Voices from the Margins: Migrant Women's Experiences in Southern Africa
Series Editor: Jonathan Crush
PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduce and reference this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.
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
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.
Since 1 990, 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
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
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
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.