As Education Empowers Women, Migration Allows Them to Go to Where Opportunities Beckon

International Women’s Day

Of 258 million international migrants in the world today, about half are women and girls—125 million, or 48.5 per cent of the total in 2017, the last full year for which such statistics are available. Between the years 1990 to 2017, this statistic held steady, with between 48 and 50 per cent of all migrants worldwide annually being women and girls.

The International Organization for Migration is committed to the human rights and well-being of all migrants. For example, looking at the data IOM collects in conflict zones, on migratory corridors and in sending communities as well as in transit countries and in countries of destination, we see that even though the numbers of women and men are nearly equal in raw numbers, they’re not equally divided in terms of location, circumstance, their reasons for migrating or the dangers they face.

As we learn to manage migration as a growing reality that crosses lives as it crosses borders, and regenerates society as it renews humankind’s eternal quest for safety and prosperity, we can see in the numbers just how different migration can be for women compared with men, and how we must rely on sex-disaggregated data on things like labour force participation, remittances, household incomes to prepare for the future lying just ahead.

Let’s start with location. The 258 million of uswho are residing in another country are found today on six continents: Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Australia and Europe. Yet in only two of those continents—Africa and Asia—do males represent the majority. In Asia (the largest migration destination with just under 80 million migrants) men lead by a lot: 57.6% compared to 42.4% women—a gap of over 15 percentage points. In Africa, with almost 25 million international migrants, the difference is smaller, approximately 6 percentage points. Everywhere else, the percentage of women female migrants now exceed those of men — by four points in Europe, three in North America, two in Oceania and just under one point in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This relative importance of women among all migrants in many regions speak to womankind’s changing status across the planet, something migration both reflects and furthers, and both causes and effects. Gender affects migratory decisions, migratory experiences such as work opportunities and exposure to risks, and effects of migration on remittance flows.

Examining the data collected since 1990, we learn that:

  • more women than men migrate to higher-income countries, while a decreasing proportion of women migrate to lower-income regions.
  • more women are migrating on their own or as heads of households, often in pursuit of better economic or educational opportunities. 
  • labour force participation rates of migrants were higher for migrant women (63.5 per cent ) than their native-born equivalents (around 48.1 per cent)—and in all groups except low-income countries.
  • higher education levels have been found to be positively associated with increased migration for women. Even women who hold highly skilled in their home countries find they can improve their incomes filling a lower-skilled job abroad. Many of these migrants eventually cycle back up to their previous profession in their new country.

These are positive developments. The data points clearly to a worldwide women’s empowerment and their increasing role across the globe. Over the course of two decades women are becoming better educated everywhere. That raises their value in the global labour marketplace, which means they have more incentive to look for, and go to, work opportunities that reward their talent.

And it’s paying off, especially for the origin countries (and families) that invest in their girl children’s schooling. Migrant women remit homeward a greater portion of their earnings than do their male counterparts, regardless of nationality or in which countries they reside. Female migrants are also less likely than male migrants to have run-ins with law enforcement in the places they migrate to, or to be deported.

And it’s a boon to the receiving countries, too. Increasingly, the women who are arriving are smart and motivated—and much more likely than women in their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations to be traveling alone or leading households. And their participation in economies of their new homes comes at a considerably higher rate than the women who are born in these places, despite those native women’s advantages in language proficiency and, in so many cases, legal residency status.

We shouldn’t over-simplify. Women and girls face many vulnerabilities along in the migratory path. More than 1700 deaths of migrant women have been tracked by IOM’s Missing Migrant Project since 2014. Last year, alone, more than 300 died just on two sea routes—across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe and to the Middle East from the Horn of Africa.

We look forward to the day when all migration—for men, women, and children—will be safe, regular and secure for all. We believe that future lies ahead. Let’s keep working together until it arrives.