Stories of migration

Migration Is Female

Bangkok; Copyright: Picture-Alliance; EPA/RUNGROJ YONGRITBangkok; Copyright: Picture-Alliance; EPA/RUNGROJ YONGRITImages of people crossing the Atlantic or the Mediterranean in tiny boats, putting their lives at risk, generally show male migrants in search of a better life in Europe. But it is wrong to assume that migration is a male phenomenon.


Today, most of the world's migrants – an estimated 191 million people – are women. A further 13 million people, mainly women and children, are refugees or displaced persons. This is described as the "feminisation" of migration.

In some regions of the world, migratory movements now mainly consist of women – as in the Philippines, where 70% of emigrants are female. There is also female internal migration from rural regions to the urban centres, notably in China, which is taking place on a massive scale. Often, internal migration is the first step towards onward migration abroad.

The following characteristics are typical of today's feminised migration:

  1. The proportion of women migrating on their own has increased, one reason being that children or other family members are not accepted for entry to the host countries, or their entry may not be possible for other reasons. The average age of female migrants has increased, and they are also better qualified than in the past.
  2. The proportion of female migrants without the appropriate documents – known as illegals – is higher than ever before, also as a result of restrictive migration regimes.
  3. The number of commuters among the female migrants, or those who are following a rotation system which they have organised themselves, also appears to be on the rise.
  4. Most female migrants are employed in one of the following three sectors: domestic work, the restaurant and catering sector, and entertainment/prostitution, with domestic work now being the most important employment sector for female migrants worldwide. These are traditionally female domains (poorly paid and without social insurance). The substantial female migration into these sectors further entrenches the longstanding link between the perceived "gender" of the work (i.e. it is regarded as women's work), and the gender of those performing it (i.e. women). It is also noticeable that these "markets" are not emerging simply because there is a genuine demand for workers here: the demand is also being driven by the income gap between affluent and poorer countries, prompting (skilled) women to leave their home country and offer their labour abroad, even if the price they have to pay is life as an illegal and/or deskilling.

The migration trap

Palestinian Refugees; Copyright: Picture-Alliance; Fotograf: EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA Migration into the entertainment industry and prostitution may be coercive and is generally characterised by numerous relationships of violence. However, there are also migrant women who choose to work in this sector and assume that it will only be temporary. In that sense, they have much in common with migrants – male and female – working in other sectors, who often do not anticipate that migration develops a momentum of its own. Insecure employment and living arrangements, illness, exploitation and the demand for the latest consumer goods/medicines, etc. in the country of origin all lead to the date of the planned return repeatedly being postponed. Domestic and care work might appear to offer migrant women more security as they are working in a "protected" space. Yet this is often an illusion. Human Rights Watch (2006) points out that the majority of female migrants from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia who are employed in households in the Middle East, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong endure inhumane living and working conditions. There is one striking similarity between the highly developed industrialised countries and the countries of the global South: almost everywhere, domestic work is excluded from labour law. As a result, there is no way of detecting abuse and imposing sanctions against employers and intermediary organisations. Very few of the host countries seem to be interested in remedying this situation. The migrants' countries of origin have very limited opportunities to exert influence in order to improve the rights of their citizens who have emigrated abroad, and anyway, they have an interest in maintaining the flow of remittances – running into billions – which make an important, sometimes the most important, contribution to national income. Overall, women appear to show more loyalty to their families at home (husbands, parents, children, relatives) than male migrants.

In the past, it was often assumed that over the long term, female migration would shift the balance of power within the family in women's favour and change the gender roles which are typical of patriarchal systems, given that these women are the breadwinners for their families at home. In reality, however, it has become apparent that in the countries of origin too, domestic work is defined as women's work and remains in women's hands, with the absent mother's work in the family being allocated to her daughters, (grand)mother and other female relatives. Since many migrant women have no option but to leave their families behind, transnational households are increasingly emerging, along with transnational mothering arrangements, known as "mothering at a distance". The mothers concerned try to cushion the negative impacts of their absence by returning home every two or three months, thus becoming commuter migrants.

Transnational service providers

A "global supply chain" is emerging which is causing a "care drain" in the countries of origin, which in turn is filled by migrants from even poorer countries. But in the host countries, no one is interested in these migrants' qualifications; what counts is their willingness to work below their skills level. As a result, their skills – which are not being utilised in their regions of origin either – go to waste ("brain waste"). Feminised migration is the outcome of the development of globalised markets dominated by neoliberal thinking. Women are becoming pioneers of migration because certain services, such as call centres, cannot be outsourced to the countries of origin and have to be set up in the host countries. Migrants' skills must be recognised and improvements in their social and legal situation are urgently required. This involves "joined-up" solutions across several policy areas – migration and development, gender, and labour and welfare policy.

References Human Rights Watch: Swept under the rug. Abuses against domestic workers all around the world, July 2006 Lutz, Helma: Vom Weltmarkt in den Privathaushalt. Die neuen Dienstmädchen im Zeitalter der Globalisierung. Opladen 2007a, ISBN: 978-3-86649-011-9
Helma Lutz
is professor of sociology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. Her main focus is on women’s studies and gender research.

Translation: Hillary Crowe
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Online Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
July 2007

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