borders, they again face an adverse situation, because most of them only get precarious jobs. They work on farms, as caretakers or accept jobs in factories, where they have to work grueling hours in conditions that sometimes seem to resemble slavery. Migrant women’s meager incomes must suffice to cover their basic needs and to send remittances to their families, so many hold two or three jobs at a time. Out of the 400,000 Guatemalan women living in the United States, 330,000 send remittances to their families.
The majority of these women do not have passports or other legal documents. They live in constant fear of being caught and deported, which would put an end to their dreams of a better life for their families and themselves. According to calculations I did on the basis of IOM data, only 25 % of the Guatemalan women in the USA are free to travel home, whereas 75 % are “undocumented”.
They all must learn to live in a new environment, where customs, language and life’s rhythm differ from those at home. They must deal with feelings of isolation and homesickness, but also with an ever growing sense of xenophobia and blatant discrimination in the USA.
Ironically, many of the female migrants who fled from situations of violence in their communities and homes, end up confronted with domestic violence once more. Because they do not speak English well and because they do not know US law, they keep silent about such abuse and face the daily aggressions on their own. Such violence and the daily strain of work undermine their physical, mental, sexual and emotional health. These are the hidden costs of migration.
But the negative effects of migration are felt by more than just by those who leave their homes. Women whose partners have left the country become, for all practical purposes, single mothers and have to fend for the children and elderly family members on their own. All too often, the husbands abandon their families completely and stop sending remittances. As a consequence, these women must double their efforts to be able to pay for their families’ needs. On the other hand, some husbands continue to exercise control over their wives even from beyond the borders.
For women, migration typically results in having to struggle hard to secure their own and their families’ survival – whether they themselves leave home or their spouses do. The picture is bleak. Nonetheless, there are individual women who manage to excel. They make valuable financial contributions to their families’ lives – and to the economy of their nations. Many of them, moreover, are participating ever more visibly in the fight for migrants’ rights all over the world, giving a voice to the injustices female migrants face.