Jenna Hennebry
Keegan Williams
David Celis-Parra
Rachelle Daley
Publication Date
July 31, 2017

"News media...has the power to shape dominant representations and reframe narratives and discourses surrounding migration. Indeed, fostering more gender-responsive reporting on migration is an important element to realizing the rights of women migrant workers, and opportunities must be sought to bring their voices from the margins, and into the centre of the story."

Media representations of women migrant workers (WMWs) can shape discourses around migrants, which can have consequences for migrant women, who are often marginalised, who lack political representation, and whose voices can go unheard. To that end, this media study was undertaken as part of United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women)'s European Union (EU)-funded project, "Promoting and protecting women migrant workers' labour and human rights: Engaging with international, national human rights mechanisms to enhance accountability". It focuses on representations of WMWs in sending and receiving countries, with an emphasis on WMWs from the 3 case studies of the project: Mexico, Moldova, and the Philippines. The implications of these representations are explored, and a WMW-centred approach is recommended in which women's agency is recognised.

In a section of the paper focused on understanding representations of WMWs, the researchers explain that, "[w]hether in origin, transit or destination countries, WMWs face negative and positive stereotypes, reinforced by dominant representations, which feed assumptions about their behaviours or aptitudes based on their ethnicity or origin, and gender. Gendered norms and values can influence migration processes and experiences (and vice versa)....Migrant workers of both genders are most often subjects of 'othering' discourses, which identify migrant workers as outsiders, 'us' versus 'them', which is closely related to ideas of inferiority....[T]he process of othering... can be institutionalized through language and discourse, and can substantially affect WMW's exercise of legal and political rights."

As part of the study, articles from the 5 most prominent newspapers in each of the 4 countries of Canada (Toronto Star, Global and Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette), Italy (Il Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, La Stampa, Il Messaggero, Il Giornale), Mexico (La Jornada, Excelsior, El Universal, Reforma, El Economista), and the Philippines (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, The Manila Times, Business World Philippines) were analysed using a gender perspective. A total of 138 articles were collected with WMWs as their main subject.

Three dominant representations were identified:

  1. Victims, with 38% of depictions (abuse, labour exploitation, recruitment, trafficking, domestic State policy, and State policy in countries of origin) - "Such framing is problematic because women are rendered invisible through this categorization; the agency of women is ignored and the focus is pulled away from approaches which empower women to assert their rights."
  2. Threats, with 35% of depictions (stealing jobs, as a drain on the economy, a threat to the immigration system, a threat to public security, a threat to public health, a threat due to overt sexuality, a threat due to foreign origin, and a threat due to race) - "Such media representations cast migrants in negative terms and cover migrants and migration as social and political problems that must be addressed or solved."
  3. Heroes, with 27% of depictions (agents of development, mother, spouse, daughter, other family, caregiver, primary income earner, secondary income earner, and activist) - "This representation...idealizes them and neglects their human rights, and the social costs incurred by women migrant workers [e.g., those involved in care work] in securing remittances...Further, such narratives can exacerbate the precarity of migrant workers, and does not recognize the vulnerabilities they may encounter in migration (such as the threat of deportation as a means of employer control)."

Reflecting on these findings, the researchers note that the media contribute to "understandings and so-called 'truths' surrounding of women migrant workers within societies, which not only inform public opinion but also shape knowledge and attitudes. These 'truths' might also influence countries policies and the provision of rights, protections and services to these largely stereotyped groups."

Addressing allies and advocates of WMWs, the researchers recommend:

  • Enhancing balanced representation of WMWs in the media by actively providing media outlets with stories centred around the voices and experiences of WMWs to allow them some degree of authority in representing themselves;
  • Countering dominant representations by promoting education and public awareness initiatives about WMWs and their lives;
  • Advancing a new narrative in sources outside of traditional media - one that makes visible the presence and reality of WMWs as persons with the capacity to act - in order to more accurately represent the humanity and the reality of WMWs;
  • Involving the media in multi-stakeholder meetings related to WMWs, their challenges etc. in order to help reframe the media's understanding and knowledge about WMWs and to foster greater accountability in reporting;
  • Working to enhance the (governmental) regulation of the media to include gender and racial discrimination, as well as xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment; and
  • Supporting training and capacity building on gender-sensitive approaches to media, migration, and development with government employees (all levels) and service providers.

UNIFEM website, August 9 2017. Image credit: Getty Images