Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


The concept of the feminization of migration traditionally refers to the growth in numbers and relative importance of women’s migration, particularly from and within developing countries. In Africa, for example, the proportion of female migrants rose from 42% of the total in 1 960 to almost 50% at the present time. This process is a result, first, of the continued impoverishment and marginalization of many women in developing countries; and second, of the increasing demand for female labour in the service industries of industrial and industrializing countries.

The United Nations suggests that the full implications of migration and mobility for women are difficult to assess, due to a dearth of data on women and migration. What also eludes official statistics is the extent to which women migrants are independent actors in migration decision- making. There remains a lack of understanding of women’s motives and experiences in the migration process, which is linked historically to the invisibility and marginalization of women as migrants. In Southern Africa, there is still a serious lack of gendered analysis of contemporary cross-border migration, and limited understanding of women’s experiences as migrants.

Migration to South Africa in the twentieth century consisted of two main types:

  • Immigrants, exclusively white until the mid-1980s, came primarily as “family class” migrants from Europe, with women accompanying their working spouses.
  • Migrants, primarily black and male, were allowed temporary entry to South Africa under bilateral agreements with sending states (such as Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Swaziland). Although temporary migration was male-dominated, some women did accompany their spouses or left on their own for South Africa.

Since 1990, the number of women migrants to South Africa has increased dramatically, although a recent SAMP survey shows that with the exception of Zimbabwe, temporary migration in the SADC is still male-dominated. Women have become far more mobile but may not be moving primarily as economic migrants who work or are looking for work. Gender roles tend to produce a more varied set of reasons for circular movements among women. Overall, female migrants are generally older and more educated than male migrants, and more likely to be married. Women migrants are motivated by a range of social, economic and reproductive factors, but are less likely to seek formal employment than males. They are more likely to travel for purposes of cross-border trade and are likely to stay for shorter periods and engage less with the formal economy or social networks.

SAMP’s Migration and Gender Conference in 2002 determined that there was a need for more in-depth research with a specific focus on women’s migration experiences to complement statistical data. SAMP developed the Migrant Voices Project (MVP) in 2004 and, in 2005, conducted an in-depth, qualitative study with women migrants both temporarily and permanently living in South Africa, as well as with South African women who had returned to the country after migrating.

Through these interviews, the MVP gathered qualitative information from women migrants on a range of issues including: migration decision- making, travel preparations, experiences while migrating, resulting in household and lifestyle changes, experiences of living in a foreign country, and treatment from family and community when returning to countries of origin. Beyond personal experiences, the MVP also explored women’s perceptions of the importance of migration in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, reasons for women’s migration in particular, awareness of policy, and gender-specific challenges encountered. Finally, SAMP aimed to glean policy recommendations from women migrants themselves, against a backdrop of the redrafting of immigration regulations in South Africa, and renewed uptake of the SADC Facilitation of Movement Protocol.

The findings of the MVP are presented in considerable depth in this paper. They confirm some aspects of our previous understanding of why women migrate: for many, migration is a survival strategy driven primarily by household need. Migration also allows women the opportunity to work, to earn their own money and to exercise greater decision-making power in their daily lives. However, the MVP also challenged current understanding in a number of respects. Many of the migrant women interviewed are independent agents in migration decision-making, rather than deferring to male partners or parents, and have defied resistance from families and communities. Some challenge the idea that migration is motivated purely by economic and livelihood needs, instead valuing the fundamental experience of travel in itself, and the personal benefit of exposure to other cultures, languages and ideas. In terms of gendered migration experiences, many women feel male migrants are as vulnerable, if not more so than women, for a number of complex reasons. Although many travel to South Africa through irregular means, they place high value on the right of governments to control and manage migration, and wish to regularize their own status. And, though knowledge of migration policy and regulations differs, women articulated a number of key migration policy recommendations for the region.

This publication, as well as drawing conclusions from women’s descriptions of their experiences as migrants, also provides a forum for the voices of women themselves to be heard. Providing a means for those voices to be heard by policy-makers and others in positions of power is always a challenge. SAMP’s Migration Policy Series is widely consulted by those who make the rules. By providing space for women to speak (through copious verbatim reproduction of their comments), SAMP anticipates that these voices will be heard and will affect the current policy debate. Migration conferences, workshops and forums are notable in Southern Africa for the absence of migrants themselves. SAMP hopes that this publication will prompt greater policy attention to the voices, needs and experiences of ordinary women.