Stereotypes exist in all societies. They may seem harmless, but they can actually cause real damage to the lives of the people that they target. Simplistic and misleading ideas about migrant women have the potential to restrict the opportunities and services available to them.

What is a stereotype?

A stereotype refers to a commonly held but overly simple image or idea about a person or social category, such as race, ethnicity, gender or religion, among others. They are often used by one group to position themselves as more superior than another.

According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR):

A gender stereotype is a generalized view or preconception about attributes or characteristics, or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by or performed by women and men. A gender stereotype is harmful when it limits women’s and men’s capacity to develop their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers and make choices about their lives.

Many migrants suffer the negative effects of stereotypes, particularly when they face intersecting discrimination, as a result of both their gender and their migration status.

What is xenophobia and how is it linked to stereotypes?

Whilst there is no universally accepted definition of xenophobia, it is generally used to describe:

attitudes, prejudices and behaviour that reject, exclude and often vilify persons, based on the perception that they are outsiders or foreigners to the community, society or national identity.

Xenophobia is frequently perpetuated through stereotypes which reduce complex individuals to generalized and derogatory images. These ideas can be used to justify discrimination, violence, trafficking, and various other forms of mistreatment.

How can stereotypes impact migrant women?

In Mexico, stereotypes of Central American women as housekeepers or sex workers reduce their ability to access employment in other sectors. A study by El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) found that these stereotypes are ‘embodied’, that means that they are based on the ways that the women speak, walk and their physical appearances. These features are used to justify ideas that these women are less valuable. As these stereotypes are based on characteristics that may be impossible for an individual to change, it is difficult for these migrant women to evade or challenge them.

A 2018 study by University of Chicago explored how social perceptions of migrant illegality in the United States is influenced by national origin, social class and criminal background. It found that respondents were more likely to suspect migrants from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East to be undocumented, compared to migrants from other regions, such as Asia and Europe. In reality, undocumented migrants in the United States come from all regions around the world. However, the University of Chicago study suggests that these stereotypes of certain nationalities as ‘illegal’ could influence the decisions of law enforcement, hiring managers, landlords, teachers, and other members of the public to the detriment of these migrants.

During and after crises, previously dormant stereotypes can surface and result in the spread of hateful messages. In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, many examples of negative messages targeting Haitian migrants, relying solely on stereotypes, emerged in the Bahamas. This cumulated in protests and calls for the deportation of Haitian migrant workers.

We can all play a part in combatting stereotypes. We can start by becoming aware of our own biases and challenging them. In our daily interactions, we can share stories that challenge these negative perceptions and highlight individual differences over generalizations. We can speak up against prejudiced comments and jokes. Lastly, space must be given to migrant women to speak in public discussions, rather than others speaking on their behalf. These actions can have a ripple effect and reduce the spread of common stereotypes.