‘You feel sick, you get sick, you still keep going’: Central Asian female labour migrants’ health in Russia

26 Feb 2021

Most labour migrants in Russia are males, but in recent years the percentage of females has been growing, even among migrants from Central Asia. For a long time, they were not the focus of most studies investigating migrants’ needs and health issues.

The study

Elizabeth King, Victoria Dudina, and Svetlana Dubrovskaya have conducted a qualitative study of health-related troubles and needs of female labour migrants from Central Asia in Russia. The article named “‘You feel sick, you get sick, you still keep going’: Central Asian female labour migrants’ health in Russia” was published in Global Public Health journal in 2019. The study group included three investigators: a public health researcher from the USA and two sociologists from Russia.

The study results reflect associations between religion, gender, ethnicity, social and economic position, on the one hand, and health issues and use of opportunities and services of the healthcare system, on the other hand.


Data was collected by means of semi-structured interviews in Russian, lasting from 45 to 90 minutes. Respondents included medical services providers, social activists, legal experts, and female migrants from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.


Presenting the result of the study, the authors defined 5 areas related to the needs of Central Asian women.

The first area of interest is called “Variety of health concerns: from sexual and reproductive to general health”. Most respondents reported pregnancy as the most critical among their sexual and reproductive health needs. Besides pregnancy, other aspects of concern included the use of contraceptives, abortions, cultural and religious norms related to the importance of virginity and sexual health awareness.

Female labour migrants face some health issues related to the strenuous working conditions or many-hours-long shifts. They mention headache and body aches, weakness, fatigue, dental disorders, digestive disturbances, and intestinal problems. According to doctors, anemia is also a serious problem for their patients from Central Asia.

The second area of interest are the so-called “Contextual issues” including economic vulnerability and racial discrimination influence the health of female labour migrants.

One of the barriers to seeking medical care was the lack of insurance and the prohibitive cost of medical care.

Another factor is economic vulnerability. Experts as well as migrants highlighted that health was not their priority, considering multiple concurrent problems: paperwork, need to provide for themselves and their families in the home country.

One more factor is fear, which is based on the experience of discrimination. Most study participants said that they feared being treated poorly because of their migrant status, as they had already experienced problems related to ethnicity.

Access to health-related information is the third area of focus in the study. The interviews with women from Central Asia have shown that they have difficulties obtaining information. They do not know from who or where to ask, or search.

When asked what health-related information they needed most, the participants first mentioned pediatrics and female reproductive health. In their countries of origin, these topics may be tabooed. The respondents also said that being better informed about local culture and social norms, including the interaction with healthcare system, would help feeling more comfortable.

The fourth area defined by the investigators is “Provider-patient relationships”.

Reasons why female labour migrants may not be comfortable visiting a doctor while in Russia include:

  • lack of trust for providers,
  • language barriers,
  • cultural norms around being treated by male doctors,
  • and anticipation of how they will be treated based on their ethnicity.

Usually, migrants tend to go to doctors of the same origin, as this engenders trust. Some participants said that they were embarrassed by poor Russian language skills and this troubled them about communication with doctors, as doctors may exhibit bad attitude towards patients who do not speak good Russian.

Seeking sexual and reproductive health-related services is one of the most sensitive topics. Due to the upbringing and different cultural worldview, a woman from Central Asia may face difficulties when going to a doctor for such reasons, especially if a gynecologist is male.

The fifth area is “Social support”. For Central Asian countries, community is a typical social form, and this social support, especially from other women, plays an important role in any decisions, including health related. Female labour migrants often asked each other for support.

While many participants highlighted the positive impact of having supportive social networks, it is also important to consider the negative impact that social networks can have by putting pressure on or excluding women who may violate social norms.

The study results describe the vulnerabilities faced by Central Asian female labour migrants in Russia concerning their health and well-being, and their access to health services and prevention programs. While the authors have been able to identify some of the major issues related to the health of Central Asian women in Russia, more research is needed about this population.

Dmitriy Korenev

Based on: Elizabeth J. King, Victoria I. Dudina & Svetlana Dubrovskaya (2019):‘You feel sick, you get sick, you still keep going’: Central Asian female labour migrants’ health in Russia, Global Public Health, https://doi.org/10.1080/17441692.2019.1701060

This article is prepared with the support of Oxfam in Russia