The Link Between Gender-based Violence and Child Migration

November 25, 2023

On this International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we spoke with Rachel Dotson, Director of KIND’s Gender and Migration Initiative, to reflect on KIND’s commitment to gender equity and our vision of the future in which girls and all children live free of violence in their journey to safety.

Q: When and why did KIND begin addressing gender in its work with unaccompanied children?  

Rachel: KIND launched its Gender and Migration Initiative in 2015 because we were seeing that gender-based violence was one of the major factors forcing our clients to migrate. We know that those same children frequently experienced gender-based violence in transit, and that in some cases those who return to their countries continue to experience gender-based violence and discrimination.    

Gender-based violence impacts many children who migrate from Central America and other areas of the world. Children in Central America experience high rates of gender-based violence in their homes and communities, including intimate partner violence, sexual assault and rape, child sexual abuse, and sexual harassment.  It’s not gender-based violence alone, but that violence in combination with a lack of access to protection and support that drives migration.  When they migrate, girls and LGBTQI+ children and youth face increased risk of gender-based violence, including sexual violence and exploitation in the form of being forced or coerced into exchanging sexual acts for food, shelter, protection. 

Q: Could you say more about how gender shapes children’s experiences of migration?  

Rachel: Gender affects children’s experience of migration at every phase of the journey—pre-migration, in migration, destination, and return (for those children who do return)—and in a wide range of ways: the decision about whether or not to migrate; social norms and expectations; goals and aspirations; risks and vulnerabilities; and access to resources and opportunities. 

For example, lack of access to education is one of the reasons that girls who KIND and our partners work with in Central America cite for migrating. At home, they are expected to care for siblings and other family members and their families don’t have the resources to pay for the expenses of going to school, and in some cases family members do not place a high value on education for girls. Girls believe that when they reach the United States, they will be able to study and pursue their career goals, but often the pressure to support their families and pay back debt accrued through the migration journey means that they end up in a situation of caretaking and domestic work in the United States or other country of destination, which limits their ability to study and often exposes them to exploitation and even violence in the workplace.   

Q: How common is gender-based violence in migration?  

Rachel: Children frequently face gender-based violence during migration but rarely seek out help because of lack of information about their rights and how to seek out help, and the fear of deportation. When children travel with a smuggler, that person often intentionally keeps them away from shelters and other services provided by government and civil society to minimize risk of detection. That makes it very challenging for children to report gender-based violence if they experience it and seek assistance, and it also makes it impossible for us to know the true extent of gender-based violence and other forms of violence against children in migration.   

These vulnerabilities don’t stop if and when children reach their country of destination, whether that is the United States or Mexico. Lack of access to resources and support networks often leave unaccompanied children vulnerable to gender-based and other forms of violence and exploitation.    

Q: How does KIND’s Gender and Migration Initiative respond to some of these issues? 

Rachel: KIND’s Gender and Migration Initiative partners with local organizations in Guatemala and Honduras to educate children and adolescents on their right to freedom from gender-based violence in their communities and in migration, including leadership trainings for adolescent girls and workshops for adolescents, equipping them to exercise their rights and build healthy and equitable relationships. 

Another aspect of the program is training parents, teachers, and community leaders to support child survivors of gender-based violence and create safer and more equitable homes, schools, and communities.  This includes training teachers to identify and support students impacted by gender-based violence, while also promoting respectful interactions between students and preventing bullying and harassment. We also provide support for parents and caregivers to engage in positive parenting and promote gender equity in the home. 

Eliminating gender-based violence requires working with boys and men. One focus of the programming is positive masculinities and engaging boys and men to prevent and address gender-based violence and promote gender equity. In our work with parents, for example, we are looking at strategies to engage fathers and other male caregivers more effectively. Our partner organization Asociación Pop No’j recently heard from male participants in their teacher trainings that trainings have helped them recognize that the way they talk and interact with their female colleagues – for example, telling sexist jokes—impacts the school environment and sets an example for students, so they are taking more care in maintaining respectful and professional relationships and communication.   

Sexual and reproductive health and rights education is also an essential part of gender-based violence prevention. Girls and boys learn about their right to make decisions about their bodies, health, and relationships, and learn where they can go in their communities or local areas to access information and services.   

We provide culturally responsive and inclusive programming that affirms the identities of participants and responds to the needs and experiences of LGBTQI+ children and adolescents.    

Learn more about KIND’s partner organizations for our Gender and Migration Initiative: 

Guatemala: Asociacion Pop No’j, ECAP, Colectivo Vida Digna 

Honduras: Casa Alianza Honduras 

Every year, between the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25 and International Human Rights Day on December 16, the United Nations leads 16 days of activism against gender-based violence