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Feminization of Migration in West Africa

Migration in West Africa is becoming an increasingly female phenomenon, writes Idoko Uchenna:

"The traditional regional pattern of migration that had been male-dominated is increasingly becoming feminized. Women now account for almost 50 per cent of West Africa's migrant population. Strikingly, these women move independently to fulfil their own economic needs; they are not dependents simply joining husbands or other family members. In Ghana, for example, the proportion of female migrants increased from 41 percent in 1960 to 47 percent in 1990. Women dominate short distance emigration to nearby countries, accounting for 64, 57 and 56 per cent respectively of the Ghanaian emigrants in Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Togo in the mid 1980s, and are often younger than male migrants; and, across the region, women population in refugee camps is roughly equal to those of men.

"A growing number of current studies on the issue are highlighting the way that women are moving independently of men as skilled workers, entrepreneurs and traders. Professional women, especially female nurses and doctors, now increasingly are engaged in international migration often leaving their spouses at home to care for the children thus creating new orientations in gender role changes within the African family. But few statistics on migration are sex-disaggregated, and so the dominant information still portrays West African women migrants in stereotypical roles as wives, daughters and carers.

"Gender can have a greater effect on experiences of migration than country of origin or destination, age, class, or culture. Migration can be empowering for women, providing new economic independence and experiences. At the same time, women face more dangers when migrating than men, and are more vulnerable to physical, sexual and verbal abuse. Once in the host country, women may suffer double discrimination, as both migrants and as women.

"If women and men are to benefit from the empowering and development potential of migration in West Africa, a shift is needed to a gendered human rights approach to migration. The key elements of such an approach could be: Immigration and emigration policies that enable women as well as men to take up opportunities that safe and regular migration may offer, and which will foster the positive impacts of migration for the social and economic development of migrants, and the receiving and sending countries. This would include measures to ensure sufficient regular channels for women's entry, to avoid them being pushed into more risky irregular channels, and bilateral agreements between sending and receiving areas, which protect women migrants' rights.

"Equally, women should be mobilised and given knowledge about their rights under international law; and it must be ensured that governments in the region ratify the relevant laws, and in actual practice, offer legal protection for all women migrants including trafficked peoples, refugees and displaced peoples. Women-specific frameworks such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), UN Resolution 1325 and the Beijing Platform for Action should guide the direction of policy development and normative action."


Studies of both migration and gender need to consciously take into account this critical demographic and cultural shift. Both the rights of migrants and the protection thereof, as well as the gendered reasons why people chose to migrate in the first place need to be better understood. As migration becomes a more gender-balanced practice, the dynamics of migrant labor, migrant career trajectories, and cross-border families will shift dramatically.

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West Africa Insight, Centre for Democracy and Development, Vol 1, No 9, September 2010, page 8: