Gender matters: Including women in integration policies

15 December 2022

It should not be possible to talk about integration policies without taking into account the gender dimension of such policies – how to facilitate the participation of women, integrate them, invite them to the discussions that matter to them and how to make it easier for them to find jobs and become independent.

It’s important to recognise that men and women often experience migration and the process of integration differently. For example, women may face additional challenges related to their gender, such as discrimination and violence, which can make it more difficult for them to access services and opportunities in their new cities. In addition, women may be more likely to be in vulnerable situations, such as being the sole caregivers for their families or being at risk of exploitation.

With this in mind, Bristol has created a set of guidelines. According to Asher Craig, Deputy Mayor, Children’s Services, Education and Equalities, it is necessary to challenge what we mean by integration, because the ‘everyday’ task of integration, is, essentially, inclusion, and involves an ongoing conversation with migrant women, and the involvement of entire neighbourhoods.

Bristol focuses on a bottom-up approach, ensuring that women are engaged and involved. The city has established a women’s commission, focusing on a range of relevant areas of concern, and has made sure that refugee women are also involved in providing a lot of support services offered by the city.

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Integration and the labour market

Horumar’ is a training programme focused on Somali women, which has been a huge success in Bristol, leading to women setting up their own social enterprises and entering the employment market for the first time. For Craig, “society is more fun when there’s diversity and when women are included (and feel included).”

Agreeing with Craig, Thomas Fabian, Deputy Mayor, Leipzig, noted that “women are less integrated into the labour market and face more violence.” He noted that, in Leipzig inclusion is seen as an essential component of integration.

As with any such topic, there is a real complexity regarding female migrants. For Fabian, it is important to highlight the vulnerability of female migrants, but also that women are each very different– “they are the engines of integration,” he said. On the one hand, women with children may have immediate contact with schools, childcare, and other parents, while, on the other hand, there are many vulnerable refugee women who are often less integrated in the labour market and less educated than men in a similar situation.

One way to start to change this is to encourage women to be more active in politics. Leipzig set up a migrants council where members are elected, and this provides the means for migrant self-organisation. The more integration is achieved, the more debates there are, the more issues are exposed, and the more solutions can be found.

In Riga, from the moment Ukrainian refugees began to arrive, a decision was taken to open a shelter specifically for women, explained Signe Grube, political advisor to the Mayor on Municipal and Social Issues. And there’s a special law for Ukrainian refugees, meaning they are equal to Latvian citizens.

Visual representation of the debate. Drawing by Zsofi Lang.
Visual representation of the debate. Drawing by Zsofi Lang.

Employment is an important area, therefore, said Grube, “we have Ukrainians working in social support services, Ukrainian women working on the front line, together with Latvians, and these are the first people who welcome new Ukrainians, so Ukrainians are involved as equals in this process,” having Russian as a lingua franca between Latvians and refugees.

In addition, given that many refugees are highly skilled, Riga organises daily job fairs within the support centre to find a placement for Ukrainians in, for instance, laboratories and hospitals. Out of 3,000 refugees placed in jobs within the city, at least one third are women.

Prejudice and integration

Anila Noor, Founder and Managing Director, of New Women Connectors, who advocates for policy change explained that “unfortunately in cities, the people who decided integration policies for women don’t understand their reality and needs and don’t ask the women what they want to do.”

As a one time asylum seeker herself, Noor recalled being sent to work in a factory despite having an expertise elsewhere. She highlighted an expectation that migrant women don’t want to work, and echoed Craig in calling for a bottom-up approach “so that migrant women can define what they want and how…It’s time for women to have spaces to create their own visibility,” she emphasised.

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Bringing an academic perspective, and over 20 years of research on the topic, Halleh Ghorashi, Professor of Diversity and Integration at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, began by noting, as did Noor, that often refugees are seen as either at risk or as a risk, with women often falling into the first category.

On the one hand, it is good that they are seen as at risk, so they can receive much-needed help, but it is also a problem as they are not seen as political actors and as people who can contribute to society.

Often, married women arrive after their husbands, even if they highlight that they have an education, they rarely find opportunities, whereas men are given better opportunities to learn the language and get jobs. Consequently, any migrant women experience depression due to the expectation for them to stay home, creating a paradox in countries that see themselves as progressive.

“Imagine women who are seen as the second sex in their own countries,” proposes Ghorashi, they experience migration as “a new opening, a chance to start a new life, for growth, and emancipation. This is smashed as they arrive in Europe and, once again, they are seen as the second sex.”

To address this narrative, policymakers must be made aware of this reality, so as to not only find solutions but to actively include women in policy making and implementation, so that women can direct for themselves, with all possible support, their own future expectations, and possibilities.

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Ghorashi highlighted this stigma through a story about her own time as a refugee: “30 years ago, I came as an asylum seeker with the ambition to study and go to university and learn the language. This was 1988 and I asked for Dutch classes at the university. I was told these classes were not for refugees, because they thought I was ‘not clever enough.’ I did the course, and I was the best in my class, and I became a professor. The risk is killing motivation at the start.”

One way to change that is to make connections between the perspective of refugee women and the perspective of politicians and institutions. This can mean taking actions such as creating safe spaces to bring people of different backgrounds together, celebrating differences and including migrant and refugee women in discussions. And, as several panellists pointed out, white men in positions of power must also become allies to migrant and refugee women.

This discussion took place during the 10th Integrating Cities Conference in Utrecht, on 17 November 2022, during panel II: “The gender dimension of integration policies: How to include and identify migrant women’s needs when looking at migrant integration?”

Integrating Cities X, ‘Inclusion for all, Empowering vulnerable migrants in cities’ was organised within the framework of the Eurocities project CONNECTION (CONNEcting Cities Towards Integration action), funded by the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.

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Alexandra Weerts Senior Project Coordinator - Partnership with UNICEF