Feminization of Migration

This is the first in a series of articles on the feminization of migration. Support for this series is provided by the Fred H. Bixby Foundation.

(December 2006) There has been a change in the international migration patterns of women: More are moving from one country to another on their own, rather than to join their husbands or other family members. This feminization of migration raises several key policy concerns about women’s security and human rights in sending and destination countries.1 International analysts have increasingly focused on these changes and their implications, but they have been neglected in the popular debate about immigration, and myths persist about why women migrate.

Discussions of migration have more often emphasized its causes than reflected on who is migrating. Conventional wisdom has been that more men migrate voluntarily, while the vast majority of refugees and displaced persons are female. Yet recent analysis shows that about half the people who live in some other country than the one in which they were born are female.

As international migration has increased steadily over the past 40 years, the percentage of migrants who are female has not risen as much. In 1980, 47 percent of international migrants were female. In 2000, 49 percent were.2 The global picture does, however, hide some dramatic differences at the country level. For example, as a result of the changing labor market for domestic work in other Asian countries and the Middle East, the percentage of female migrants leaving the Philippines has increased dramatically. Female migrant labor is now the country’s largest export.3

What has changed more dramatically than the numbers are the reasons why females migrate. In 1960, more women were classified as dependents, whether or not they were financially independent, and moved for family reunification purposes. Today, a higher percentage leaves for economic opportunities.4 Of course, not all migration is voluntary: Millions are forced to move due to war, civil unrest or coercion, an issue the global community has been working to address. And even for some voluntary migrants—particularly females—conditions are not always positive. Some migrants, disempowered by poverty, or discriminated against by ethnicity or sex, may be exploited or trafficked.

Adopting a gender perspective is important to understanding the positive and negative impacts of the feminization of migration. This article, the first in a series about the feminization of international migration, looks at three key topics through the prism of gender.

Productive and Reproductive Work

Gender specialists make a distinction between productive work, that is, employment that earns income for specific output in the formal or informal economy, and reproductive work, consisting of daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and child care that are necessary to keep a household functioning. In this context, “reproductive work” does not refer to biological reproduction, but more to day-to-day household maintenance.

This distinction helps focus a gender lens on international migration. Women are often recruited internationally to do reproductive work in other people’s houses or for service-sector jobs such as waitressing or entertainment that are poorly paid and marked by high instability and turnover. Many of these jobs are unregulated because they are of borderline legality (such as sex work) or because they are not included in the scope of the destination country’s labor laws, which primarily cover productive work. The unregulated nature of reproductive work, which allows no recourse through the legal system, places many women migrants at risk of exploitation in the form of low wages, poor working conditions, or physical or sexual abuse.

The migration of women to do reproductive work in other countries extends the definition of such work beyond their own households. In many cases, changing employment opportunities for women in developed countries created income-earning opportunities for women from developing ones. For example, as female education levels rose in Singapore in the 1980s, more local women began to do productive work outside the home. This shift opened up opportunities for women from the Philippines to fill positions as domestic workers and care-givers in Singaporean homes.5 Thousands of Asian female household workers migrated to the oil-rich countries in the 1980s and 1990s. This, along with the declining need for male construction workers, propelled a shift in the ratio of Asian female and male migrants.

Increasingly, women who migrate from poor countries to carry out reproductive work in the households of wealthier countries participate in a global care chain as they become members of transnational families. Many female migrants have their own children and elders to look after. Usually, they either pass on this responsibility to other female relatives—or, with their higher foreign earnings, hire lower income domestic workers to manage their own households. This can create families whose members belong to two households, two cultures and two economies simultaneously. This can serve to change the head of household, as grandmothers or youth take charge of children with absent parents, and create conflicting national loyalties.6

Financial and Social Remittances

Remittances can refer to money sent home, but also to the new ideas and patterns of behavior that migrants convey. Financial remittances are substantial: In 2005, migrants are estimated to have sent home more than $233 billion worldwide, of which $167 billion went to developing countries.7 There are gender differences in remittance patterns. Overall, men remit more than women because they earn more, though women tend to remit a larger portion of their earnings.

Migrants transfer funds through a variety of means, including checks, cash, money orders, electronic transfers, the postal system, banks, credit unions, small and large money transfer companies, and couriers. They also carry funds home themselves, or use less regulated or informal mechanisms. Women who remit funds home often rely on the less formal means, in part because they lack the education ort experience to use the formal banking system. Since informal methods often involve higher fees or other transaction costs, women’s remittances may lose more value during the process.8

There also may be differences in the uses of men’s and women’s remittances, an intriguing possibility that deserves further research. Migrant women tend to remit a large portion of their salaries for everyday needs, in support of household maintenance. Men may tend to remit more for investment, such as buying land, a farm, housing, farm machinery or cattle.9

Migrant women and men also send or take home “social remittances” in the form of new skills, attitudes, and knowledge that can lead to new gender norms. The social remittances of migrant women can boost socioeconomic development in their home countries, improve women’s health, and promote human rights and gender equality. The social remittances men convey include adopting behavior they observed in other countries, such as choosing their own spouses and doing more of women’s traditional work, including childcare.10

Human Trafficking

Forced international migration and exploitation—human trafficking—is an enormous problem and a lucrative business. The U.S. government estimates that between 800,000 and 900,000 people become victims each year. Most are young women. Human trafficking is a particular problem in Asia because of the large migration of workers into unregulated household and entertainment employment, and in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Bloc countries, where prostitution is the main cause.11

Over the past five years, the world community has begun to turn its attention to the issue of human trafficking, which people are vulnerable to through lack of opportunity. In some regions, traffickers obtain their victims by abducting them. But more often, they find their victims among people who want to migrate. Gender discrimination, income inequality, and lack of opportunity fuel this desire.

Victims also may have an ill-informed vision of jobs, money, marriage, and success in destination countries, which traffickers exploit for their own gain. Women may be more likely to respond to the traffickers’ propositions because they generally have less education and knowledge of formal legal systems than men. In addition to kidnapping, four other common methods have been identified that specifically are used to traffic women. They include the pretext of an offer of employment without sex industry connotations; pretext of an offer of marriage; pretext of an offer to be a singer or dancer in the entertainment industry; and deception about conditions in which a woman will undertake prostitution.12

Human trafficking is a large and persistent problem because traffickers make vast amounts of money: Approximately $8 billion a year, nearly what is made trafficking drugs.

Nancy V. Yinger was director of International Programs at the Population Reference Bureau from January 2000 to June 2006.


  1. International Organization for Migration (IOM), International Migration Law: Glossary on Migration (Geneva: IOM, 2004).
  2. Hania Zlotnik, “Global Dimensions of Female Migration,” Migration Policy Institute, 2003, accessed online at, on Dec. 1, 2006.
  3. Lauren B. Engle, The World in Motion: Short Essays on Migration and Gender (Geneva: IOM, 2004).
  4. IOM, International Migration Law: Glossary on Migration.
  5. Engle, The World in Motion: Short Essays on Migration and Gender.
  6. UNFPA, The UNFPA State of the World Population 2006 (New York: UNFPA, 2006).
  7. UNFPA, The UNFPA State of the World Population 2006.
  8. Engle, The World in Motion: Short Essays on Migration and Gender.
  9. UNFPA, The UNFPA State of the World Population 2006.
  10. UNFPA, The UNFPA State of the World Population 2006.
  11. Engle, The World in Motion: Short Essays on Migration and Gender.
  12. Analysis of Institutional and Legal Framework and Overview of Cooperation in the Field of Counter-trafficking in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Vienna: IOM, 2003).