Exploring Gender Dynamics among Migrants by Chenise Calhoun

Abstract: The existing literature on West African migration revolves primarily around demographic statistics, estimated numbers of emigrants, and route theories. The faces behind said numbers are rarely discussed, while the few outlets which do humanize the issue tend to focus on the male migrant’s point of view. Any scholarly discourse that does seek to represent women inaccurately portrays them as exceptional cases, leading the public to believe that women only migrate in exceptional circumstances and do not need to be accounted for in the discourse. This paper acknowledges this lack of literature on West African migrant women using gathered narratives--both fiction and nonfiction--from those women, focusing on Senegal and Ghana. The material gives voice to women who migrated along the Western Mediterranean route to reach European destinations. The material also addresses the complexities of the “migrant crisis” while debunking the myth that only men migrate and that women do not need to be represented. In light of independence in many West African countries from their former colonizers, this paper seeks to answer how human trafficking of women, women operating in the low-waged markets, and the need for women to leave their home country proves that globalization has failed many African women. The reality of migrant women's lives, which is made clear in the source material, debates and challenges the belief that globalization is solely a positive process that promotes unity and internationalism. This is done by contextualizing globalization into the lives of these women as well as into colonial history.


I studied abroad in both Morocco (Fall 2017) and Ghana (Winter Break 2019), and this project grew from those two experiences. While in Morocco, I spoke with several West Africans from Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Ghana, who were all (for differing reasons) making their way to Europe. While in Ghana, I was able to observe how the migration of West Africans affected their home nations such as Togo, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. The urgency of this topic comes from the recent increase of migrants along the Western Mediterranean Route, which has not been covered accurately by the news and entertainment media. Although women make up over 40% of West African migrants, their voices and stories have been traditionally silenced or erased from the migration narrative.

No one is documenting or recognizing West African women as participants in the recent migrant crisis to Europe. It is shocking, after being in Morocco and Ghana, that I have only read fictional accounts focusing on the migration of men, watched films focusing on the migration of men, and seen mainstream news outlets whose clips focus solely on the migration of men. If men were the only demographic of people migrating to Europe, there would be very few migrant women from West Africa in Europe; however this is not factually accurate. This study intends to bring attention and focus on the women migrants who are also part “of the migrant crisis” (The Nation, 2018; Fox News, 2019; BBC News, 2016). This study also raises the voices of the women who survived the journey and have told their stories, and hopefully encourages others to do the same. Their truths are missing in the discourse and their voices are the only accounts that could accurately depict their plight for policy-makers to recognize and address the crisis fully.

This project uses primary and secondary source narratives of West African migrant women who have migrated to Europe, along the Western Mediterranean route, to explain the complexity of the migrant crisis in post-colonial Africa. The narratives I compiled came from the few existing works of researchers who have done interviews with West African migrant women. It is tricky to obtain narratives from a marginalized and vulnerable population of people, therefore I decided to utilize existing narratives already obtained and published by other researchers and situate them into an appropriate political, social, geographical and economic context.

Focusing on women from Senegal and Ghana, this material debunks the widespread myths that women do not need to be represented in the discourse. Moreover, the reasons why women leave Senegal and Ghana are different from men as women have very different migrant experiences. For example, due to structural adjustment programs (SAPs) “cutting government expenditures on local health, education, and welfare programs, slashing wages, fostering export commodities and cash crop, and devaluing local currency,” more women today living in poverty feel pushed out of their home countries (Mann, 2012, p. 321). Women’s insights on the topic of migration are important when discussing reasons for why migrants move and whether or not they truly have a choice. Often, these reasons from men and women on why they migrate hark back to the period of colonialism.

During the colonial period in West Africa (roughly between 1840 and 1960) the institutionalization of labor in the colonies relied on gender-based separation of labor. In Senegal, the tirailleurs (Senegalese soldiers under French control) were always men, while the domestic workers were always women. The French colonized foreign lands, such as Senegal, to enrich their economy. They forced colonized peoples to grow agricultural goods or mine raw materials for little to no pay. The impact of this is still felt today. It is shown in the land, as the soil has been depleted which makes it difficult to cultivate crops. This situation was the same for Ghana, which was colonized by the British. The British and the French were highly motivated to colonize by greed, but unlike the French, the British were interested in justifying their colonization with a duty to “civilize” and convert the native populations to Christianity (Donkor, 2009, p. 35). The British also brought their brand of what bell hooks calls “patriarchal masculinity,” which was later embraced by native men (hooks, 2004, 2). Patriarchal masculinity is where “one’s masculinity is defined by violence, conquest, and wealth” (hooks, 2004, 2). This is not to say that West Africa was not at all patriarchal before the arrival of the Europeans. Though this particular brand of patriarchy remains in much of West Africa today as the divisions still benefits the elite men in power.

I chose Senegal and Ghana as case studies because both countries have significant post-colonial legacies that inform the present migrant situation. Senegal was colonized primarily by the French from 1880 to its independence in 1960 (though their presence in parts of the country dates back to the 1600s); Ghana was colonized primarily by the British from 1867 to 1957. The most obvious difference in their post-colonial legacies is language. Senegal’s official language, as a former colony of France is French, while Ghana’s official language, as a former colony of Great Britain, is English. Language plays a major role in choosing a destination nation to which to migrate, as speaking the language of the land makes the transition much easier. These linguistic colonial legacies explain where West Africans from Senegal versus those from Ghana ultimately settle. Senegal is also closer in proximity to Europe than to Ghana as you can see in figure two. This colonial legacy explains a lot in terms of where West African migrant women end up and for what reason.

The method of imperialism from the colonizers of Senegal and Ghana was dividing land for cultivating cash crops, mining or working in temporary agricultural positions. The cultivation of cash corps was typically in cities around the coast for reasons of trade, while the temporary agriculture remained inland. This is the reason why most major West African countries have urbanized, modern cities near the coast. However, as this structure of divided land remained present to the post-colonial era, the division of labor did not entirely change either. The pressure to modernize has many post-colonial countries supporting the expansion of the colonial urbanized cities while the rural areas more or less remained untouched (Chen, 2013). As many women in West Africa are confined to these rural areas and are affected by the lack of support from their governments, their sense-of belonging begins to weaken. In rural areas there is a lack of security as the inland regions do not have access to public safety service, there is a lack of work, and women are less-likely to be educated as the major schools are located in the big cities. Social and cultural dynamics that make it especially difficult for women of low socio-economic status to live in these regions include loss of power in relationships, where women feel as though they must follow rules that their husbands or fathers uphold in the household (Lowe, 2016). Though women’s “decision-making autonomy” in this region may be explained in relation to their lack of education and limited influence over material resources, the gender disparity in land ownership (due to gendered laws on land inheritance) impacts the economic status of women as well which “further perpetuates a high level of dependency on their husbands” (Lowe, 2016). Not catering to the female population in these countries causes for women to venture outward in search of work or an environment that is safe; even if the pathway to arrive to Europe is anything but safe.

The focus of this paper is on West Africa for a number of reasons. First, West Africa is geographically closest to Spain and Portugal, the entry points into Europe along the Western Mediterranean route. Second, individuals from countries in West Africa account for the largest population of Africans migrating along the Western Mediterranean route.

This route includes leaving the African continent, crossing over the Mediterranean Sea, and arriving on European shores by boats, dinghies, ferries, or canoes. This route also accounts for migrants passing through the Sahara desert to arrive at the Mediterranean Sea too. According to Mixed Migration, a leading source for independent and high quality data, information, research and analysis on mixed migration, there has been a shift in recent years from the Central Mediterranean route to the Western Mediterranean route (Brenner, 2018). According to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, the Western Mediterranean became “the most active migratory route into Europe” in June of 2018, with the number of migrants reaching Spain increasing to 166% from 2017 (Frontex, 2018). To see comparisons between routes, see figure three.

The use of the term “migrant” in this case is tricky, as the word is often spoken in the media by reporters who use “migrant” as a blanket term to describe all moving people; from economic immigrants to asylum seekers. The word has also been critiqued from editors at Al Jazeera and The Washington Post for its shift in connotation, evolving from a generalized descriptor to a pejorative dehumanizing agent in American and European mainstream news outlets (Ruz, BBC, 2015; Taylor, The Washington Post, 2015). The distinctions made between different types of African emigrants are very important to note as policies vary based upon their status. For example, refugees are protected by international law (specifically the 1951 Refugee Convention) while economic migrants, or people who migrate for financial means, are not. Al Jazeera announced in 2015 that they will no longer use the phrase Mediterranean “migrants” when referring to the recent increase of refugees crossing the sea to arrive in Europe, as the term not only generalizes the complex population but also because it is largely inaccurate (Malone, 2015). This terminology is often contested as many people who do not fit the standard definition of a “refugee” could still be in danger if they returned home. In this paper, when referring to West African migrant women from Senegal and Ghana, the term “migrant” is meant to encapsulate all women who have left their home countries due to desperate economic circumstances, lack of opportunity, violent outbreaks, or a desire to meet up with family members who emigrated before they did.

Literature Review

When writing about the migration of West African women, the themes which have to be addressed in order to analyze the situation in its entirety are Colonialism, Post-colonialism, Post-colonial feminism, and Globalization. The concepts of post-colonial feminism come out of Post-colonial discourse that, for a long time, centered on men and men’s liberation. This branch of feminism uses the principles expressed in W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the “double consciousness,” (1903, p. 2). Double consciousness expresses the psychological complication experienced by black people where one must “always looking at one's self through the eyes” of white people in order to navigate society (Du Bois, 1903, p. 2).

One of the early pioneering works of post-colonial feminism was Audre Lorde’s 1984 essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Post-colonial feminists understand that women from areas subjected to colonization suffer from “double colonization” reconfiguring Du Bois’ terminology. Black feminists and post-colonial feminists have argued that black women globally experience a triple consciousness, factoring in the additional complication of regarding one’s self through a male gaze. West African women are currently living within the lasting legacies of colonialism which is inherently patriarchal and racist. In this regard, they are constantly concerned with where home is for them, whether or not their society accommodates their needs, and where to go when those societies do not accommodate their needs. The following literature review attempts to support the argument that the plight of West African migrant women is rooted in colonialism and globalization, is best understood through narration, and is worthy of recognition.

Colonialism called for the stealing of land, wealth and goods, the violent usurpation and control over the bodies and psyches of the native people, as well as a narrative that justifies the means. The impacts of colonialism were so severe and deeply rooted, much of that control still exists to this day. In her book Doing Feminist Theory: From Modernity to Postmodernity (2012), where Mann examines feminist thought and prominent feminists from the late 18th century to today, the chapter on colonialism and imperialism provides an in depth analysis of how colonialism impacted all aspects of women’s lives and the legacy of this control. The chapter delves into how colonial rule striped colonized women of their history and identity, of any power and rights held previously, and especially of their voice. The chapter titled Feminism and Imperialism in Early Modernity looks specifically at the colonization of Native American women, addressing American suffragettes' interests in learning more on matrilineal Native American tribes. Though often the book looks at suffragettes in the 19th century, this chapter highlights that the reason for this is because white American women’s voices looking back belong to the hegemonic narrative of how women in America obtained rights (Mann, 302). On the topic of post colonialism, this book emphasizes the presence and influence that colonizing countries often have on their former colonizers, though they have physically left their colonies. The remnants of a powerful elite, patriarchal subjugation and economic insecurity also remained post-independence. This information is very useful to this thesis, as it provides me with the language and context to better understand why women would want to leave their home countries.

In Adrien Wing’s anthology, Global Critical Race Feminism (2000), several different authors focus on the legal rights of women globally. The most useful chapter to this thesis is titled African Women in France written by Judy Scales-Trent which looks at the plight of African women as Africans, as immigrants, and as women in France. The chapter gives background into how African migrants arrived in France prior to 1974 and contrasts that era with the recent increase in migration today. In 1990, the percentage of African migrant women entering France rose to around 30% from when it was around 15% in 1962 (Wing, 144). This chapter acknowledges the recent feminization of migration, begging the questions of why these women are migrating from their home countries and if these women truly have control over their mobility.

The legality of migration matters very little in France because often the color of your skin, the way you dress, and how you speak create space for assumptions and stereotyping among French nationals; African ethnicity becomes an indicator of illegal status, even when this is far from the truth (Wing, 144). This chapter helps me to understand Europe’s role as the land of opportunity in the recent increase of African migrant women today, and how the European narrative of the current “migrant crisis” often leaves out their own involvement in inviting foreigners to migrate.

Mevi Hova’s article Redefining the African Diaspora: Migration, Identity, and Gender Narratives in Diasporic West African Women's Fiction (2015) examines texts written by African women about their lived experiences abroad in relation to the patriarchy faced back in their home countries. The paper focuses on the lives of women migrants at home and abroad, while redefining migration as an enlightening experience that allows these women to see the norms of their country as an outsider. Living in two places creates space to see patriarchy as a construction which can be dismantled. The article also speaks to the post-modern transnationalism of the African migrant woman, struggling to find her place in the world with intersecting identities, trying to stay connected with the values of a nation that has been deeply damaged. This is in order to convey how the African women's fight for freedom and justice is particularly difficult as she exists in this liminal space between Western and African gender philosophies.

This article acknowledges that dynamics are changing; the dynamics of gender norms in Europe and in Africa are not what they were 20 years ago and they will likely continue to change in the continuing years as well. The purpose of this acknowledgement in this thesis goes to show that patriarchal issues in Africa are not uniquely African, nor are those issues entirely rooted in Western dominance during the colonial era. Though the British and the French strongly influenced gender relations in the country, Hova shines light on the agency that African male elites have to create potential change in the nation, but how they instead choose to benefit from former European norms which grant them dominance.

In Empowering Migrant Women: Why Agency and Rights are not Enough (2013), Leah Briones seeks to analyze policy aimed towards the aid of migrant women, specifically female migrant workers, in order to lay out what work still needs to be done in the protection and security of women. The author is critical of the efforts currently in place to protect migrant women who are almost always low-income and vulnerable to working domestic labor for long hours of the day. 40% of women in the labor force do not have access to social protection, including pension, unemployment benefits and maternity leave (Briones, 2015). Though the focus is on Filipino domestic workers, the book has much to say on why there is such a gendered policy disparity globally for women in areas of low-waged services where the conditions are poor and many times infringe on human rights.

Briones is critical of literature which seeks to paint migrant women as either “victims” or “agents” because she believes that this binary erases the immense influence that global political economy plays in everyone’s choices. This approach takes a deeper look at agency and how outside factors influence decision making, specifically among migrant women globally. She is less focused on what conditions make migrant women's agency possible and more so on the choice to do and be (p. 166). The Senegalese women who migrates to Europe due to a loss in occupation do not necessary have the choice to do and be in Senegal if job insecurity plagues the whole city. In the global economy, we are seeing an increasing number of women in the informal labor market, but the only jobs that women have access to are the criminally low-waged jobs where women are overworked, underpaid, and subjected to unfit working conditions. This book highlights the economic context for West Africans women and answers the question of who benefits from women of color working long hours for low salaries? According to Briones, the answer is Feminist Post-Development Thought: Rethinking Modernity, Post-Colonialism and Representation is an anthology written by Kriemild Saunders exploring women from the global south (or “Third World”) and their paths to development and modernization versus post-development alternatives that may possible suit their current conditions better (2007). The chapter of the book that is useful to this thesis is Counter-geographies of Globalization and the Feminization of survival, written by Saskia Sassen (2000). This chapter speaks to how women in developing countries transnationally are more likely to be confined to the low-waged labor market due to globalization and the exploitation of women. Dependency Theory points out that many Transnational Corporations simply exploit patriarchal values through taking advantage of women’s subjugation in society- where women put up with worse conditions than men because there is no better alternative other than being mothers and unpaid domestic laborers. As the Global North becomes increasingly more modernized, the rest of the world must adapt and reshape itself to remain a part of the market economy. If the developed world gets phones, the countries who make its pieces have to work a lot harder to keep up with the pace of Western fast-paced capitalism. Those countries typically employ women for these roles because they are the vulnerable population, and when the women in-country demand living wages as compensation for their work, companies look towards migrant women for cheap labor.

I use this literature because it speaks to the aspect of agency and choice among the lives of West African women. The low-income labor market according to Sassen includes foreign-born workers, illegally-trafficked people, and prostitutes. Operating within the low-income market where vulnerable women are turning a profit for these governments is known as the feminization of survival. For many West Africans migrating through the Sahara, migrants are often pushed or forced into labor in “sahara towns” which thrive off of the concentrated labor from unpaid individuals (Hagan, 18). Women are frequently raped or sexually abused on their path out from the Sahara. This chapter helps me to situate this localized situation of profiting off of vulnerable people groups in the Sahara desert into its global context of economic exploitation.


The methodology for this research paper is interdisciplinary; I am looking at the political, sociological, geographic, and economic factors that explain why people, specifically women, leave their native countries in search of greater opportunity and/or freedom elsewhere. This interdisciplinary approach allows me to look at the issue of migration from a variety of angles and to gain a holistic understanding. Due to the complexity of this issue, the methodology for this research draws on resources from a variety of academic disciplines. The anthropological factor of ethnography concerns me the most on both the micro level as well as the macro level. In a world that is becoming increasingly more globalized, small localized spaces are under the threat of being forced into a larger collective due to the increase in communication, connection, and economic systems. Today, it is difficult for autonomous zones to reject this pressure of globalization. Examining the way in which people respond to the increasingly globalized world is of particular interest.

The lens through which I regard this topic is a post-colonial feminist lens. Since the post-World War II period when new countries came into being through fights for independence, the world has not been the same. The model for a nation-state during the early-modernity period was a state which was developed and self-sufficient. This model was often that of the colonizers, and the framework of a modern country was supposed to be learned and practiced by the colonized countries. However, at the risk of being exploited, women actually bore the burden of developing this new framework on behalf of the middle class (largely male) who rose to power post-independence in formerly-colonized countries. These women face misrepresentation and exploitation from men in their countries, men in former-colonizer countries, and even women in former-colonized countries. Knowledge of this perspective allows me to better understand the condition of women in these post-colonial West African states.

With regard to the statistical data within this paper, there are many limitations to gaining precise percentages or details. According a paper written by Djamila Schans of the MAFE (Migration between Africa and Europe) project, “accurate figures on total West African migrants in the world today do not exist due to a lack of systematic data collection on the part of the home governments and also because some migrants have undocumented status overseas” (Schans, 4). This is another reason as to why the thesis centers migrants’ voices. Data analyses of this subject is difficult to obtain as the collection relies on the tracking of a population sans papiers.


Colonial and Post-colonial

The Transatlantic Slave trade, actually serves as the birthplace in which the mass migration of African peoples outside of Africa takes place. Christopher Miller mentions in his book The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade (2007) that “the Atlantic triangle was traced onto the earth and into the world culture by men and women and ships, moving goods to Africa, captive Africans to the new world and colonial products back to the mother countries” (Miller, 3). The trading of people is typically referred to as “forced migration” due to the forced removal of African people from their continent by European foreigners. Colonialism, defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another,” has transformed the continent of Africa from what it was pre-colonization to regions and territories divided at the Berlin Conference of 1884. These territories became locals for the violent struggle for “markets and raw materials by the industrialized nations of the West” (Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, 1998).

The worst of colonialism was bringing dualistic concepts and ideologies rooted in racism and sexism to the native people in order to divide the existing population and conquer them for many decades to come. Vickers (2002) argues that one of the most important aspects of colonialism is that its ideas are “trans-generational.” This ideology lingers to this day and provides an explanation for the many civil wars, land disputes, revolutions, and migration in post-independence Africa.

Onto the colonial aspect of migration, one should mention what the French and the British were doing in these African nations in the first place. Both the French and the British were compelled and motivated to colonize these countries by greed, but justified their mission behind a civilizing rhetoric. Justifications like these were important to the Europeans as they held the power to portray themselves however they wanted, and they could not let their greed for land and raw materials tarnish their identities as developed and civilized people. This need to civilize is commonly referred to as the “White Man’s Burden” referred to by Kipling in 1899. There is evidence of this sentiment among the British mentioned by Cohen in his article The Colonized as Child: British and French Colonial Rule (1970) where Lord Leverhulme of Great Britain said to the Governor of Nigeria in a 1924 speech, “I am certain that the West African races have to be treated very much as one would treat children when they are immature” (Cohen, 428).

An aspect very important to the method of colonialism was the concept of otherness; the idea that colonizers were people, and everyone else was something other than people. This type of dehumanization was used to create a hierarchy of superiors and inferiors in the colonies to maintain the socioeconomic system. During slavery, white people would never directly take slaves but would buy slaves from chiefs due to European’s lack of access to the spoils of war. However during colonialism, colonists who resided in the colonies which they were occupying had to convince the colonized people that they were less-than and should treat the colonizers as authority figures based on their supposed “spatial marginality” (Staszak, 2). The British were keen on learning the languages of the colonized in order to establish a link between them and their desired colony. The French took a different approach and used indigenous people as tools of translation while providing them with privileges that the other colonized people did not have access to. This hie