The challenges immigrant women facing in Canada

Immigrant women in CAPamelia Khaled: Canada has long been the home of a diverse and multicultural society. Immigrants from various cultures and countries help enrich the multiculturalism. According to Statistics Canada 2007, immigrants make up approximately 20 per cent of its population. One immigrant among five people in Canada is a factor that influences its economy, policies, traditions and services. How does Canada treat its foreign born and what roles do they play in its society? Encompassing these two concepts, along with a gender sensitive outlook, a number of currently conducted studies identified that immigrant women in Canada face various challenges.

Poverty and violence

The majority of the immigrant population, both men and women, are between 25 to 44 years old. Over the last 10 to 15 years, slightly more women than men have immigrated to Canada — almost always as a ‘dependant applicant’ to a ‘independent husband’ in families (Statistics Canada 2007). As immigrant spouses, women are too often victims of subordination and male domination.

Past experiences in patriarchal societies, along with a constant language barrier for many, women fail to speak out against the violence. The lack of resources in programmes like social assistance, childcare, employment insurance and training, force many low-income women in Canada to stay in abusive relationships in fear for their own and their children’s lives.

Reviews of domestic violence against immigrant women revealed that their cultures, contexts and legal status account for an increase of the vulnerability for being abused. These same women are victims of poverty. Not only the immigrant women, but women as a whole are the poorest in Canada. They make up a disproportionate share of the population with low incomes-2.4 million in 2001 compared to 1.9 million men.

Affordable housing is another critical issue for almost anyone from a low-income background, and an immigrant faces a double trouble — immigration status and racism. Immigrant communities in Canada are experiencing extremely high level of homelessness. It is also important to note that the poverty rate of women who started as part of a couple and ended as lone parents were ten times higher than women who remained part of a couple.


Employment is a tumultuous challenge for the majority of the immigrant population, and with women, the statistics are even more drastic in terms of employment rates. Even when jobs are found, the work is unstable with typically low-wage. Immigrant women are unable to find employment in their own fields due to de-recognition of their qualifications in Canada. This has caused many women to start working as call centre operators, supermarket cashiers or sewers in garment industries as these jobs are easily available.

Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants Statistics shows that these jobs depend on part-time workers and so, unsurprisingly, it is revealed that 70 per cent of the part-time workers are none but immigrant women. Not only that, these jobs are rarely unionised, often temporary and provide with very few benefits — benefits of which many women are not even aware of. Even if aware, they do not question it due to fear and other access barriers.

A recent study from A Commitment to Training and Employment for Women (ACTEW) showed that after six months of arrival, only 32 per cent of immigrant women in the ‘family class’ are employed, compared with 54 per cent of men. Men who are classified as economic class spouses are 8 per cent more likely to be employed than women in the same class. What is more disappointing is that women who do have the qualifications and communication skills to perform just as a born Canadian citizen, are often racialised, under-represented and disregarded when applied for a job. The alarming low annual incomes produced from this challenge are directly linked with the poverty that immigrant women suffer from.
Service access and representation

Many immigrant and refugee women do not access health services because they do not meet the eligibility criteria, or they fear that their irregular immigration status might result in deportation if they are found out. The three-month waiting period for Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) has also discouraged many immigrant women from accessing healthcare right away. They were unable to express their problems and are uninformed and unaware of seeking the health services that Canada is able to provide. Lack of affordable childcare services is also a barrier for immigrant women.

The one factor that surrounds all these challenges is language. Women are unable to express, ask, or forward themselves due to their lack of fluency in English language. Combined with the racial discrimination and automatic disregard of most immigrant credentials, it is difficult even for capable and qualified women to find employment. Not being able to do so, the economic independence of women is denied. This leads to poverty, abuse, domestic violence, and subordination of women. These factors cripple immigrant women further from relieving themselves to individual independence.

The writer is Doctoral student in Curriculum Studies and  Teacher Development
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)
Research assistant, University of Toronto

Founder-President Volunteer Association for Bangladesh Canada


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