SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

Negotiating Livelihood and Belonging: An Explorative Study of the Resources Available to African Migrant Women in South Africa

Studying migration, in the South African context, requires an unfolding of historical and contemporary experiences. These experiences are often woven together with cultural, societal, economic, political, and bureaucratic challenges. While the challenges faced by African migrant women are diverse and complex, gender often influences the nature and intensity of these experiences. African migrant women often find themselves at the nexus of discrimination and marginalization within South Africa. Studies have shown that migrant women’s experiences and navigation of everyday life are impacted by the ways that their identity as women and as foreign nationals intersects with a deeply oppressive state structure. But how exactly does gender, nationality and state power impact the way in which migrant women experience everyday life? This became one of the key questions which sparked the emergence of this research project. The aim of the project was to enumerate the key challenges faced by African migrant women in South Africa. But it also aimed to reflect on what resources migrant women utilize in the process of negotiating their livelihoods and sense of belonging, despite these challenges.

To explore these aims my research employed primary data collection, through face-to-face and online semi-structured interviews with employees from the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, and secondary data, which included published transcribed interviews  conducted with African migrant women in South Africa. The interviews served as a chorus, amplifying the voices of women facing a range of challenges, including xenophobic populism, othering, sexual gender-based violence and coercion, as well as the bureaucratic and legal hurdles in accessing documentation. These challenges often intersected, making it difficult for women to navigate their daily lives. 

Yet, despite these challenges, migrant women draw on various resources and their own agency to sustain their livelihoods and create spaces of belonging. Among these resources are humanitarian programmes, where organizations like the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town play a pivotal role in providing socio-economic resources that support and enable women to mitigate these challenges and foster their ability to cope. These services help women develop and build upon their social, economic, and cultural resources, which create new ways of sustaining livelihoods and becoming self-reliant. Programmes such as the Women’s Platform programme, offered by Scalabrini, facilitate intercultural interactions and connections between women, but also help women forge belonging through the mutual sharing of experiences and emotions, evoked in acts of creative expression. This, in turn, builds on migrant women’s social capital, but it also creates communities, which reside within the organisation and also extend far beyond its physical bounds.

However, humanitarian support, though invaluable, often carries a temporary label. This leads us to a critical question: What resources exist beyond these organizations? The answer lies in the wellspring of self-reliance, agency, and the embrace of community, as well as within spiritual or religious congregations. These communities and kinship ties become critical support structures; resources which provide a means for social and economic capital development. They facilitate coping and adaptation strategies, which are built upon the sharing of experiences, relations of trust and protection. Women are not only part of these communities of belonging, but also form as leaders and anchors of such communities. Therefore, migrant women can be seen as active agents of change who not only build upon their own capitals, but also aid the coping and adaptation strategies of others in the community. 

My research study also found that migrant women often embody a profound source of strength and resilience, which forms part of the agency of self-definition. In turn, this self-definition and resilience becomes an internal resource which women draw on to sustain themselves and their families, so that they can cope in the new environment. 

In essence, African migrant women in South Africa are not passive to their circumstances, but are active agents of change. They employ a multitude of resources, from external aid to inner strength, to overcome the challenges they face. While the journey towards belonging and the sustainable livelihoods of migrant women is, to a large extent, a matter of negotiation and accessibility to various resources; their experiences illustrate the powerful role of agency and community in the face of adversity, offering a testament to human resilience and the human spirit's capacity for adaptation and growth.

Prepared by Tamina Steppe based on her 2022 dissertation titled: Investigating the challenges faced by African migrant women in negotiating livelihood and belonging: An explorative study of the resources available to African migrant women in South Africa


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