SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

Migration as an economic avenue for women

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As we conclude women’s month in South Africa we give special attention to women migrant workers, have migrated to seek economic opportunities to ensure sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families. According to ILO (2023), feminisation of labour migration is increasing with women accounting for slightly half of all the international migrants globally. In South Africa, large numbers of migrant women live in the country, in 2019, the number of female migrants in South Africa was estimated to be 44.4% (1,875,588)  (UN DESA, 2019). The steady increase of female migrants into South Africa – especially from other parts of Africa is informed by the need for better economic and political conditions (Chinyakata et al., 2019).  

According to the Institute for Security Studies (2019), because of their vulnerabilities, women migrants are at heightened risk of sexual violence, exploitation, forced labour, abuse, and health vulnerabilities. The Institute further states that migrant women in South Africa face triple discrimination with xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. This notion is further by supported by research by Chinyakata et al. (2019), which revealed that women are driven into the country mainly because the economic opportunities, but they face intersectional barriers that contribute to their vulnerability. These include nationality, gender, legality, language barriers, type of work, poverty (and the desperation it generates), and competition over job opportunities. Furthermore, according to ILO (2023), women face gender-based violence and discrimination and they find themselves in vulnerable working conditions and are at the risk of being abused, exploited or trafficked. They are more likely to face challenges accessing social protection and adequate healthcare and tend to earn less than men migrant workers (ibid).

To maximise the benefits of feminisation of labour migration, there is a need to continuously prioritise the rights of migrant women on the development and policy agenda including strong monitoring and enforcement of mechanisms. It is also essential to address gender-based occupational segmentation, gender pay gaps, access to health care, sexual and reproductive health, maternity leave, and ensure protection against violence and harassment, including sexual harassment (ILO, 2023) to ensure that the migrant women fully function.



Chinyakata, R., Raselekoane, N. R., Mudau, T. J., & Mapaya, M. G. (2019). Intersectional factors contributing to the vulnerability of young Zimbabwean female immigrants in Johannesburg. African Renaissance, 16(2), 143-163.

Freedman, J. (2015). Gendering the international asylum and refugee debate. Springer.

ILO. (2023) International Women’s Day 2023: Migration as an opportunity for women. Available:

Institute for Security Studies (ISS). 2019. Women migrants: forgotten victims of South Africa’s xenophobia. Retrieved from:,regulated%20and%20less%20visible%20sectors.&text=South%20Africa%20has%20particularly%20high,gender%2Dbased%20violence%20and%20femicide.  

UN DESA. 2019. International migration stock 2019: South Africa. Retrieved from:





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