Goal 5 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is Gender Equality. While there are different factors that are instrumental in achieving Gender Equality, one of the major roadblocks that women continue to face is equal access to economic opportunities and financial empowerment. While this challenge has been widely acknowledged and a lot of initiatives and programmes are being implemented to close the gap, immigrant women continue to be invisible in the sea of faces.
It is not uncommon to hear stories of women (and in some rarest of the rare cases, men) moving to a new country accompanying their spouses. While better job opportunities is often the primary reason behind this move, the restrictions placed on dependent visa holders violate their economic freedom and disempower them in numerous ways.
A classic example is the H4 visa that is granted by the United States of America to the spouses of H1B visa holders. H4 visa holders are commonly referred to as dependents and true to the word, they are dependent in every sense.
So, what does this mean to the tens and thousands of women living with the dependent tag?
H4 visa holders (90% of whom are women) are forced to stay out of the labour market as they are not allowed to work on this visa. Further, they are also prohibited from maintaining their separate bank account or obtaining a social security number. In other words, with the H4 visas being tied to the primary H1B holders’ visa, their immigration status is completely dependent on that of their spouses with no financial or economic independence. In 2015, a law was passed allowing certain H4 visa holders to obtain the Employment Authorisation Document that allows them to legally take up employment. However, this has been extended only to those H4 visa holders who spouses’ green card applications are in the advanced stage of processing thus, placing a majority of them outside the system despite having the qualifications to take up employment.
Thus, harsh immigration rules are no different from patriarchy in the way they create and maintain the status quo of absolute economic dependency thus, resulting in future ramifications as women often lose a number of years on their work experience, an added challenge while seeking employment.
Talking about visas and employment, most of us would wonder why would not immigrant women seeking to join the labour force apply for a H1B visa as conversion from H4 to H1B must just be a simple paperwork. While certainly that is an option, given the cost associated with the visa application as well as the process, it is beyond mere paperwork to convert from H4 to H1B as finding an employer to sponsor the visa continues to be a major challenge.
While it is true that lack of access to economic opportunities is the first hit that women experience, this in turn makes them financially vulnerable and affects their social being and the ability/ choice to determine their own future. Anecdotal evidence throws light on how economic vulnerability confines them to the domestic sphere. This takes me back to a discussion I was part of at a gathering where one of the recurring theme was how majority of them were forced to consider having a child to keep themselves busy during this forced sabbatical. And add to this the psychological consequences such as the feeling of helpless, lonely, frustration, depression, boredom, no sense of purpose in life and powerless with no decision-making ability.
Gender equality is far from being achieved unless every woman has the opportunity and the choice to determine her own future. Lack of choice and lack of agency to exercise that choice is certainly a fall-out of such restrictive immigration policies.
Often discussions on immigrant women centre around the lavish lifestyle and the privileges that come with it. There is no denying that they enjoy numerous privileges but at the same time face oppression at numerous levels. It is in this context that intersectionality holds water. In addition to her identity of being an immigrant, race, class, ethnicity, religion and other identities either add to her privilege or contribute to her oppression. Women come to be disproportionately affected and marginalized by the immigration policies.
As we usher in 2018, one can say that we have a long way to go in ensuring that every woman irrespective of race, ethnicity, class, nationality or religion is guaranteed her rights and enjoys her share of equality. As countries progress and focus on improving their GDP, it is appalling that we have immigration systems that are far from ensuring every individual has access to equal opportunities with women being no exception.
After all women are humans too and women’s rights are human rights.
Sharda Vishwanathan is a communications professional and has extensively worked with organisations in the development. She currently heads the Outreach and Digital Media team at The Red Elephant Foundation and is the Co-founder/ Director of Tale Weavers.