Photojournalists chronicle challenges and triumphs of women migrants in National Geographic Live program

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Judith Manjoro was in her late 40s when she arrived in Johannesburg in 2005. A migrant who fled political tensions in Zimbabwe, she took on several menial jobs to survive, such as cleaning and doing laundry for wealthy families and selling Tupperware on the street. But she was also a former high school teacher and saw that the neighbourhoods were full of unsupervised children, including many young Zimbabweans.

She learned of the difficulties migrants were having enrolling their children in schools, which meant tens of thousands of children were unable to receive an education in South Africa. So she started a study group for children of migrants in 2009.

Manjoro’s story was a part of a sprawling February spread in National Geographic that traced the stories of dozens of women from dozens of countries who fled their homelands in search of a new life. According to the magazine, millions of women have made similar trips, often putting themselves at great risk. Manjoro fled Zimbabwe in the early aughts because she supported an opposition group that had become embroiled in an increasingly violent conflict with the government. In 2012, when her “unofficial” student population continued to grow, she was arrested in Johannesburg for running an illegal school. According to the National Geographic article, it led to a year of legal wrangling before the case was dropped and Manjoro and her supporters started to take steps to make the school official. Less than a decade later, the school is thriving with 350 students, most of whom are the children of migrants.

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“What I wanted to say is that we underestimate (migrating women),” says documentary photographer Miora Rajaonary, who took the beautiful photographs that accompany Manjoro’s story in National Geographic. “The conclusions that I came to after working on this story was that even if they are not highly educated, they contribute to the well-being of the family, to the community back home and also in the country where they reside. So we should make more room for them because they are able to achieve so much despite the many obstacles that they face. Despite the challenges, female migrants achieve a lot for their communities and their families.”

Bibi Sabar, 22, at left, takes a selfie with a friend outside Islamabad’s Faisal Mosque. Bibi moved to Islamabad to study IT at the urging of her family because the violence against ethnic Hazaras like her in her hometown of Quetta made it dangerous to attend a university there. Photo by Saiyna Bashir. Caption and photo courtesy of National Geographic.
Bibi Sabar, 22, at left, takes a selfie with a friend outside Islamabad’s Faisal Mosque. Bibi moved to Islamabad to study IT at the urging of her family because the violence against ethnic Hazaras like her in her hometown of Quetta made it dangerous to attend a university there. Photo by Saiyna Bashir. Caption and photo courtesy of National Geographic. jpg

Rajaonary is one of six photographers who make up a group called The Everyday Project who chronicled the plight and achievements of migrating women around the world for National Geographic’s February 2021 issue. Three of them — Rajaonary, Saiyna Bashir and Danielle Villasana — will take part in Women and Migration on April 12, a live stream presentation by Arts Commons and part of the National Geographic’s Live virtual series.

Rajaonary was born and raised in Madagascar and has generally photographed Africa, focusing on “identity and social issues.”

In the same National Geographic issue, Pakistani photojournalist Bashir aimed her lens at women who fled violence in the city of Quetta and pursued an education in Islamabad.

Villasana, a photojournalist and National Geographic explorer based in Instanbul, covered the journey of transgender woman Kataleya Nativi Baca, who fled her home in Honduras for a harrowing trip to the U.S.-Mexico border where she found more violence and danger.

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Samanta Hilton, Alexa Smith, and Escarle Lovely relax in their hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Latin America is the world’s deadliest region for transgender women like them. Photo by Danielle Villasana. Photo and caption courtesy of National Geographic.
Samanta Hilton, Alexa Smith, and Escarle Lovely relax in their hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Latin America is the world’s deadliest region for transgender women like them. Photo by Danielle Villasana. Photo and caption courtesy of National Geographic. jpg

“(The idea) was to not create something linear,” Rajaonary says. “It was made to go in several directions and show people facets of female migration.”

The presentation, which is to be followed by a Q&A with the panellists, will talk about the specific stories they covered for the magazine but also what they represent in the trend toward what the magazine calls “the feminization of migration” that sees more and more women escaping famine and violence for wealthier countries to work in childcare, domestic work, agriculture and manufacturing. In 2019, 270 million people were not living in the countries they were born in. Half of them were women.

“On the macro-economic scale, I think female migration has a real impact,” Rajaonary says. “They really contribute to the welfare of the family and the welfare of the country.”

Women in Migration, a digital presentation by National Geographic Live and Arts Common, will take place April 12 at 7 p.m. Visit artscommon.ca.

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