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24 November 2006

On the occasion of the International Day on the Elimination of Violence against Women (25 November), the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Louise Arbour, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, Ms. Yakin Ertürk and the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on the Human Rights of Migrants, Mr. Jorge Bustamante issued a joint press statement:

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Report on Violence against Women confirmed once again that there is no region of the world, no country and no culture in which women’s freedom from violence has been secured. Moreover, we observe that violence against women is increasingly emerging as a transnational human rights concern – a “problem without passport” that transcends national borders and moves in step with global migration patterns.

Today, almost half of the world’s 200 million migrants are women. They migrate to work, to reunite with their families or otherwise find a better future. While women are sometimes pushed into leaving their home country by profound gender inequality and feminized poverty, the process of migration is potentially an empowering experience that may allow women to seize new opportunities

Unfortunately, human rights violations in various forms such as trafficking in women or different types of exploitation often run parallel to women’s migration. Local and supposedly “traditional” forms of violence against women, such as female genital mutilation or forced marriages, globalize as well, moving along with their potential victims.

These human rights violations are not inevitable consequences of women’s migration. They can be curbed if states are truly committed to protecting migrant women against violence, trafficking and exploitation, without denying them the option to migrate legally, if they choose to.

In practice, however, migrant women often still find themselves confronted with discriminatory provisions that foster violence. Some countries, for instance, subject female migrant workers to periodic pregnancy tests and expel pregnant workers who refuse to abort. Other countries ban their female citizens from leaving the country in an effort to protect them from trafficking and violence. More often than not, these bans have the opposite effect as women resort to criminal human smuggling networks – that may turn out to be human traffickers – to bypass the bans.

Other migration restrictions are ostensibly gender neutral, but have unequal consequences for women. In many countries, for example, domestic migrant workers (the vast majority of whom are women) are still excluded from the protection of labour laws or altogether not eligible for work permits, as a result of which they are more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

Increasingly restrictive rules on migration for the purpose of family reunification often also have unequal consequences for women. Immigrants who derive their legal status from a marriage with a citizen or permanent resident, for instance, now often have to wait for years before they can acquire an independent residency permit. This dependency can entrap immigrant women in abusive relationships.

Undocumented immigrant women are especially vulnerable to violence, exploitation and trafficking because they fear deportation if they seek legal protection. Unfortunately, only few states have enacted laws that allow undocumented immigrant women facing violence to file criminal complaints, apply for restraining orders or make use of other protective mechanisms without being questioned about their immigration status.

Immigrant women’s limited access to justice is pervasive. The Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against women has stated that violence against women is inherently linked to discrimination and constitutes a violation of women’s internationally recognized human rights. The Committee has also emphasized the vulnerability of women who face multiple forms of discrimination because of their status. This Committee is now to be brought to Geneva to strengthen, and be strengthened by, the international treaty body system, supported by OHCHR. This will help to realize the fundamental aim of addressing violence and securing the rights of all women, highlight linkages between gender discrimination and other human rights concerns, and in effect situate women’s human rights at the center of an enhanced and integrated United Nations human rights machinery.

On the occasion of this International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we call for the protection of all women, regardless of their immigration status, against all forms of trafficking, exploitation and violence. States should assure that women have the option to migrate without fear of violence, discrimination or prejudice to their human dignity.