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This year, we celebrate the 2nd International Women’s Day during the COVID-19 health emergency. Globally, migrant women have been and continue to be frontline workers, pouring themselves into supporting their communities as healthcare staff, scientists, professors, and service providers – many working in essential services. Women are holding families and communities together as societal safety nets are threatening to unravel.
On this International Women’s Day, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) pays tribute to women’s leadership during the COVID-19 response as they continue to fight for a more just and equal world.
Programme participants in IOM’s various initiatives across the world show how women and girls on the move expand their horizons and brave challenging paths to success.
Voices from a migrant camp in Greece
Zahra M. and Sakineh R., two women born and raised in Iran to Afghan parents, today are living in a migrant camp in Greece. They decided to take matters into their own hands when educational activities had to be shut down due to COVID-19. “At first, we stayed home, we didn’t know what to expect. We followed the health protocols, but as the time went by, we decided to create a more educational and entertaining environment for our kids. I teach English for beginners as a volunteer. I feel happy and proud, because through this difficult situation I was able to rely on my own strengths and contribute to my community,” recalls Sakineh.
With the support of the IOM team on-site, Zahra and Sakineh launched classes, taught by around 30 people living in the camp, on subjects such as English, Farsi, mathematics, and handicrafts, while strictly following COVID-19 health and safety guidelines and protocols.
“No one missed any of our classes. We feel happy and content for contributing [to] our community. The lack of education was among the reasons that we left Iran. We didn’t want the same thing [to] happen here,” explains Zahra.
She sees herself as a leader who would like to “serve my community and be by their side in the most difficult situations” and noted that she found women leaders to be “confident [and] work with courage and patience to achieve the best for the society.”
Zahra and Sakineh believe that migration gave them the opportunity to find themselves, and “opened a whole new world of opportunities,” and they are not going to let COVID-19 get in the way of anyone’s education in the camp.
Zahra and Sakineh are just two of the many women around the world who migrate for better educational opportunities.
Fatima H. is a 29-year-old mother of three born in Pakistan, also from Afghan migrants. She, too, is living in a camp in Greece with her 9-year-old son. Meanwhile, her daughter, 15, and another son, 12, live in a shelter in Germany.
Fatima believes that “women are the leaders of their own world” and sees herself as a leader as she is able to “guide [her] family to help them create their own success stories.”
When she was 13, her family told her that she had to leave school to get married. While she could not prevent that outcome, she knew she could prevent the same thing from happening to her daughter.
“My husband and our families thought that it was time for her to get married. I could not let that happen. This time, I managed to do something about it. I decided to move to Europe with my children. Even though I knew that it was going to be a difficult and very dangerous route, [and] I was not sure that we were going to make it, I had to take a leap of faith. Not for me, but for them,” said Fatima.
She started studying online, reading books, and taking classes offered at the camp. She now has a diploma in English and, thanks to encouragement from IOM personnel, she began working as a translator in the camp.
She is now able to “give tips and ideas to [women] (…) on how to behave during this period, ensuring that our children follow their classes, and keeping them entertained at home.”
Fatima has not seen her daughter or her son in a long time, and while the separation has been more difficult amid COVID-19, what matters to her the most is for them to “live safe and be free to choose their own path in life.”
Voices from migrant communities in Libya
Around the world, there have been numerous stories of migrant women who step up to ensure that their communities were well informed of the health measures imposed due to COVID-19. Collectively, they found ways to make sure no one was left behind.
Nuha M., a Sudanese who arrived in Libya 26 years ago, manages to meet with young Sudanese migrants in open spaces, following health regulations, to help fight against feelings of isolation linked to the pandemic. Many of them crossed the desert and the sea, and saw their loved ones die. Nuha shares that she showed up every time, with no exception.
“Even if I had nothing to help them with, I sat and listened. I talked to them. It made us feel together and not alone,” she explained.
She also managed to help them reconnect with their families. Nuha believes women have no choice but to be proactive when faced with difficult situations.
Similarly, Aurelie A., a migrant woman from Benin, described how, while society pressured her to stay home and keep quiet, she helped establish a WhatsApp group to provide emotional support to migrants. She feels that her group creates a space for self-expression during the pandemic despite physical distancing. In this group, women share everything, from cooking lessons to guiding each other through childbirth.
“My name started being passed around among other West African and Sub-Saharan communities and church members, to ask for help and to support,” shared Aurelie.
Through her initiative, she reached out to IOM and raised awareness about the different needs of the various communities she was supporting to overcome these stressful times.
In addition to providing social and emotional support, migrant women have also filled tangible gaps that were necessary for the overall safety of all.
Vida, a migrant from Ghana, came to Libya in 2014 and dreams of owning a “big fashion shop.” Vida identified a critical need for masks in her community. She realized quickly that many migrants could not afford masks, and that the masks available were not very fashionable. She therefore taught herself and three other migrant women how to sew four different styles of masks.
Vida mentions that she “learned how to make the protective masks when we were in the most need of masks and many couldn’t afford [them].” After an initial success, and although women do not often venture there alone, she bravely “went to the Media [downtown area] to purchase more crafting and sewing materials” and made so many masks that they could regularly distribute them to those in need.
As Zahra, Sakineh, Fatima, Nuha, Aurelie and Vida boldly show us – by leading their own initiatives, whether in a camp in Greece or as part of migrant communities in Libya – that during this pandemic migrant women and girls are leading the way their own way!
Through their actions to better the lives of their families and communities, they have shown us that there can be many types of leadership, and that all efforts, no matter how small, can have a lasting impact during a global crisis.
IOM wishes all migrant women and girls on the move a Happy International Women’s Day 2021.