General Overview of Women and Migration: Including cases from Tunisia.

Ferdaous Naili, Feb. 23, 2021

The role of women in migration and trans-regional movements have long been eclipsed by men's narratives.

The role of women in migration and trans-regional movements have long been eclipsed by men's narratives. This definitely does not mean, however, that women, both with their families and individually, have not traditionally engaged in geographical movements. In the 1960s, women already represented 47% of international migrants in the world (Zlotnik, 2003), a figure roughly equivalent to that of today. According to the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, women made up almost half of the 244 million migrants and, in 2014, about half of the 19.6 million refugees worldwide. (UN General Assembly 2016). However, quantitative research would only include the gender dimension in the 1990s, following a United Nations Population Division report in 1998, which included an estimate of female migrants (Zlotnik, 2003). Until then, women were either seen as passive people (dependent on a man, whether husband, father, brother, etc.), or gender was simply not taken into account, or it was considered that women have the same migratory behavior as men. Thus, migrant women were invisible to the world of research and migration policy.

This invisibilization is problematic because the gender of individuals, that is to say the social and hierarchical construction of social relations between the sexes, impacts the processes of migration (e.g. causes, consequences). To ignore this is to take the risk of prolonging the violence that these people are already experiencing. Gender dynamics play a central role in who emigrates, why and how this decision is made. Women may want to leave their country for economic, social, political, environmental reasons; all these factors are often intertwined. No matter how educated a woman migrant is, she is still more at risk of vulnerabilities because of her gender.

Reading on the collected stories of women migrants in Tunisia, the picture is rendered more stark. Larisa (Terre d’asile Tunisia, 2020), joined Tunisia right after high school from Cameroon for her studies and shares how the racism and insults she faced on a regular basis made her limit her outings and social activities while she was pursuing Hotel Management, a field dependent on high social skills. Her experience as a migrant woman in the context of Tunisia, with limited financial resources, again limited her employment options. In her third year of studies, she was doing domestic work as a cleaner and babysitter. Based on recent OECD work, more educated women are more mobile, they migrate even more than men with the same level of education (OECD 2017). However, the qualifications of immigrant women are little recognized and women too often hold a job for which they are overqualified. Indeed, access to the labor market is particularly difficult for immigrant women due to the global gender and ethnic division of labor (Scrinzi, 2005).

Immigrant women face socio-economic violence and discrimination based on their gender, migrant status and origin, and educated women are even more prone to these obstacles. Recent research conducted by NGO Terre d’asile in Tunisia (TAT, 2020) found that women migrants in Tunisia work generally in informal settings due to the difficulty of maintaining a regular administrative situation (e.g. domestic work, waitressing, sport training). These women come from already precarious conditions, which the legislative framework and existing living conditions in Tunisia tend to strengthen. Larissa, having had problems paying for her school, couldn’t renew her student residency, for instance, and as the time passed the fine only accumulated further, amounting to millions in debt. The situation made her immobile within the Tunisian borders and living in daily fear of being arrested.

In addition, the fact that they are women puts them in front of specific vulnerabilities. They are forced to perform low-skilled, poorly paid jobs in areas traditionally reserved for women, mainly domestic work. Domestic work is one of the employment sectors that most drives female migration. This sector of activity is particularly vulnerable because it is generally informal. This affects, among other things, the increased risk of being a victim of human trafficking and victims of abuse and exploitation. In addition, it only allows the acquisition of a few specific skills that can be used in other types of jobs, and therefore does not open the way to professional development (TAT, 2020).

Indeed, women migrants are mainly oriented towards the field of care (domestic work, nursing staff). Globally, it is estimated that nearly one in six domestic workers is an international migrant, and that women represent 73.4% of migrant domestic workers (ILO, 2018). However, protection and support can only be effective when the empowerment of the person is possible, an empowerment that can only be achieved through access to decent work, and therefore to a legislative framework that allows it.

Rebecca, a woman migrant in Tunisia, speaking limited French and no Arabic -the two official languages in the country- had to find intermediaries to sort out legal and administrative procedures: she faced exploitation twice, as they took her money and provided fake documentation. The lack of administrative assistance from official bodies led to Rebecca’s son being non-registered, and facing identification issues, especially visible when accessing school, or health care (TAT, 2020). Although migration is emerging as just an issue of concern to a country’s stability and security, it can allow the development of host communities, by providing labor and know-how. On the other hand, remittances and diaspora investments can provide an essential economic support for emigration communities. However, the entry of labor and know-how - and those who benefit from them - depends on labor markets where the gender division of labor prevails and sexist migration policies that do not offer the same opportunities for men and women. Sometimes migration policies push “unqualified” women workers towards clandestine migratory channels, which are riskier.

Accounting for the dynamics of gender and migration will lead to programs and policies that increase benefits and reduce economic and social costs for women migrants, who make up half of the world's migrant population

International Labor Organisation (ILO). 2018. Global Estimates on International Migrant Workers. Retrieved November 06, 2020, from

OECD, Migration Data Brief, N°1 December 2017,

SCRINZI F., 2005. «Une division “ethnique” du travail entre les femmes? Les migrantes dans les services domestiques, en Italie et en France» dans S. PASLEAU et I. SCHOPP (dir.), Proceedings of the Servant Project, vol. IV, Domestic Service, a Factor of Social Revival in Europe, Liège: Éditions de l’Université de Liège, pp. 245-266.

Terre d’asile Tunisie (TAT). 2020. Retrieved November 06, 2020, from e_dAsile_Tunisie.pdf

United Nations General Assembly, In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants: Report of the Secretary General, 21 April 2016,

UN Women. Accessed on November 6th 2020

Zlotnik, H. 2003. The Global Dimensions of Female Migration.

Feb. 23, 2024, 4:21 p.m.