Diaspora voices  
March 8, 2023
Connecting the dots: gender & diaspora engagement

On International Women’s Day, Diaspora Youth Intern Laila explores the intersection between gender and diaspora engagement. She discusses their intertwined nature, touches on global frameworks and practical ways to explore this relationship for the benefit of an inclusive global society.

“Diaspora-engagement and development” is a vast topic in international migration. It covers a mosaic of initiatives led by the diaspora, as well as a myriad of other actors. These initiatives address a variety of topics and target all parts of society. Discussions commonly revolve around what the diaspora is doing, or could do, for (sustainable) development both in countries of residence (CoRs) and countries of origin/heritage (CoOs). But diaspora engagement is also about who the diaspora individuals are – including their identity, heritage, and cultural linkages with CoOs as well as their experiences in the CoRs.

Before starting the discussion: definitions. While there is no globally agreed definition of diaspora, EUDiF understands diaspora to be “emigrants and descendants of emigrants who actively maintain links with their country of origin/heritage and are willing to contribute to its development.”

The role played by the diaspora has increasingly been recognised as a way to reach some of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Similarly, gender has been recognised as a cross-cutting issue for sustainable development. Diaspora engagement is a multi-layered process in which gender strongly interplays with race, heritage, economic class, social power position, sexuality or physical ability. It is therefore important to holistically incorporate gender into diaspora engagement at all levels, from conceptual, to policy to practical. Therefore, the nexus between gender and diaspora engagement merits exploration, as does the question of who are the diaspora. In this blog, I will explore the relationship between gender and diaspora engagement and its potential to contribute to sustainable development.

Gendering the diaspora concept

The Migration Policy Institute’s reflection on women in migration theories and discourse shows that until the late nineties, women were perceived as passive agents, or their experiences were judged under the roles of “wives” or “partners”. With the rise of feminist scholarship, the discourse has shifted to greater gender sensitivity by bringing women from the margin to the centre. This trend is similar in terms of diaspora discourse. Campt & Thomas’s (2008) reflection on gendering diaspora based on an ethnographical research and curricular project “Diasporic Hegemonies” on African diaspora shares that a diaspora’s formation has social, political, and cultural implications. They refer to several essays by feminist scholars with case studies from US and Europe, and argue that diasporic dialogues are never truly equitable.

Therefore, reflecting on women diasporans’ experiences through the prism of their race, class, ethnicity, economic and social position can widen our conceptualization of diaspora. Following this perspective obliges academics, policymakers and practitioners alike to go beyond the first step of gender-disaggregated data towards a richer, more nuanced understanding of diaspora engagement and development, which can serve to improve policy and practice in this exciting field.

Gender and diaspora in global frameworks

Moving from academic discussion to global frameworks, two are of particular note. First, the SDGs of the UN 2030 agenda. For example, SDG 10.7 mentions the importance of planned and well managed migration policies and SDG 5 aims to achieve gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. However, gender and migration goals are not explicitly connected, presenting an opportunity to further reflect on how gender in diaspora engagement can scale up the impact of diaspora engagement for the SDGs. For example, whilst women are established financial remitters, the ways in which they send remittances are less well understood and recorded. A case study on Armenian women diaspora suggests that women are particularly active using informal channels, like creating social groups which send remittances collectively.

Besides the SDGs, the 2018 UN resolution for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), includes engaging the diaspora in CoO development mechanisms (i.e. facilitating their participation in advisory boards, investment and entrepreneurship and creating partnerships with diaspora organizations). Its preamble recognises the independence, rights and leadership of women and girls. This is worthy of praise. However, there is still room for improvement. In their 2019 analysis of gender-responsiveness in migration governance frameworks, Hennebry & Petrozzeillo shared that although the GCM language seems to move away from addressing women through the lens of victimhood, the guiding principle of mainstreaming the gender-responsiveness remains uneven and superficial in the document. In terms of gender and diaspora agenda, objective 19 includes language on creating conditions for the diaspora to contribute to sustainable development, but it has no gender perspective. It has missed the opportunity of acknowledging women’s contribution to sustainable development in CoO, transit country and CORs. It also missed the guidance for expanding women’s contribution (i.e. in global value or care chain) which is, according to them, a limit to promote the remittances-for-development model.

Global frameworks establish principles and set the direction. This cascades down to regional and national policies, funding and intervention design. If we consider, as I do, that gender is an important dimension to include in diaspora engagement policy and practice, how it is discussed at global level is crucial. Based on the SDGs and GCM, both diaspora and gender are acknowledged for their respective value, but the impact of one on the other is not sufficiently explored. As policymakers and practitioners explore this interplay, the evidence base should grow and feedback into global level policy discussions. I hope that future global-level frameworks will promote an intersectional approach to diaspora engagement, as well as in other development processes. This is why, as practitioners, actors like EUDiF and its partners can contribute to this evidence by embedding gender into activities, then analysing and sharing the results.

Embedding gender in practice

The question du jour: how to embed the gender angle in diaspora engagement practices. Of the many options, I see three priorities:

  • Understanding the different ways diaspora women engage;
  • Supporting and celebrating women’s contributions (financial and non-financial);
  • Applying a gender lens in all parts of the project cycle.

As mentioned above, studies on women diaspora contributions to CoOs, like in the cases of  African women diaspora or Armenian women diaspora, show us that in small-scale initiatives or informal settings, women make different contributions to men. If we better acknowledge this, we can diversify the access and framework for women’s involvement, which can be a win-win for women diaspora themselves and their respective CoOs and CoRs by enhancing contributions for sustainable development whilst addressing gender-specific challenges.

In parallel, we must actively support and promote the existing contributions of women. A great example of this for me is EUDiF’s work with the Armenian General Benevolent Union Europe (AGBU Europe) to empower women entrepreneurs in Armenia. The action has scaled up AGBU Europe’s existing programme to develop entrepreneurship skills for women in Armenia. This has both brought greater attention to the women-led initiative, and expanded the number of participants. Read about the action to learn more about the approach.

Whether it is an action led by the diaspora or another stakeholder, the inclusion of a gender lens at every stage – from planning to budgeting, implementing, monitoring and evaluation – feeds into building an evidence-base for future implementation design and policy making. With this evidence, we can hope to better comprehend the intersectional complexities and potential of diaspora engagement for inclusive and sustainable development.

Looking beyond

Diaspora engagement for sustainable development is ever evolving and we need to proactively include dimensions that have the potential to enhance development, such as gender. I believe it is not a utopian idea to bring a stronger gender lens to diaspora engagement initiatives; I see it as a necessity.

In future, we should holistically incorporate the needs of women inclusion, ensure representation in relevant decision-making bodies and amplify diverse voices. In addition, I believe it will be important to consider diaspora engagement through a non-binary prism. For example, we should understand how the diaspora is also interacting with sexuality, race or class and reflect this diversity in interventions.

Further reading

Cover photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

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