Introduction Introduction Chapter 5 Chapter 5
Chapter 1 Chapter 1 Notes for Indicators Notes
Chapter 2 Chapter 2 Noties for quotations Notes for quotations
Chapter 3 Chapter 3 Notes for boxes Notes for boxes
Chapter 4 Chapter 4 Indicators Indicators
CHAPTER 2 Printer Friendly printer friendly version
Chapter 1 A Mighty but Silent River:
Women and Migration

Globalization and the Migration of Women

Millions of Faces, Many Experiences

The Socio-economic Implications of the Migration of Women

The Migration Experience: Seizing Opportunities, Overcoming Obstacles

In a Thai factory just across the border from Myanmar, a young woman with a gently rounded face and wide eyes assembles costume jewellery for export to North America. Her name is Saokham and she earns 140 Thai Baht (about US$3.50) a day. In this part of the world, it is a respectable wage—particularly for someone who grew up living in abject poverty in a mountain village in Myanmar’s Shan Province. Although Saokham completed eight years of free schooling, she was unable to continue her education because her parents were too poor to pay her school fees. At the age of 14 she followed her older sister—who had left home two years earlier—to neighbouring Thailand. Today, she lives with her young husband in a community of fellow compatriots near the Myanmar border. "Living in Thailand, we have money for food and to spend. Life is convenient," she says. "Back home we didn't have any work except farm work."

Saokham is part of a steadily growing revolution. It is a revolution of movement and empowerment; fuelled by hope and bedevilled by risk. Yet it remains largely silent. Today, 94.5 million, or nearly half (49.6 per cent) of all international migrants, are women.(1) If international migration has remained on the periphery of global policymaking until recently, the issue of migrant women has received even less attention. This is because research has failed to take into account the socio-economic contributions and unique experiences of women and girls.(2)

It is an important oversight, one that has broad consequences not only for the women who migrate, but also for families and communities left behind. Their remittances constitute a significant contribution to poverty reduction and development. Despite this, women face disproportionate obstacles and risks simply because they are female. These include discrimination—both at source and destination—abuse and exploitation, which testify to the neglect of their rights (see Chapter 3). Nevertheless, migration has proven to be a positive experience for millions of women and their families worldwide. Moving to a new country exposes women to new ideas and social norms that can promote their rights and enable them to participate more fully in society. It can also have a positive influence on gender norms in the country of origin. In all cases, policymakers need to focus attention on how discrimination influences the course of international migration at the individual, family, community and country levels. Only when international migration is properly managed will the human rights of migrant women be fulfilled and their contributions—to their families, their communities and their countries—be fully realized.

"There are very limited job opportunities in this country [Ethiopia]... I remember how I suffered before securing a job in Yemen... things would have been worse for me and my family had I not gone abroad to work."

— Ethiopian woman who migrated (undocumented) to Yemen to work as a domestic worker. Within four years, she managed to bring her five sisters.

Globalization and the Migration of Women

While most women historically migrate for marriage or family reunification, the past decades have seen an increase in women—married and unmarried—who migrate alone or in the company of other women or fellow migrants outside of their family circle.(3) Women are on the move in all parts of the world, drawn by the opportunities and forces of globalization. Biases regarding what constitutes appropriate "male" or "female" labour, government policies and employer practices influence why and where women and men move, for what occupations and under what conditions.

While migrant women and men are both in demand, the latter are more likely to occupy highly skilled and better-paid jobs. Women, on the other hand, are often restricted to traditionally "female" occupations—such as domestic work, work in the service sectors (waitressing etc.), and sex work—frequently unstable jobs marked by low wages, the absence of social services and poor working conditions(4) Nevertheless, because care work and nursing remain traditional female roles, certain migration channels are now wide open—with formal mechanisms designed to fill the demand for female employees. However, even when migrating legally, women are often relegated to jobs where they are subject to discrimination, arbitrary employment terms and abuses.

Figure 5: Trends in Female Migration by Continent/Region, 1960-2005

Click here to enlarge image

Source: UN Population Division. 2006. Trends in Total Migrant Stock: The 2005 Revision.


In addition to responding to the global demand for their services, women make the decision to move abroad because of a host of "push" factors in countries of origin. These include family obligations, unemployment, low wages, poverty, limited social and economic opportunities and the desire to expand their horizons. Women generally face greater decision-making and financial restrictions than do men, which can pose obstacles to freedom of movement. Yet income-earning opportunities abroad can loosen traditional constraints on female mobility. Economic and social upheaval can also provide the impetus to leave. For example, the 1998 economic crisis and the dollarization of the Ecuadorian currency in the year 2000 sparked a major outflow of new migrants to Spain.(5) The 1997 financial crisis in Asia similarly led to the emigration of many women from poorer countries.(6) For educated women unable to overcome employment discrimination in their own country, migration offers an opportunity to find work that is more likely to better utilize their skills.(7) Women also migrate to flee abusive marriages and patriarchal traditions that limit opportunity and freedom.(8) Discrimination against certain groups of women—single mothers, unmarried women, widows or divorcees—also drives many to move elsewhere.(9)



Over the last 40 years, almost as many women have migrated as men. Most moved to join their husbands in the settler countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. By the year 2005, there were slightly more female than male immigrants in all regions of the world except Africa and Asia.(1)

Among developed regions, North America is exceptional in that female immigrants have outnumbered male immigrants since 1930 and still do in both Canada and the United States.(2) Europe and Oceania are also reporting increasing proportions of female immigrants— surpassing the number of males since 2000.(3) Among migrants to Australia, women have outnumbered men for the last three decades. The majority of women migrating to Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America do so for family reunification, followed by labour migration and asylum.(4)

Within the developing world, the numbers of female labour migrants have also jumped.(5)

In Asia, the number of women migrating from some countries has surpassed that of males. The majority migrate alone to neighbouring East Asian countries, the Middle East and elsewhere. By the year 2000, an estimated two million Asian women were working in neighbouring countries.(6) In 2005, over 65 per cent of the nearly 3,000 Filipinos that left the country every day for work or residence abroad were women.(7) From Sri Lanka in 2002, there were two women for every male emigrant.(8) Between 2000 and 2003, an average of 79 per cent of all migrants leaving Indonesia to work abroad were women.(9) By the mid-1990s an estimated 800,000 Asian women were migrating to the Middle East annually—mostly as domestic workers.(10)

Latin American and Caribbean women are also highly mobile. By 1990, immigrant women in Latin America were the first in the developing world to reach parity with male migrants.(11) Destinations include Europe, North America and elsewhere in South America. The trend toward feminization is also strikingly apparent among migrants moving from both Central and South America to Spain, with women representing nearly 70 per cent of all immigrants arriving from Brazil and the Dominican Republic in 2001.(12) Women from this region also clearly dominate migration flows to Italy, where, in 2000, 70 per cent or more of the arrivals from 13 of 30 source countries were women.(13) Caribbean women have outnumbered males in migration flows to North America during every decade since the 1950s and are well represented in skilled categories.(14) The tourism industry has been a major pull factor behind the migration of Caribbean women.(15)

In Africa, widespread poverty, disease, land degradation and high male unemployment are all contributing to a steady increase in female migrants—and at a rate that is faster than the global average.(16) By 2005, 47 per cent of the 17 million immigrants in Africa were women—up from 42 per cent in 1960—with the greatest increases among migrants in the Eastern and Western regions.(17) While most African women circulate within the region, they are also moving to North America and Europe. To illustrate: From Cape Verde, women constitute 85 per cent of all those who migrate to Italy.(18) Employment opportunities in France have drawn an increasing number of educated women from urban areas of Senegal.(19) Nurses are also on the move—Nigerians to Saudi Arabia, and Ghanaian, South African and Zimbabwean nurses to Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.(20)

In the Arab region, socio-cultural norms continue to limit female mobility. Although reliable data are scarce, it is generally accepted that male émigrés far outnumber women. Unemployment, armed conflicts and economic need have been major factors. Young men migrating from poorer countries to richer oil-producing states have dominated migration flows to fill the demand for construction and infrastructural workers that followed in the wake of the oil boom.