Choiceless Choices of Women in Migration

By Glenda Muzenda | March 17th, 2017
Choiceless Choices of Women in Migration
Dynamics in female migration have undergone profound shifts in the economic, social and cultural perspectives in South Africa and the region in the post-apartheid era. Not only from a Southern African perspective but also globally there has been a wave of women’s movements for better lives, and this has defied the status quo on gender norms and on social construction. Women in most societies have been seen as private, with men taking the roles of breadwinner and public actors, but women have been taking this space in the last decade. More women are delegating their “home” roles to men. A spate of migration accompanied by male domination in the last years of apartheid raises questions for new gender perspectives on women’s identities not only as mothers and breadwinners, but also delegating roles of the family to their male counterparts. There is a certain shift in women’s roles as mothers, towards taking roles formerly understood to be male. With migration having grown immensely after the abolition of apartheid, it has been a tall order for South Africa to cope with the growing need for job opportunities, the free movement for women, and new gender perspectives.
Movement of the black population was restricted during apartheid. Movement was allowed primarily for male labour migrants and locals working in the mines. After, the fall of apartheid there was considerable movement towards cities for the reunification of families. A slow but steady shift in the late 1990s is witnessed across the borders with Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and Zambia back in the rural areas, while a shift was also emerging in the growing numbers of informal settlements in South Africa (with urban migration). Another growing movement in this period was the open borders for labour migration in the neighbouring countries of South Africa, especially for the mining industry. With these dynamics circular migration with men increased as the effects of migration in Africa kicked in, shrinking the economies and growth in urban migrant populations. The reality today is growing urban poverty and insecurity. The labour market has become overpopulated and an undeniable visibility of women on the move in recent years is significant. More analysis is needed to comprehend the non-traditional role that women are taking on, as they leave the (dis) comfort of their homes to fend for their families. Whilst government has attempted to meet the needs of migration, developing a holistic approach to policy is still work in progress. A growing threat is that migration driven by poverty is seen as the only social or demographic process that will potentially “disrupt and destabilize” Africa (Cross and Omoluabi, 2006).
During apartheid, movement for the Black African population was largely restricted as a result of segregation and economic and racial discrimination, on which the economic system was based. Migration in post-apartheid South Africa has seen an interplay in the cross-cultural pattern of female migration, resulting in important changes to the economic, social and cultural dynamics. Feminisation of migration has not only brought positivity to the allowable movement of women, but is also loaded with negative impacts on the enjoyment of rights, and the exploitation of women’s desperate desire to change and to improve their lives. Feminisation of migration refers to the growing flow of women migrating globally (Kofman et al. 2000; Carling, 2005; Piper, 2005). This article highlights the experiences of migration that are unique to women, and also shows blind spots in the research into feminised migration. Migration of women is revealing several trends that remain complex in the context of movement from rural to urban areas and also cross-border migration throughout the region. This article draws on several studies of migration in the Southern African region. To some extent it discusses challenges and opportunities for feminised migration, with a particular focus on policy and the need to recognise and address the gaps that affect women.
Women’s movement in search of better lives is not the sole reason for migration. Other reasons include the reunification of families, education and the opportunity to immigrate. It is without doubt that the last decade has seen an increase in women’s migration for better opportunities and livelihood, affected by the stagnation of economies from the 1980s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in most sub-Saharan African countries. Whilst most countries in the region were ravaged by neoliberal reform through the World Bank’s loan policies, only South Africa took policy advice and thus was not affected, but then declining economies in the region relied on South Africa as the greener patch (Mate, 2010). The drying up of economies in the region saw masses of people moving down South, which has subsequently led to overpopulation of the labour market within the informal sector, lack of servicing (leading to underemployment), and a growing informal sector with low-paid jobs in most of sub-Saharan Africa (Potts, 2009). Coupled with the effects of this rapid rural-to-urban migration are other elements of displacement, including criminality in the cities. With little exodus and increased movements into South Africa, the burden on the economy has been seen through gender-based violence and xenophobic violence adding to criminal activities. The movement of people from conflict countries and those whose economic reform has been damaged by neoliberalism, extractive industries and aggressive transnational businesses has seen growing numbers of migrants flocking to South Africa for a better life. There is new scope for women not only in the mix of it all but in their own right, making an impact on the market and giving a new perspective to their gendered roles.
The down-turn of economies globally has had effects in some countries in the region through dependency on financial aid, and its withdrawal in times of crises, conflict, famine, and corruption. This has resulted in a country like South Africa being central to much research into migration. There are not only opportunities but also certainly threats in the burden this brings to the postapartheid economy.
Migration has become complex in the way it transforms relations and the composition of populations, socio-economic trends and enculturation with rural and urban movements. Much of the research done internationally relates to issues faced here on the African continent as well, be it north-to-south or south-to-south migration. Several issues that drive migration speak mostly to opportunities of economic nature to eradicate poverty. But within the framework of feminised migration are blind spots within the research that remain focused on men’s migration and see women as a mix to the whole process (Timmerman, et al., 2015). The gender matters that are being left out need to be explored further to comprehend patterns, factors and drivers of feminised migration in the context of the agency and the autonomy of women. But the low road of feminised migration is complimented by feminised labour that exacerbates disadvantages for women migrants. Inequalities by virtue of their race, gender and migrant status limit protection and security in the host country, and show gaps in existing migration policies. Exclusion of migrant women from the socio-economic sphere makes it difficult for them to access the labour market (Mafukidze and Mbanda, 2008), leading to several other forms of discrimination and violations without economic power.
In the down-turn of economies globally, gender as socially constructed has had an effect and influence on migration. The so called brain-drain in the 1990s saw an exodus of most skilled African professionals to work in hospitals as doctors, nurses and caregivers in the United Kingdom and the US due to human resource shortages there and the dilemma of national politics at home (Gaidzanwa, 1993). The timing could not have been more perfect, with SAPs already showing their effects in the lack of hospital servicing, and education with shoe-string budgets. Most of the African continent suffered severe brain drain (Gaidzanwa, 1993). A growing survivalist mentality bred corruption along with state and criminal activities. Whilst mass exodus was seen towards the north, in Southern Africa (particular after apartheid) patterns of migration have seen much change.
Rural to urban migration after apartheid saw small increases in allowable movement as families moved to the city and resided in townships. With the increase in movement came a clear decrease in remittances. With free movement into urban areas, in particular to South Africa, sanctioned work during apartheid saw limited movement of miners. Even migrant labourers (mostly men) could only send money home, increasing income through remittances. Circular migration in most cases was based on the gendered roles of division of labour of men and women. Women took the roles of maintaining “home fires” (Posel, 2003) with reproductive work, whilst men left the home for productive work to bring incomes.
In the western literature on migration, Lutz (2010) alludes to the traditional research on migration, which also shows the absence of women in the 1970s, therefore questioning the assumption of women’s “passive roles” in migration. Even as early as 1885, women were already known to be active and migratory, and yet research indicated a dominance of men in migration and systematically disregarded women according to Lutz. 
But where does this leave women who have little or no choice but to migrate to fend for their families? Some of the choices made are beyond their control, but are made simply to survive. In most research women have not been presented autonomously, but are largely seen as sidekicks of men, rejoining them for family reunification and domestic services. In fact this point argues that women have been over-represented in the traditional aspects of family, of marriage, as refugees, and as a lowly type of labour (Mahieu et al, 2009). Traditional research on migration underpins women’s movement as dependent on men. With this assumption is a lack of interrogation into the term feminisation, seen to be synonymous with women’s visibility. This perspective is blind to the economic participation of women.
Posel (2003) argues this point, as do most feminist scholars, emphasising the lacking of insight into women taking decisions. The idea that research has not done much to explain feminised migration shows under-research in bringing out opportunities that constitute a new perspective of gender, identities and organisation of power relations. In addition much of the research falls short when describing the gendered roles of women, and from a feminist perspective considering harmonised genders by claiming unification of households, neglecting that women did not stay at home by choice but through gendered norms that defined them as homemakers and men as the breadwinners for their family. Gender order is useful to determine the feminisation of migration, based on decisions made to move, and who decides, and considering power relations between men and women in relation to the defined terms of femininity and masculinity (Connell, 1987).
Women (married or unmarried) have at times taken hard decisions to leave their children with their families in the rural areas in one country and moved to another to look for employment opportunities. Common factors that have driven migration for men also drove women, such as a need for economic empowerment. Other factors include escape from political violence as is the case in Zimbabwe, where it has been documented that a large number of people migrated to South Africa to flee politically motivated violence (Chikanda, 2006). Political violence is one of the factors leading to the immigration crisis faced by South Africa, which led to the Zimbabwe Special Project. But unlike men, women face several gendered challenges that influence migration. In some ways migration is a ticket out of abuse and gender discrimination, which drive women more than men to be on the move (Morokvasic, 1991). With all these types of social control over women, migration is opening up as a way in which they are able to take decisions at all levels.
Other issues come into play despite women taking charge of their lives, including the intersectionality of gender: migrant status, race or ethnicity, age, and HIV status. These issues erode chances for women migrants to attain economic justice. Qualifications may not be recognised, and the results of illegal cross-border activities keep many women underground and underpaid. Generally available areas for employment are open to further exploitation, and migrant workers are subject to sexual harassment and abuse, including servitude to sex in cases of women and children who have been trafficked.
What is perhaps not clear is the degeneration of skills given that women take jobs just to make a living. Feminised migration and lack of access to fair opportunities is causing a deteriorating ratio of women’s educational capacity, making their skills redundant. Most women are found in unskilled labour sectors such as hairdressing, tailoring, serving in the hospitality industry and small business in highly populated areas that are often occupied by non-nationals. The disproportionate burden of economic inequality leads women to fall victim to feminised labour and migration, an advantage to the employers who will pay less and have long hours for the workers. Employers know that the employees have no way of reporting them or being unionised.
Whilst education and women’s rights and empowerment have been an urgent agenda item throughout the millennium development goals (MDGs), the reality is that education levels could possibly be dwindling while economic issues are driving skilled labour into the unskilled labour market. Forced into a survivalist mode, women opt for even lowly paid jobs that do not make them visible to the state’s immigration law enforcement on proper documentation. In other words these groups of women slip further into an irregular status that has several problems. Access to the justice system, health care, and education for their children, safety and security is compromised.
Research into feminised migration is therefore necessary, to explore it further and to draw on how other countries are managing such a complex process. Unlike men (in most known cases with mining industry) the chances are there for women migrants to be exploited through human trafficking, abuse, and kept as sex slaves with no place to report for fear of deportation or further victimisation. On the other hand, because of abuse and exploitation, women in these situations are unlikely to speak out because it serves as an argument in some communities that women should be homebound and not on the streets. Possible stigmatising for these women is likely to be coupled with victimisation from families. What is a woman to do in a situation where she could be stranded, or on the other hand be afforded a roof over her head and be able to send money to her family?
I often spend time at the saloon where a friend works in downtown Johannesburg. The reality of her life is like this, and she points out that many other women are in worse situations. Sex for boarding is a phenomenon that often comes with the challenges of not being a legal migrant. Muchaneta1, aged 29, relates the fact that she has made choices despite the choiceless life she had. Muchaneta moved to South Africa in 2014. She works in a saloon in the day and provides massaging services to male clients at night at a hostel in Hillbrow. She says she is luckier than most girls her age. She came through the malaitsha (truck drivers who take illegal migrants across the border – a supposedly safe passage for those who have no travel documents) from Zimbabwe. She has also encountered the self-styled travel agents (magumaguma) at Beitbridge. Her journey in the dark through the Limpopo River has her standing not as a victim but survivor. “One woman on our trip, was not so lucky. She was attacked by a crocodile”. She laughs as she relates the story. She laughs out of disbelief of what happens next because the woman also had a baby that one of the magumaguma carried as she crossed the river.
It was dead silent, she said. And the journey continued without a care as to who she was. The family will wonder, and never know what happened to her and her baby.
“We watched helplessly as the woman disappeared under our feet. The men looked at each other and the magumaguma carrying the baby released the child into the river.”
These are just a few of the realities that migrant women face. The realities for some are far worse. Other woman who are taken from the border by the malaitsha travel safely to their destination, whereupon arrival money must be exchanged for their release. Because the system does not have control over what the malaitsha can do, he can add clients as he wishes if there is room in the truck. A woman who had been provided passage in the same trip as Muchaneta claimed that her brother, a known footballer, would pay handsomely for her collection at the point of dispatch. For the malaitsha keeping a client is an expensive process and a risk. After two days of non-collection and calling the number of the brother, she was auctioned to the highest bidder at R2 000. A small, elderly man who wore a greased overall collected the woman after she had been dressed up and made up. Her hair was well quaffed and she was given new clothes. Several men came through the small room for viewing. After several talks she was led out by the small man in the greased overall. She cried, and those who had families or loved ones promising to come and fetch them remained at the place of collection, fed with soft porridge and cabbage.
Muchaneta says she is lucky. She lives with her aunt who paid for her, and today she is a hairdresser and massage therapist. She says other girls live with men who on a weekly basis can change their minds and ask them to leave. These girls do not pay rent. So men who provide accommodation for them demand that they cook for them and keep the “home”. Additional currency for security is demanded in the form of sex.
Given the fact that some border-jumping migrants have to pay their dealers, chances are that with little money to save to send home sex becomes additional currency. Sexual slavery in some cases has women servicing more than sixteen men in a day to pay back the traffickers. Survival overrides instinct in cases of sexual exploitation. The risk of HIV infection is increased by this form of cohabiting through favours. Abuse is also a matter of concern (Mafukidze, 2007; Mate, 2005). Gender-based violence will most likely be unreported.
Another issue of concern is fear of failure and disappointment to the family back home. The long-term separation of families without passage to return is a growing problem. Mothers are not returning home as they fear being caught and deported, and the difficulty of starting over again upon return. The challenges include a collapsed structure that could have been built over time, and also adapting to new people in the environment. Much of the clientelism depends on who you know. Most of the communities in this case serve each other through processes that allow for hosting of a migrant in a similar community as though they are back home. The way to survive is to stay in an area where they are mostly people from your own country. That means some kind of a referral system exists from the country of origin to the host country. Most migrants stay in a community where they find comfort with people from the same country until they can be on their feet. It would be interesting to explore why these relations exist rather than people just helping one another in a new place.
Choices of women migrants
Women have been able to move freely, gaining autonomy and independence and becoming significant income generators through the labour markets and gaining face with full respect from their communities. Not only in Africa, but globally, women in migration have shaped new gender perspectives, identities and relations in the transformation of societies’ norms on gendered roles of women and men. Whilst most migration has been associated with the need for life improvement, other motivations include the need to get away from gender-based violence. Again, migration studies have been blind to the agency of women who have taken steps to ensure security and safety for their children. To some extent, women are taking advantage of their new freedom of movement, and making decisions not only based on an income needs basis, but taking a holistic approach to their rights and agency. From rights-based perspectives grounded in feminist ideologies to thinking through women’s rights, these efforts have broken strict gender norms where only men function as the breadwinner and women fold their arms waiting to receive. Women have aspirations besides the need to care for their families, and often need to take risks to guarantee their wellbeing.
The Zimbabwe Special Project, issuing Zimbabwe special permits (Pokroy, 2015), has had a great impact on accessibility to documents, and yet the people in the receiving state remain hostile with levels of xenophobia on the increase. This is not only in South Africa, but also in Botswana, where Zimbabwean nationals are passionately disliked and attacks on them frequently take place (McConnell, 2009; Morapedi, 2007; Nyamnjoh, 2006). With political violence and economic dysfunction in Zimbabwe, these nationals once renowned for their high level of education and qualifications remain threatened, and women are at higher risk. 
Among the choices women make are tabooed issues of sexual transactions, which most see as a choice they make to survive. Research, particularly into cross-border trading, has seen an openness to women using sex for passage. What is not considered in the migration process are relations that remain with much of the family power structures, and how men might see the diminishing masculine role and their need to renegotiate in such circumstances. A re-emphasis of gender and power relations by men to claim their gender identities (whether as backlash or as positive attitude) is worth exploring in relation to feminised migration.
Challenges of migration process
The main challenge is that the migration processes are gender-blind and the specific needs of women are not at all taken into consideration, therefore exposing them to risks, abuse and loss of dignity. There are increased opportunities for traffickers because of women’s mobility. They are lured with promises of jobs that do not exist, and then intimidated into a life of servitude. This is a complex issue that can only be addressed in the receiving state, not in transition, as travel is often clandestine and illegal. Government has to clamp down on the smuggling of people, and raise more awareness through education.
A human rights-based approach is needed towards migration policy and labour standards and security for all migrants, but particularly women and children on the move.In Southern Africa migration has been recognised as a priority since 1999, with several bodies (including SAFPAD) taking interest in the region’s demographic process to development during and after the Southern African Ministers Conference on Population and Development. It was suggested that SADC member countries should consider looking into what drives migration, in particular rural-tourban migration, and how gender and poverty relate in the scope of people’s movements (Cross and Omoluabi, 2006). Globally, governments were taking notice and beginning to address migration, with fears of losing control of human mobility on a large scale. Europe feared congestion of populations from Eastern Europe and a spread into other poor regions, making it impossible to manage these populations on a budget that did not provide for migrants. The costs could certainly overwhelm any country at the receiving end of migration (Timmerman et al., 2015). In Southern Africa, tensions with migrant and local communities remain high and need to be addressed holistically within education programmes. Coherent labour standards and migrant policy should be sped up to align with agencies responsible to effectively implement, as with most in the north that have considered equality and opportunities for migrant women (Kofman et al., 2000; Carling, 2005). Gender-sensitive policy on migration needs to take into consideration the economic development and contributions by women through migration, and implement strategies that encourage domestic laws to retain skills and complement these with reunification and integrating programmes for migrants. Empirical data on migrant flows needs to be available to inform the existing policy and to support policy development that will curb and enrich the economy, which is currently burdened by unknown numbers of illegal migrants (Botha, 2004) who have come through borders of South Africa.
From Beijing Platforms to the recently expired Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), pushing for equality through, education, health access and empowerment of women and girl children are becoming redundant. This may be a threat to future mechanisms that do not holistically shed light on feminised migration. Instruments that generate empowerment are not fully realised, resulting in under-employment. Policy needs to be cognizant of this gap. Pushing for education and equality for girls and women must also consider what migration laws (or lack thereof) do to skilled and professional women looking for a way to make a living. Most importantly are the new gender perspectives that need to be considered towards rights enjoyment by women and steps being taken autonomously through feminised migration.
This article was first published in “Moving Stories” BUWA! Issue 6. OSISA’s Women’s Rights Programme is currently featuring women in migration during the current month in which we commemorate International Women’s Day.

Glenda Muzenda has over a decade of domestic and international experience in gender and sexual diversity, gender equality, and sexual health rights. She is skilled in sexuality and gender, experienced in work plan development, budget and timeline management, provides technical assistance and is a mobilisation advisor. Glenda has written and presented at various conferences and media platforms, and her opinion pieces have featured in publications across South Africa and the region. Other research interests are on black lesbians in the labour market in South Africa for her thesis and documenting lives of queer families through a grant by The Other Foundation.
She also supported the research and implementation of a gender and sexual diversity training for PEPFAR and publication ‘An Advocacy Guide for Policy Change for MSM Heath’. Her focus is on sexuality and gender rights of women, girls and gender and sexual minorities in the region and nationally. She is currently working on returning to do her PhD with a working title, “The significance of sexuality for young rural adolescent girls”.



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