No Place to Call Home Women and Migration in Southern Africa

By Karabo Van Heerden | March 24th, 2017
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The concept of migration and displacement is a global notion that manifests itself in the Southern African region. This article will discuss the concept as disproportionately affecting women more than their male counterparts, and in some instances even being deconstructive to the concept or the notion of “home”, depriving migrant or displaced women of a sense of belonging. To achieve this purpose, it will explore the myriad forms of displacement and provide a feminist critic of migration focussing on inequality and exclusion. Migration in the Southern Africa region dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Historically seen to be a male-dominated activity, migration has undergone a face-lift with female migrants constituting nearly half of the international migrant population in the world. The United Nations Population Division notes that female migrants account for 43 percent of the world’s international migrants in the 20 to 60 years age group (UN: 2010). Women are not only accompanying or joining migrating husbands or their family members, but they also initiate migration in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. The driving factors for female labour migration include, but are not limited to, historical and structural inequality, under-development, and the fact that in many cases, women are the only breadwinners. In the context of the “feminisation of poverty”, women are migrating in search of opportunities that can address their lived experience of unemployment, poverty and inequality. What is more, of the 150 million migrants in the world, more than 50 million are African, which is significant because on the African continent women are over-represented in the bracket of the poor. Furthermore, about 50 percent of internationally displaced persons and 28 percent of the world’s refugees are in Africa. Migration and displacement in the Southern African region has an influence on the character of the economy, development and social structures of nations and regions (Bineta Diop)2. For example, the Southern Africa region is mired in forced evictions, conflict and crisis in countries like DRC, Zimbabwe and Angola. Women in this context are particularly vulnerable and are forced to escape conflict in search of opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. As has become evident from various studies, forced migration is characterised by push factors such as challenging social and economic circumstances of unemployment, low wages, rural under-development and poverty, but which may also include the effects of corruption on society, poor governance, massive conflict and civil strife (Klein-Solomon, 2006). These are dominant features for Southern and other parts of Africa’s political, economic and social landscape. As opposed to voluntary migration where migration is based on one’s free will and initiative, forced migration is a negative form of migration, often caused by persecution, profit-centred development, or exploitation attributed to violent conflict which relates to more than 50 million displaced people (Ndiaye, 2013), leaving vulnerable groups like women and children disproportionately affected. Cohen (1997:68) notes that forced migration is not immune to gender bias.
There has been long-standing recognition of the need to address the distinct gender dimensions of displacement and migration by UN bodies, but the needs of women and girls remain side-lined. For example, issues pertaining to access to information on sexual and reproductive rights, poverty, poor education and women’s limited political participation remain unaddressed in the region. In 1995, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) called for more effective protection and assistance for displaced women. There was a further call to the UN Secretary General on internally displaced persons (IDPs) to pay particular attention to the needs of internally displaced women. Despite the clear need to concentrate
on the impact that displacement has on these vulnerable groups, there is evidence to indicate that IDPs still encounter issues around food security and access to basic housing (UNICEF 1998:3). The impact on women varies depending on the type of displacement they encounter. Therefore, it is important to outline the different dimensions of displacement.
Types of displacement
Understood in broad terms, displacement may encompass an act or circumstance, the effect of which results in voluntary or forced dislocation, or confinement. In the conversation about displacement and women, it is important that we not only have a clear overview of the typology of displacement that has emerged, but also understand why there is a need to focus on its various manifestations. For example, conflict displacement tends to be overrepresented by women. In the instances of forced migration, women are often forced to make far-reaching sacrifices. This is so in the case of the DRC, where women, driven by conflict, were displaced and moved to Durban South Africa where they would find themselves in the heart of the 2015 xenophobic attacks. In this already desperate context, many women feel compelled to engage in sex work as a means of survival, using their bodies as currency in exchange for safety.3 Again, the impact on women
would vary depending on the type of displacement, and for this reason I will explore four types below:
Conflict displacement
This category of displacement includes the enforced removal of people from their homes because of state-sponsored violence, armed conflict or prosecution based on race, religion, gender, political or social affiliation.4 These groups often enter the host countries as asylum seekers. For example, the mass dislocations that occurred in the Second World War resulted in the formal recognition of forced displacement and forced migration. However, this displacement did not only affect Europe but also manifested itself within Africa. 
To give regional examples, the post-1975 independence wars in Angola and Mozambique, where both countries plunged into long, brutal civil wars, contributed to the displacement of scores of people. Similarly, after 2000 Zimbabwe entered into a state of violent political crisis. State-sponsored violence resulted in massive human rights violations including rape, torture, and forced disappearance. Unfortunately, the effect of this form of historical displacement on women goes unnoticed and further dilutes women’s issues as insignificant in the region because of institutional and cultural sexism.
There has also been an even more dramatic increase in the number of internally displaced persons, who outnumber the world‘s refugee population. The UNHRC reports show that at the end of 2014 an estimated 38 million people were displaced within their own country by violence, and 11 million of these IDPs were newly uprooted during 2014. Many of the more recent conflicts are influenced by internal conflicts based on national, ethnic or religious separation issues. The Karamojong of Uganda and the Pokot of Kenya fighting over grazing land and over cattle for more than three decade is an example of inter-ethnic conflict.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s Global Overview 2015 report, the protracted crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan and Syria account for 60 percent of new displacements worldwide. At the forefront of international instruments is the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the status of Refugees, which was the first instrument to recognise the rights of the “displaced”. Unfortunately, in the wake of the global migration crisis, the convention has proven to be of very little use. This could be attributed to the fact that it was created in and for a different era, one that did not see women as requiring protection. Priority was placed according to mobility and not according to those in need.
Natural disasters
Natural disasters can cause mass-scale displacement. For example in June 2015 Malawi experienced heavy rains and floods that left an estimated 162 000 people displaced in 202 open displacement sites (IOM: 2015). Of the total IDP population, women make up the majority of IDPs, accounting for approximately 92 731 (57 percent) compared to 69 331 men (43 percent). More than half (56 percent) of the total number of individuals residing in sites are children under 17 years old. Individuals between 18-59 years old constitute 37 percent of the total number of individuals. (IOM, Malawi Flood Response: 2015).
Developmental displacement
Increased industrialisation and development often comes at the price of removing people from their homes and homesteads. Development initiatives, motivated by the need for large-scale infrastructure development such as roads, airports, and other urban initiatives often affect indigenous and ethnic minorities, and the urban and rural poor. This is also known as forced eviction. An example of this is the 2005 Zimbabwean incident when the government began demolishing informal settlements across the country. The programme, known as Operation Murambatsvina, affected more than 700 000 people directly – leaving them without a home, or livelihood, or both. Most people were driven deeper into poverty by the forced evictions, a situation further compounded by Zimbabwe’s economic crisis (Amnesty International 2010). Forced Migration Online reported that, on average, large dam projects alone displace an average of 10 million people each year. Development displacement often takes place with little recognition, support or assistance from outside the affected population.
Internally displaced people
When discussing internally displaced people it is imperative that we distinguish between refugees and the internally displaced. Although both groups are “displaced”, as it were, there are a number of striking differences. The first is that refugees are people who have fled their country seeking safety, whilst internally displaced persons are those that remain behind in the conflict zones. The second is that IDPs have no specific protection at either international or domestic levels; this means that they are left in the jurisdiction and hands of the very government that fuels the conflict and has displaced them (Macramé, 2002, pp. 46-50). The common thread between the two groups is that the majority of those affected are women and children fleeing from gross human rights violations. Despite this universal impact, the protection available to the groups is different. Refugees enjoy protection at both domestic and international level mandated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR 2004: 3-6). A good example would be Syria, which by the end of 2014 would contribute to the world’s largest flow of refugees and IDPs. An Amnesty International report indicated that 7.6 million people were internally displaced in 2014, with many forced to leave their homes by conflict.
A second example is in the case of Libya where people were forced from the town of Tawargha in 2011 by Misrata armed militia. They were prevented from returning to their homes and faced further displacement when the capital, Tripoli, and other cities were plunged into armed conflict in the middle of that year.
The problem with the literature that has tracked displacement in the region is that it has not highlighted the impact of migration on women. For example, in the media coverage of migrants during the 2015 xenophobic violence women were largely invisible. With posters calling for peace, the impact of the attacks on women in this community did not fit the newsworthy criteria because society does not deem issues affecting women as worthy of public discourse. This becomes important in displacement or migration settings as the negative impact on women is further compounded. According to the World Health Organisation, gender-based inequality is exacerbated during a situation of extreme violence in the context of armed conflict. In other words basic human rights violations would be at a peak during armed conflict, affecting women more than their male counterparts. Yet still this does not receive the media or academic attention needed to bring these issues to light.
To illustrate the impact of migration on women, let us look at Mozambique as an example. From 1981 to 1988, during the war, an estimated 454 000 children died because of the conditions in the refugee camps. Not only do women have to deal with the psychological trauma of displacement, but they also have to take on the burden of providing care to displaced children. Men do not have the burden of caring due to unequal gender dynamics between the sexes. This is the reason why conflict displacement is important for the purposes of this conversation. No matter what section of the displaced group one might come from, once displaced, there is still a need for one to settle into a new life and try to establish some degree of stability in a new home. Despite the painful impact migration has on women there is a need to find a sense of “belonging”.
Sense of home and belonging
Migration for women and any others creates sociological challenges at all times. One is the crisis caused by the sense of “belonging and home”. Integration is limited, because of language, culture, lifestyle, food, employment or social relations, especially in the context of organised violence or xenophobia. As a coping mechanism, women engage in communal activities such as cooking, and find these practices therapeutic in order to soothe the pain of homesickness. However the coping mechanisms employed by women in a foreign land do little to get by the social challenges that women face in some host countries. This is so for migrants in countries like South Africa where xenophobic culture is still alive.
Case study
“For me I don’t think that I’m a Burundian or South African. I’m a human being, a creation of God” (Elvira Modesero)
In April 2015 Over 7000 foreign nationals fled for their lives after xenophobic attacks in Durban, South Africa. On 1 May 2015, MSF South Africa interviewed Elvira Modesero in the Durban refugee camp7. Elvira, a refugee from Burundi, had been staying in South Africa since 2004. She painfully explained how witnessing her father being shot to death, with no one to assist him, motivated her to become a nurse so that she can save lives. A teary Elvira expresses common issues that would be raised by migrants in a foreign land, issues relating to discrimination in the workplace for example. Elvira works in South Africa in a public hospital where the patients say to her, “You kwerekwere8, why do you not come and help
me?” She painfully conveys that she aims to give care to people who do not even consider her human. In addition, she raises the issues around access to healthcare. When migrants do receive healthcare, the service received is notably poor, if not life-threatening. Elvira pleaded, “God loves refugees… I am a human being a creation of God. So, I cannot like, separate myself from South African (sic).” From the frying pan into the fire, that is how refuges experience migration. They leave conflict only to suffer discrimination in their host countries. “Home” for them simply does not exist.
Apart from failed integration issues experienced by women, they also face issues relating to physical abuse. Nigeria provides evidence that forced eviction translates into genderspecific violence. Following the July 1990 forced evictions, Lagos State Military Governor Colonel Rasaki ordered the complete demolition of the communities, effectively displacing an estimated 300 000 residents. What was revealed was a gender-based difference. Research conducted in Nigeria9 showed that in Maroko, Badia and Rainbow Town there was a decade of large-scale forced evictions. In accordance with the social order of Nigerian slum dwellings, more women than men are present during the forced evictions because the demolitions often occur when the men are away at their workplaces. Women’s over-representation at the time of demolition translates into women being targeted for gender-based assault. Security agents assigned to the demolitions have been implicated in perpetrating severe violence against women, including raping and beating them with impunity. According to members of the Badia community, several women and young girls were dragged into hotels and raped by security agents during the process of forced evictions. The incidence of prostitution is disproportionate among female evictees. This is because, shortly after the eviction, women in dire need of housing may be forced into prostitution in order to meet their basic needs.
No matter where they land in the Southern Africa region, women may never discover the relative stability they once enjoyed in their country or location of origin. For example, if they land in Angola, social security becomes an issue. No legislation binds the government as a guarantor of social security for its citizens, let alone non-citizens. Education is a challenge to their citizens who are seen as competing with migrants for access.
In the context of the prevalent sexual exploitation associated with migration and displacement, women and children may be doomed if they end up in Botswana, where non-citizens are excluded from anti-retrovial (ARV) therapy and prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programmes. Without access to such facilities, women are left to suffer alone.
Alternatively, if a woman had the option of staying in the DRC, where armed conflict has undermined already vulnerable health facilities, that woman would be in no different position. One travelling from the horn of Africa could land up in Malawi, where quality of education is limited by the size of the class, and over 10 percent of children are reported to not attend school. The examples are plenty but my issue is that in all the examples provided above women living in today’s migration diaspora can hardly find peace let alone stability in their host country. Even if women find some semblance of home, where they can rest their heads at night, it is hardly adequate for human dignity. We can say that the gender inequality in the region manifests itself in yet another vicious cycle for women.
Migration, gender inequality and social exclusion
In looking at migration, it is important to have a gendered analysis. In particular, if one looks at gender inequality, a phenomenon so prevalent across Southern Africa, one sees the impact of this inequality on migration in general, but also how migration and gender inequality reinforce and amplify these inequalities. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), recognise the right to “gender equality”. These conventions unequivocally state that any discrimination against women violates the principle of equality of rights and the respect for human rights. The first time that recommendations relating to gender-based violence and gender-related issues was made was at the 1994 UN General Assembly that adopted CEDAW. During the 2000 UN Millennium Summit, eight goals were established that ought to be achieved by 2015. These goals play a critical role in addressing issues around poverty and meeting basic socio-economic rights for women in developing countries. Goal 3 speaks to gender equality and women’s empowerment. In line with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we have the SADC Gender Protocol, which seeks to promote human rights and gender equality, and has been signed by all countries in the SADC region except for Mauritius and Botswana (the currentSADC president’s home country). This is indicative of the region’s recognition of the disadvantages that women historically face. The protocol is a great tool for ensuring that women and children get access to better healthcare, education and participate in decision-making processes.
As African cities expand at an unprecedented pace, rapid urbanisation has been accompanied by insecurity and inequality. Urban poverty has left many without adequate housing and basic facilities, particularly those living in informal settlements or slums. Forced evictions have left people without their livelihoods and possessions, and have driven them deeper into poverty. In Angola, at least 4000 families were forcibly evicted in Luanda province. In Kenya, courts continued to confirm the right to adequate housing and the prohibition on forced evictions in 2013. An estimated 40 percent of people living within the SADC’s 15 member states live below the poverty line (Louise Carmody, 2015). Particularly focusing on women, a survey conducted in Zambia indicated that 50 percent of female headed households were classified as earning poorly (ANSA).This can be explained by the dominance of men in the employment sector and their social status, whilst women are prone to low-paying jobs, thus perpetuating the inequality. The work that is done by men and women is not only different – it is unequal. (Lucy Makaza-Mazingi, 2009).
When one examines the situation of African women, one observes that women are often forced to work in jobs that men will not do. In many cases, women are trapped in situations where they must work with families and children who depend on their labour. These women also face the double burden of professional work, and the unpaid care work done in the home. This introduces the “care drain” concept, where women are stereotyped into fields such as domestic work, nursing, teaching and other professions typically associated with women. “Care drain” is one of the reasons why women migrants find it difficult to mobilise in defending their rights in the host country. Activism would be another job to fulfil in an already overburdened set of responsibilities to be performed in “leisure time” (Ally, MRI, 2006).
Legal instruments, meant to protect women working in the informal market, perpetuate the relegation of women to the informal market, thereby placing a cap on their socio-economic mobility.
Remittance: positive return on migration?
In 2006 the UNFPA annual state of World Population report on Women and International Migration (A passage to hope), notes that aside from the global acceptance of migrant women’s
contribution to poverty reduction and struggling economies (IOM Remittance fact sheet), the international community recognises the benefits that should be given to migrant women.
It is recognised that the increase in poverty and displacement from traditional pastoralist livelihoods can draw women into new roles as income generators, increasing their negotiating
powers at the household level (Oba, 1989). 
A country’s growth is predicated on the active economic participation of its citizens, and migration compromises this. The poor migrants will go and occupy the segment of the
economy that will then compete for services available with the local population, leading to tensions. The tensions accentuate gender imbalances and inequalities. Conditions of employment directly influence women’s ability to make money, therefore limiting their ability to remit, but again this point goes unnoticed. What we have seen is the “survival strategy” that is celebrated, and how the newly arrived migrant becomes a remitter of resources back to the country of origin. We have also seen the other side of the coin with a body of literature that
has emerged where women are unable to cope with the demands of life in the place where they have settled because they are remitting as female heads of households. This becomes a double attack on women, much like what is happening in contemporary migration to Europe.
Studies reveal that although women remit approximately the same as men, they tend to send a higher proportion of their income regularly and consistently (IOM et al., 2007), even though they generally earn less than men do. However sending smaller sums often means that women tend to spend more on transfer fees. Women often send remittances to other persons, often the women who take care of their children, to ensure that money is spent appropriately (UN–INSTRAW, 2007). Research shows that remittances sent by women would have an even greater impact on families and communities if women did not face wage employment, credit and property discrimination, and if they were not excluded from decision making within their families.
The issue of remittance is a component of the global notion of migration. Even if the remittance is celebrated and we know that it constitutes a high portion of revenues of governance, sometimes even more then overseas development assistance, women’s remittances are a critical source of supply of not only money for household social security but also for micro economy development for countries that are not printing their own currencies (like Zimbabwe).
Despite the celebrated side to remittance, there is also a side that goes unnoticed. The immigration policies in the destination countries and the legal status of migrants can play an influential role in the ability to remit and the amount of remittance. This is so because documented migrants have better access to information on human and labour rights, which directly improves their earning capabilities and access to the formal channels of money transfer. (IOM, Gender, Migration, and Remittances). This simply confirms that women are excluded by virtue of their legal status.
Many undocumented migrant women working in the informal sector face particular barriers to access formal remittance channels as they often require confirmation of accommodation, proof of salary and work address, and a valid passport or identification documents (IOM, Gender and Migration and Remittances). What we have seen is that women remit through informal structures such as ukuphatisa and not through banks, because most of the women sending the money are not banked and are financially excluded. Studies reveal that, more often than not, if you are already excluded in the financial sector before you migrated you are you are most likely to be excluded in the financial sector wherever you migrate. The result is that women’s ability to transact and access financial programmes is limited. The exclusion or limitation on women and their ability to remit hinders women’s ability to challenge or change social orders or norms within their communities.
It is without doubt that remittance influences the social role that women play as heads of households, and therefore remittance can be a catalyst for change in gender power relations,
by improving women’s decision-making capacity, economic status and their inclusion in the labour market. However, macro-economic events such as the decline in remittance during economic crisis can threaten the sustainability of changes, as they can negatively affect household welfare and gender equality (Buvinic, 2009). The lack of disaggregated gender analysis of remittance in terms of who is remitting, how they remit, where they remit to, and what the terms of the remittance are plays a critical part in understating the global notions of migration and displacement and related concepts. This an area that must be analysed. Remittance plays a key part in understanding how migration is working. Remittance is powerful and celebrated as playing a key role in most Southern African economies. However, remittance plays a double jeopardy role for women. They are seen in some instances as the sole income providers and this is why women stay even in very constrained circumstance in the host countries, because the remitter is unable to go back home; without the little she sends home, her family would not survive the harsh economic circumstances in her country of origin.
Many institutions have recommended that stability in conflict countries will alleviate the issues of migration globally. However, more often than not, stability does not guarantee that on their return the displaced women will receive the same socio-economic benefits or the peace and belonging that is associated with “home”. 
The flip-side to home and belonging: return and reintegration in Angola 
Following the attainment of stability in oil-rich Angola, many countries which received Angolan refugees (e.g. the DRC) terminated the refugee status of those refugees. This caused a large-scale flow of returning people to the sending country. On arrival, the returning displaced persons find that the Angolan government has failed to care for their needs, and in some areas the Angolan authorities harass and sexually abuse returnees without identity cards. A report by Human Rights Watch titled “Coming Home: Return and Reintegration in Angola,” reports on how returning families relocate to locations that still lack basic social services, such as healthcare and education. Those mostly affected include widows and female-headed households who experience the worst shortfalls in government assistance, particularly in rural areas. Reintegration remains a distant dream, the conditions on arrival forcefully deconstructing
the concept of home for those displaced by the brutal civil war, years ago. The Angolan experience demonstrates that stability is not the only ingredient in addressing migration in the region. In the absence of gendered regional policies that speak to the core of women’s issues (like access to basic socio-economic rights including safety, security, healthcare services, rights to adequate housing and adequate integration programmes, financial exclusions), stability is but one factor that is moot answer to migration and displacement in the region.
The concept of home is a misnomer for many migrant women. Where she would flee her home of origin in search of a better life, she only finds further social and structural challenges ahead. The nature of migration and displacement reveals that her journey will be marred with physical and emotional strains that will affect her more than her male counterpart. The impact of migration and displacement on vulnerable women has been marked as important for decades, but inequality is still the case in today’s contemporary migration. Societal traditional norms and current policies in the region have restricted women’s role in the community. Women’s lives are of very little value in a region that sacrifices their safety and personal dignity, limits their ability to contribute or change their families, and directly excludes them in the financial market. The continued violation of women’s rights at all stages of their movement
effectively means that they cannot find the stability and safety normally associated with the notion of home. For many of these women there is literally “no place like home”.


Karabo Van Heerden is an Intern at Amnesty International and a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. She is studying towards a postgraduate diploma in information and communications law.  

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