Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pathbreaking May 2013 Report and Strategy Paper on Migrant Girls

I highly recommend this May 2013 Population Council report and strategy paper on migrant girls.  The study was launched by the Wilson Center in a May 14 event and webcast.  The report credits adolescent girls who leave home - for work, for marriage, for education - with agency and spunk, pulling together what little statistics exist in countries in the Americas, Africa and Asia to put together a picture of the reasons the girls migrate and the challenges they encounter along the way.  Since information is scarce and hard to obtain, the Population Council commissioned several original studies to support the report.  Girls on the Move is 5th in a 5-part Girls Count series inspired by the Coalitiion for Adolescent Girls which advocates for placing girls on the global agenda. In the webcast, Miriam Temin pointed out that many of the young women who were killed in the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh were migrant girls.

A major point made in the report is that while adolescent girls (aged 13 to 19) leave their homes for their own reasons, global attention focuses on the small percentage of the total migrant girl population that is trafficked for illicit purposes.  This places migrant girls who aren't trafficked in precarious situations where they can end up being trafficked or end up being exploited.  Girls who leave rural areas and small towns with the support of their families or other girls and women have better experiences than those who leave without the support of family and friends.  Because of little training and education available to them in rural areas in countries like Ethiopia, Guatemala, Vietnam, Bangladesh, girls have little social capital and take positions such as household maids and nannies or factory workers.  Thus, girls who migrate need education and training before they leave, and education, training and health services once they reach their destination - not to mention support along the way.

One of the best aspects of this report is the researchers asked girls what they thought and how they felt about their experiences.  For many, even toiling away 12-16 hours a day as a domestic worker in the city and earning a bit of money was better than staying home with no prospects.  Many girls are proud of their independence and the contributions they are able to make to their families' wellbeing.

Another of the report's aims is to recommend services and support for migrant girls before things go awry and they are exploited or fall into trafficking.  For example, young women who travel for marriage or to work as domestic workers can be isolated from other girls, leading to depression, exploitation and other problems.  Girls who work in factories and sleep with other girls in barracks or houses have more of a chance to develop connections, but they are not afforded the leisure time to take full advantage of these connections and pursue opportunities to educate themselves and improve their lives.

The report shows that girls' experiences differ based on culture and gender norms.  Yet in many ways, migrant girls are like every other girl in the world.  Like all teenage girls, many migrant girls keep in contact by texting with family and friends on their cell phones - the cell phone is their main lifeline.

The final 2 chapters of the report outline recommendations for how to provide better support to migrant girls, pointing out that often migrant girls receive a tiny percentage of the support and services provided to disadvantaged youth, while boys tend to take up the bulk of the services.  The protective assets girls need for a successful migration include human, social, physical and financial assets - such as having a safe way to save money and send resources home to needy families.  In addition to highlighting some excellent programs that work, the report warns against 2 of the bogeymen of the unsuccessful program:  targeting programs toward "migrants" (as the girls may not view themselves as migrants) and developing programs designed to return girls to their homes (something the girls may not actually want).

This report brought me back to the days when I was a girl, 17 years old and taking a train from my home in Santa Fe across country to go to college in Maryland.  Along the way I met predators and  creeps.  If it weren't for an older gentleman from St. Louis watching out for me and warding off the predators, I might have been derailed and not reached my destination.  Millions of girls that age and younger set out for similar reasons with similar opportunities and challenges all over the world.  A main point of the study is that Girls Count and should be taken note of by local, national and international communities.  The health and wellbeing of the migrant girls discussed in the report will directly impact the health and welbeing of their children and generations to come.

Much research still needs to be done and many more creative and applicable support programs need to be developed.  Girls on the Move has a full 15 pages of references, which is an excellent start.  My only criticism is that the studies commissioned in particular by the Population Council were not highlighted in a separate section.