Understanding the feminisation of migration

by Luca Stanus Ghib

Last spring, while attending Prof. Devillanova’s course in International migration here at Bocconi, I had the opportunity to research and write on a topic, which in my view has not had enough room in the academic or public debate, namely the “feminisation of migration”.

What is meant by that? To be sure, women have historically migrated as much as men, in some cases even outnumbering them. What has changed in the last couple of decades is the extent to which women migrate independently or as heads of their households, in stark contrast with their traditional role as movers tied to a husband. In addition, we as a society have become increasingly aware that there is a gender dimension to sociological and anthropological processes, migration being a prominent one.

Let us briefly go over some evidence to help us understand how the feminisation of migration affects the study of development and its consequences for policy.

The intersection of the migration and development literatures has mostly been the study of remittances and their impact on those who stay behind. It is important, then, to acknowledge that there are gender-related differences which shape the ultimate impact of remittance cash home. Concerning the gender of the receiver, studies suggest that when men migrate and remit, the women left behind gain more agency in deciding how to direct that additional income. Income remitted to women typically finances investment into the education of girls. There is, however, also evidence that restrictive gender norms in place in certain settings may be resilient enough to not allow for this empowering effect.

A couple of papers (here and here) contribute to the growing literature on gender norms in developing countries by looking at their impact on female migration between developing countries, an ever-increasing flow which is deeply altering the global South. Gender-discriminatory social norms seem to act as both push and pull factors, depending on the context. In particular, the authors suggest a critical threshold below which such norms push women to migrate, and above which they are strong enough to curtail migration of women.

Social networks are another feature of development studies which is bound to be nuanced once we take gender into account. For instance, female migrant networks are more of a pull factor than they are for men as they help overcome some of the stigma surrounding the migration of (often single) women and they provide crucial information to dampen the risk of exploitation, abuse, or trafficking – threats which are especially severe for women. Moreover, female migrant networks tend to be more comprehensive, providing also information about welfare and social services in the destination country, which is a result of the fact that migrant women tend to display a higher propensity to settle once they have decided to migrate.

Interestingly, there is evidence that skilled women are more likely to migrate than both skilled men and unskilled women. As skilled women tend to concentrate in the domestic health sector, this type of migration has a particularly damaging effect on the provision of health care in sending countries (see this study for a discussion on the paramount case of the Philippines), systems which are often already under-financed and inadequate.

What are the consequences for policy? The existing framework of UN conventions has its merits although it is under-subscribed and largely ineffective, leaving a legislative gap for national governments to fill when it comes to migrant women. Experts suggest receiving countries should do more to regulate recruitment of migrants (especially domestic workers, who are mostly women and are the most at-risk category) and work towards more equality between migrants and natives; sending countries should provide women with information about safe migration channels, combat trafficking and smuggling, and provide better access to financing and employment for women at home. Nonetheless, receiving countries currently do not seem to prioritise the integration and protection of migrants, whereas sending countries often lack capacity to improve the situation for women domestically or to better equip them should they decide to migrate.

To conclude, women migration is an extremely complex phenomenon. Understanding its peculiarities allows us to understand with more clarity the phenomenon of migration itself and what it means for developing countries – an issue which is shaping, and will inexorably shape, the world we live in.


Luca Stanus Ghib is an MSc candidate in Economic and Social Sciences at Bocconi University, Milan. This post draws from a longer essay which is available here. For comments and feedback: luca.stanusghib@gmail.com