Belinda Dodson

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 9

PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduce and reference
this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.


The traditional pattern of cross-border migration in the Southern African region has been one of impermanent (if long-term) labour migration of black males to South Africa from other Southern African countries. Yet it is likely that parallel female migration to South Africa has been underestimated, being of tenuous legality and therefore deliberately covert. In addition, female migration from outside the country appears to have undergone a significant increase since 1994. This study examines the experiences of women in relation to cross-border migration and compares these experiences to those of men. Among the questions it seeks to answer are:

The analysis is based on data from surveys conducted by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) in Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique in mid-1997. Findings reveal that Southern African women’s experience of migration differs from that of men in a number of ways:

Comparing the findings to those in other developing countries shows a number of parallels. As elsewhere, men in Southern Africa are more mobile than women, and it is women who are more often "left behind". The women left behind are disadvantaged in various ways by male out-migration, which may bring in earnings but adds to women’s productive and reproductive responsibilities at home. Certainly men’s migration in the region is undertaken more independently than that by women, although both are better understood as part of a "household strategies" approach. As in the international experience, male migration here is more closely tied to employment, and women have fewer legal employment opportunities than men in the South African labour market. Related to these gender-specific motivations for migration, men move further and to a wider range of destinations.

Two fundamental points emerge from this analysis:

In addition, a number of specific guidelines for policy on gender and migration are suggested:

Each of the above recommendations has development implications. While it is a common view that migration undermines development, with a loss of skills from source countries and an over-supply of labour in the recipient country, the pattern of "to-and-fro" migration practiced by Southern African women can serve to facilitate positive socio-economic change. Allowing women freer access to South Africa would encourage the exchange of goods, services and ideas that constitutes the very engine of development, and there is little to suggest that a more open migration policy would result in an unmanageable influx of women (or men) into the country. Indeed female migration to South Africa could be a mechanism for reducing both spatial and gender-based inequalities in the region, empowering women to be agents of development both in their home countries and in South Africa itself.