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The drivers and outcomes of feminization of migration in Africa

Friday 25 July 2014, by siawi3

Nedson Pophiwa

2014-06-26, Issue 684


Migration from Africa has historically been a male-dominated phenomenon, but the pattern has changed significantly in recent decades. African women are leaving their countries of birth to create new lives elsewhere. Economic opportunities are primarily available in childcare, domestic and sex work. These trends should be of special interest to those in the policy-making spaces who are concerned about the wellbeing of female migrants.

African migration has a long history. Migration patterns in present day Africa are still greatly influenced by historical factors such as colonialism and its creation of arbitrary borders that sought to divide ethnically linked populations into different countries. Over the past few decades there has been an overall rise in ‘feminisation’ of migration in Africa as millions of women gradually became economic beings with a responsibility to contribute financially to their families. As it stands now, nearly half (49%) of all migrant workers are women [1]. An activity that used to be largely male dominated has become increasingly feminine. It was the norm especially in the colonial era for male labourers to leave their families behind and cross international boundaries looking for work, especially in the Southern African region where the South African mines proved to be a magnet for employment. Women are now more than ever migrating independently as a means of meeting their own economic needs rather than migrating to join a husband and family [2]. This brief article focuses on answering two critical questions with regard to the feminisation of migration, namely:

1. What have been the major drivers of female migration in Africa?
2. What are the outcomes (positive or negative) of female migration?

The significant number of women involved in international migration is a pattern that has been noted since 1960 [3], while the feminisation of labour migration was already underway even before the literature on female migration flourished. In general, the developed regions have a more balanced share of male and female migrants than developing regions. Scholars have argued that the window for family reunification, which has worked favouring female migrants, provides some explanation in shaping this situation. In these countries large numbers of female migrants have arrived under family reunification schemes, following the earlier wave of labour migration consisting mainly of males.


Economic pressures on the one hand, and demand factors, on the other, changed the migration opportunities of women and men, and in the process, also changed age-old norms about the spaces allowed to women and men. In Africa, for example, the traditional pattern of migration within and from the continent was ‘male-dominated, long distance and long term’, leaving women behind to assume family responsibilities and agricultural work. Shrinking job opportunities for men, however, has recently prompted increasing female migration both within and beyond national borders (Adepoju, 2004). Whereas traditional or customary migration seems to privilege men’s options, labour migration has somewhat equalised the migration motivations of women and men. Male and female migrants alike generally articulate economic reasons for migration – in developing regions, migration is usually undertaken to improve the family’s economic conditions. Women’s reasons for migration, however, may be motivated by other non-economic factors. An important, though less explicit, motivation for women’s migration might also be the search for more open milieus. Gender-related factors, such as surveillance of daughters, or lack of socially accepted options to get out of a bad marriage, or fleeing from domestic violence, are conditions that can ‘push’ women out. In this regard, migration functions not just as an economic safety valve, but as an avenue to allow women passage into safer, more enabling environments. Gendered norms about migration not only influence individual motivations or household decisions but also state policies. Oishi (2002) has suggested that men’s migration is seen more in terms of economic criteria while policymaking regarding women’s migration is value-driven, i.e., influenced by values on women’s employment and their socio-economic status.


Women’s incorporation in the ‘productive’ labor market has not been accompanied by a redistribution of the ‘reproductive’ work that continues to be primarily their responsibility. As a result, migration has become a private solution to a public problem for both women from poor countries and their employers in rich countries. Scholars have coined the phrase ‘global care chains’ to describe the importation of loving care from developing to developed countries [4]. The argument here is that as care is looked as a precious resource, children and the elderly who are left behind from poor countries pay the highest price for this transfer, after women themselves, who manage their households from different countries and try to maintain their families. This refers to the strongly segmented labour markets for care workers in industrialised countries, which results in migration by women from poorer countries to work as nannies, maids and sex workers.

Literature on this subject is infused with debates about what happens to children that are left behind. Reports show how in a context of high female out-migration, villagers in parts of Zimbabwe perceive that children are left in others’ care and when things go wrong, the mother is not there. In the end, the mother is to blame and migration is looked on as a thing of moral disorder. In another study, it is documented that the money sent home by wives is spent on alcohol and cigarettes by the husbands or men of the households [5]. Also, female out-migration would idealistically mean that more childcare responsibilities are taken on by the men, but this might not be the case. This is shown as some Zimbabwean women working abroad often continue bearing the responsibility for childcare by organising and funding a domestic worker back home to raise the children, with little expectation that men will increase their caring role [6]. Another phenomenon that is highlighted with female out-migration is how male roles within the family are rigidly defined and how difficult it is to change them. For example, in South Western Zimbabwe and parts of Mozambique, when men migrated, women readily assumed many of the traditional household functions performed by men. However, in the absence of their wives, men were found to be inflexible in accepting new roles in household management. Instead, the extended family came into operation once the women were away .

Gender concerns are very much evident in the issue of trafficking in persons, especially women and children. Although trafficking has been more broadly defined beyond prostitution or sex work, most trafficked persons continue to be trafficked for this purpose, and most trafficked persons are women and children. On the supply side, gender inequality can predispose women and girls to being trafficked because they are less valued. Some of the modus operandi of trafficking adds to the vulnerability of women and girls to be trafficked – e.g., offers of marriage free families of the burden of having to raise dowry to marry off their daughters. Also, the fact that families do not have to raise a placement fee works to the advantage of traffickers. Studies suggest that traffickers, in fact, have been found to target families during the lean months, approaching families with offers of jobs as domestic workers, sales or restaurant workers to women and girls [7].


The discussion above has indicated that female migration in Africa has come of age as women are forced to take a leading role in meeting the livelihood needs of their families. Over the past decades, female-headed households have become the norm and hence the pressure to cross boundaries in search of work ranging from domestic care work to prostitution has increased for many African women. However, this shift in roles poses a number of challenges, especially for married women who leave their husbands in their home countries, including those who migrate with them. Most of the men do not willingly take up the responsibilities of taking care of children while their wives take up employment. For women who migrate alone, the dangers of being smuggled or trafficked are very high and this poses a number of challenges for policy makers who are responsible for protecting the rights of migrants. The policy space for female migration remains fertile for the development of proactive policies that cater for the needs of female migrants.

Nedson Pophiwa is a Chief Researcher in the Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery Programme of the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria, South Africa


1. International Committee for the Red Cross Advisory Meeting. (No Date) Special Report: Migration and Gender in the African Context.
2. A. Adepoju. 2004. Changing Configurations of Migration in Africa Accessed on
3. Hania Zlotnik, 2003. “The Global Dimensions of Female Migration” in the Migration Information Source, Available from
4. R. Carlota, M. Dominguez, and J. Morais. 2005. “Crossing Borders: Remittances, Gender and Development.” UN-ISTRAW Working Paper.
5. C. Waddington. 2003. Livelihood Outcomes of Migration for Poor People. Working Paper T1. Sussex Centre for Migration Research. Accessed on
6. De Jong, G. F. 2000. Expectations, Gender and norms in Migration decision making. Population Studies 54(3): 307-319.
7. See for example the International Organisation for Migration and UNINSTRAW’s work on migration in Southern Africa