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Just recently, on March 8th, the world marked International Women’s Day (IWD) around the globe. This is a day set aside to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. In the UK context, IWD also offers a chance to pause and consider the role of migrant women in British society.

There is scope to broaden the current conversation about migration in the UK in a way that reflects the significant positive affect female migrants and refugees have in this country. As well as the benefits migrant and refugee women bring to the country, it is important that we consider the specific needs and challenges faced by migrant women.

Migrants, especially female migrants, bring enormous benefit to the UK. Whether they be Somali women working in the service and food industry in Birmingham, or Afghan and Pakistani women working to keep hospitals clean and functioning in London, or cutting edge female scientists working to push the boundaries of medical innovation at our top universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Migrants and refugees come at all skill levels and genders, and when given the opportunity they generally contribute extremely positively to this country. It is important that we recognize these contributions and do our best to ensure that migrants and refugees are effectively supported to overcome their substantial challenges and to contribute fully to society.

Despite the international protection granted to them and the additional security of resettlement to the UK, the challenges faced by refugees are well documented and significant. From language barriers, to cultural and religious differences, to difficulties acquiring the right to work and accessing the welfare system, it is fair to say that the life of a refugee is challenging in the extreme; all whilst attempting to simultaneously deal with the trauma of the situations they left behind, the often harrowing journey, and persecution faced throughout. These challenges are further exacerbated for female refugees.

Upwards of forty per cent of refugees resettled in the UK over the last ten years have been women, and female migrants have specific needs and face particular challenges that should be taken account in integration programming. As highlighted above, effectively integrated female migrants represent an amazing opportunity to British society. IWD offers an opportunity to refocus the narrative on the very real benefits society gets from female migrants and refugees.

Our experience at IOM tells us that all female migrants, including refugees, are less likely than their male counter-parts to engage actively with employers, or government and civil society actors, and are more likely to remain in homes under-taking domestic duties. As a result, female migrants often suffer additional marginalisation as a result of isolation from society, severely reduced opportunities to learn the language, and in the most extreme cases being subject to violence in the household. This marginalization can cause women to resort to further negative-coping mechanisms and additional marginalization and isolation.

Given the particular challenges faced by female migrants, it is essential that the government and resettlement and integration actors (such as ourselves) design programming to take the specific needs of women into account. Whether it is supporting the establishment of women’s groups, or providing tailored language training and cultural orientation for women, or simply ensuring physical and legal protection of female migrants with increased security measures and legal advice, there are a host of actions that can be taken to reduce the challenges faced by female migrants by government and non-government partners.
With proper integration support, female migrants contribute to the British economy, culture and society, as well as ensuring self-help mechanisms are put in place to support other members of the migrant community in their resettlement journey.

Examples of these benefits can be seen in the film ‘Queens of Syria’ and a group called the Chickpea Sisters. The Queens of Syria tells the story of fifty women from Syria, all forced into exile, who came together in Autumn 2013 to create and perform their own version of the Trojan Women, the timeless Ancient Greek tragedy about the plight of women in war.

The Chickpea Sisters are a group of refugee and migrant women from South West London who meet every week to chat, eat, and share recipes from around the world. This type of support and community-building makes the transition to the British way of life far easier for migrant communities.

For IWD IOM hosted a screening of the film followed by an event catered for by the Chickpea Sisters. The film was both uncomfortable in its brilliance in humanizing the Syrian conflict for the audience, taking us on a journey with the brave members of the cast from despair and heartache to moments of hope and surprisingly, humour.

Our event was a celebration of the fantastic achievement in production and acknowledging the forgotten hardships women face in such situations and post atrocity in rebuilding their lives.

I sign off with the thought that there is indeed much to celebrate, but with the truth held in tension that we must not get complacent, there is still work to be done to support migrant and refugee women and to ensure they are able contribute to British society as effectively as possible.

So, I urge you to take a moment and consider the challenges faced by migrant and refugee women, and the good that they bring to this country, to celebrate their strength, intelligence, creativity and inspiration, giving value to the strides they are making towards creating a diverse, equal and just society.

Dipti Pardeshi, Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration Office in the United Kingdom (IOM UK)