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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 hierarchy was a way to remove morality and values from the African people groups to the point where they only saw differences among each other based on who the colonists liked more and treated better. Binaries such as civilized or barbarian, as well as good or bad were internalized and later replicated by the native populations.

Pre-colonialism, many societies in Ghana and Senegal were matriarchal, as well as in the rest of West Africa (McGee, 2015; Akena, 2019, p. 37). Patriarchy did exist in West Africa prior to colonialism, however many tribes that were “patriarchal” placed little to no importance on men dominating over women; the tribes were patrilineal and passed on power through the male’s side of the family. Examples in Ghana include the Ashanti tribe, where power was passed down through the father, however the heir to the throne was always chosen by a woman. In many societies in West Africa, women played major roles and typically had access to gaining visibility in society through means of food production and land cultivation (Spencer-Wood, 2017). The complex role that many women held in society simplified for many tribes during the colonial period.

European men who were always the colonizers (rarely women) were in the camp of exploiting the labor and bodies of women for their gain, while using African men to subjugate African women in the same regard. This speaks to the tactic of dualism and institutionalization employed by the colonists which speaks to the sexist nature of West Africa today. The patriarchy imposed on women in the colonies “undermined indigenous women’s sources of power through actions such as limiting them to the domestic sphere, exploiting and classifying their unpaid domestic labor as “unskilled” and therefore low status, denying women’s land rights, not allowing women to exercise public or religious powers and positions, imposing the institution of patriarchal monogamy, outlawing extramarital sex, and lowering the status of children born out of wedlock as illegitimate”

(Stoler, 2006).

France’s colonial system disrupted the traditional agricultural system of the Senegal River valley by instituting a tax that made natives work on a groundnut and cotton plantation system, but receiving almost no compensation. Paying the tax meant selling animals or portions of the harvest or traveling to the coast where most of the colonial plantations were located in order to earn the money for the tax by selling labor. This conversion to monetary payments in the region was an introduction to capitalism, but more so, to the French franc. The French colonial system in Senegal was able to tax cash crops for revenue, force the native people to tend to peanuts to create a surplus of exportable goods, and divide the region and population (Nigro, 214). Due to European patriarchy at the time, those who would attend to these crops and work cyclically were women- as they were seen as weaker and less capable of building. The French used the labor of men to establish railroads and streets.

The gendered distribution of labor is at the foundation of capitalism in colonial Africa, as patriarchal divisions were the first lines drawn by the Europeans. This is a replication of the Western concepts of indentured servitude that poor white women suffered, prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as the enslaving of African women, from the 17th century to the 19th century. This meant that the subjugation of the African woman had to be maintained in a number of ways, and the dehumanizing racial element allowed for the treatment of women to be brutal, only viewing them as tools for production and exploitation.

During the colonial period, the French requested Senegalese men to emigration to France as workers to rebuild the country after the World Wars, as well as fight on behalf of the French in WWII (Mynz, 1995; Mann, G., 2004). The job of a soldier was somewhat coerced by offering wages that African men could not obtain working on railroads or in agriculture. This was because the jobs were dangerous, and the men were risking their lives. The soldiers belonged to other French-owned African territories as well. Though the members of the French Force were the tirailleurs sénégalais (Senegalese shooters). During both World Wars, France successfully recruited additional military manpower from its colonies, and this took a huge toll on familial relations in Senegal. But these acts became the birthplace for ideologies about how the metropolitan France had more opportunities than their colonies, and this sentiment that would carry on after colonialism.

The attack of the women was an attack on the culture and identity of the tribes, as it was often the duty of African women to pass on the culture. The values of the people were destroyed and replaced with European values and Christian beliefs. The British did not recognize African history, the people groups who occupied what is today known as Ghana for over 1000 years, or the rich and complex varieties of language and culture (Bush, 1999). Chinua Achebe notes that “African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans… their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great beauty… they had dignity” (Achebe, 1973, 8). Much of what the world learns about Africa is very narrow due to the great loss of its history.

Post-colonial feminists concern themselves with combatting the false narratives of colonization, African people, and women told by Europeans. The major problem with these narratives was how they impacted following generations of people to regard Africans, women and the “colonial mission” through the lens of the colonized and not the colonizer. That lens is respected and maintained, though post-colonial feminists are pushing to undo or “unsettle” these concepts of themselves to deconstruct the narratives from the inside (Piedalue & Rishi, 548) One of the well-known narratives about native African women was that they were better off colonized than under the control of African men pre-colonialism. However Said has pointed out that the regard of marginalized populations damaged by the narratives of the West reflects heavily on European men themselves. He makes the claim about the British in India, and how all knowledge and academia on India’s colonial history is “tinged and impressed with” or “violated by” the data gathered by British colonists (Said, 1978, 11). Regarding the patriarchy in France during the late 1800s, it is clear that the way men regarded women and clearly controlled them as pieces of property speaks to the gendered ideologies that were projected and imposed onto the native populations.

Western education was used as a tool of breaking down and rebuilding all structures present in African countries. Post-colonial theorists acknowledge that mechanisms of perpetuation are required for oppression to continue in order for the rule to remain cyclical. One of the main methods of perpetuation was education because it created a barrier into who had access to upward mobility and who did not. Education served as another hierarchical determinant, and those disadvantaged enough to not go to school, the vast majority of people, could barely obtain a low-waged job. Education was also the breeding ground for colonial ideologies- the schools in Ghana had curricula which focused on creating an “undiversified work force and stagnant socio-economic development” (Fletcher, 312). The English language is also a medium of oppression as students in rural areas, mostly women, so not have access to gaining that linguistic competence to work in any big city. Women’s mobility became restricted as they became tools of labor and nothing more. The woman's relationship with her family, clan, and community was ruptured.

Creation of crops in surplus meant African men may be able to rise in ranks by supplying for the colonizers and also having cash to spare. This beginning stage to the adoption of capitalism by African men would later lead to the economic detriment of African women. Women were tied to the land during the colonial period and were legally prohibited from going to court, so they could not fight back. The extraction of raw materials (gold in Ghana, phosphate in Senegal) as well as the production of tropical agricultural products (palm oil in Ghana, groundnuts in Senegambia) were methods for African men to gain a surplus amount of money. The devaluation of traditional African commerce relations, the gendered divide of labor, the taxation of the land and crops, as well as the forced labor created a proletarianized labor force. The British and the French succeeded in destroying and rebuilding the existing systems and erasing them from history as well.

Typically in West Africa during the early post-colonial period, governments were established by loyalists to the former colonizers. Although this is neither the case for Ghana nor Senegal, it is important to note that these loyalists- always men- were willing to follow the European model of exploitation of their country post its independence: including Cote d’Ivoire and Dahomey (currently named Benin). However in all West African countries, including Senegal and Ghana, leaders guarded the existing structures that gave men power over women. Even post-independence women still must fight against misogynistic patriarchal structures. This begs the question “Independence for whom?" Swati Parashar mentions that post-colonialism “celebrates anti-colonial nationalisms as the act of resistance and overlooks the internal orthodoxies, injustices, silences and marginalizations” (Parashar, 371).

When Ghana gained independence in 1957 and Kwame Nkrumah came to power, the British majorly destroyed the cities on their way out. They burned down buildings, killed animals, destroyed fields for crop cultivation, all as retaliation for ending colonialism in the country (Sato, 2017). Kwame Nkrumah was very radical and had many ideas for the future of Ghana and Africa. However after he was deposed of by Joseph Arthur Ankrah in 1966 in a coup, the colonial framework was reinstituted into the country. The educational structures of contemporary Ghana are derived from those put in place by the former colonial power (Crowder, 1978). Contemporary educational systems in Ghana continue to disseminate European perspectives and world-view as their foundation.

Post-independence, Ghana has had four main phases of migration:

1. After independence, there was economic prosperity- Many students studied abroad in the UK.

2. Mid 1960s- Classified by a rising unemployment, payment deficit, political instability, and many well-off foreigners leaving the country.

3. Early 1980s- The introduction to SAPs brings about massive debt, labor groups were established, and many Ghanaians living in Nigeria were expelled from Nigeria and had to walk back to their home land in what is known as Ghana Must Go.

Overseas migration continues into the 1990s and 2000s. After West African countries, the most important countries of destination for Ghanaian emigrants are the United States (7.3%) and the United Kingdom (5.9%) (IOM, 2007).

Léopold Segnor, the first president of Senegal and a poet in the Negritude movement, wrote about the condition of black people within a colonial state. However Sengor was later looked down upon due to his support of African-French relations, federalism, and the French franc being used in African countries. Sengor was a part of the elite prior to the country gaining independence, being educated in French schools during the colonial era and remaining politically engaged in the colonial regime before independence. In Sengor’s plan for the future, he had little to say about women and their roles; and this was evident in the years to come (Wilder, 2015).

Like other sub-Saharan African countries, much migration from Senegal has been directed towards other African countries, and Senegalese migrants can be found in most regions of Africa (Beauchemin, 2007). Senegal also played a large part in the recent increase of sub-Saharan migration flows to Europe. While recent population statistics show that Senegalese people makes up around 4.6% of the population of West Africa (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012), Senegalese make up 18.1% of West African migrants in the main European receiving countries (Spain, Italy, France) (U.S. Census Bureau 2012). In addition to Senegalese migrants being highly represented in Europe, Senegal stands out as a country that has diversified its migration destinations, with Senegalese increasingly present in Italy, Spain, and the United States as well as their traditional destination of France. The three countries- Spain, Italy, and France- made up for about 45% of the international Senegalese community (Beauchemin, 2007).

Senegalese migration to France began before the country gained independence in 1960, when the World Wars wrecked the country and began relied on unskilled foreign labor as their labor was cheap. France was one of the countries that turned to labor recruitment and importation often in order to rebuild the country in times after wars. Although the vast majority of imported laborers came from southern Europe, many also came from France’s African colonies. Employers recruited workers in the rural Senegal areas to work in low-skilled jobs facing pretty bad conditions in the auto field, textile field, and hotel industries (Fall 2005). Senegalese workers stayed in France and earned money to send back to their country before returning home and sending another family member to take their places (Fall, 2005). Many people were solely interested in making money and returning home, so the French were sure to create lodging sites for migrant workers near their place of work in order to keep them away from the French society. During the post-war period- known as les trente glorieuses- irregularity among immigrants was widespread. Migration became illegal from WWII to the 1970s, though many migrants still came sans papiers and found a job upon arrival. Laubenthal (2007) estimates that at the end of the 1960s, 80% of foreign workers were directly recruited by companies and entered France without a residence permit, to be regularized later by the government. The workers invited to these countries were ultimately men, however when immigration became illegal in France, there is interestingly enough an increase in women migrants from West African crossing into France.

What describes the period of post-colonialism for many West African countries is the rise of globalization, IMF and the World Bank increasing in usage and importance, and disenchantment. Violent conflicts such as civil wars, genocides and revolutions break out all across the continent, democracy in the region is being challenged in multiple ways as authority members want to hold onto power, and political groups fight to be recognized. However in most of these cases, women are oppressed and forced to accept the will of the state, which involves co-opting nationalistic ideologies and reproducing the image of their “nation-state”. National identity is reflected in its gendered impositions on women. The control of women and the control of the state become synonymous, their countries become unrecognizable to them, and women find themselves disenchanted by the illusion of freedom.

Globalization is seen in a number of different ways. Positively, Val Moghadam (2015) sees globalization as a complex economic, political, cultural, and geographic process where everything is spreading internationally: money, organizations, ideas, discourses, and peoples. However many postcolonial feminists see globalization through a critical lens. Mwase (2007) believes that even though there are innovation attributes, excessive market and profit driven globalization harbors negative disruptive and marginalizing effects (Lucas 2007). Relating to Africa, Donkor (2005) sees globalization and colonization basically as the same concept but with different time periods. Edozien (2004) says that "from an African perspective globalization is not new but a continuation of over 500 years of domination colonization and commercialization" (Ike, 138). Relating to women, Sassen believes that "economic globalization" is the reason behind women struggling to survive, causing the expansion of the low-waged labor market as an increasing number of women find themselves left behind in the rapid growth of development (Sassen, 89).

Feminization of Migration

This section of the thesis looks at the question of why there are ‘more women than ever’ migrating now (Saunders, 2007, 93). Humans have always moved around, it is a part of who we are as a species. However for women today, migration has become less of a choice and more so a survival tactic. More and more women feel unsafe or unaccounted for in their home countries for a variety of reasons which will be covered in a further section- but this growing sentiment coupled with the booming global market for cheap migrant labor creates situations where West Africa migrant women feel it is necessary to leave their countries. The conditions that have created this phenomenon suggest that these women should be welcomed into nation-states as refugees. When analyzing the “migrant crisis,” reporters often ask why African migrants would risk their lives to arrive in Europe. However for people in seemingly inescapable predicaments in their home countries such as poverty, famine, job loss, health-related issues, staying in the home country could lead to death due to of structural issues beyond their control.

What should be highlighted in this feminization of migration is how unique it is to ever before. Not only are the numbers and percentages of women migrating higher than ever, but now more than ever, women are migrating autonomously. This new pioneering method of migration has a very feminist look to it; Women are leaving patriarchal countries in order to go to countries that are less patriarchal. However, this situation is far from a “win” for migrant women. A UN Report (2005) mentions that “when policies and practices that discriminate against women are in place- in reaction, for example to access of resources, educational opportunities and political participation- women’s capacities to participate and contribute fully to society are diminished” (Miranda, 3). Though this lack of access to resources is experienced by women before they leave their home countries as well as when they arrive in their host countries.

The Senegalese population has grown rapidly in recent years, increasing from three million in 1960 to 13 million in 2013 (Mezger Kveder, 2012). Now, 44% of Senegal’s population is under the age of 15 and almost half (42%) of Senegalese live in urban areas (Population Reference Bureau 2012). While Senegal is certainly among the world’s poorest countries, life expectancy at birth has increased from 39 years in 1960 to 58 years in 2011 (The World Bank, 2013) and it has shown consistent improvement in its Human Development Index (HDI) scores (Schoumaker, 2013). The Senegalese economy is dominated by the service sector (60%), with agriculture and industrial production each contributing 20% of GDP (The World Bank, 2013). Citing The World Bank in this instance is intentional, as the SAPs responsible for cutting many of the country’s organizations which served the Senegalese population are also responsible for massive peanuts and cotton production (as they still remain the principal export crop) which service people in the global North. So in a country where youth make up over half the population, and 44% of Senegalese people live in the big cities, this means that the country has an interest in investing in the expansion of the large cities to accommodate the young people. More cuts in the rural region leaves over half of the population depleted of resources and support. Women in these areas must rely on immediate solutions like microloans when the problems are long-term and constant. Understanding this context makes it a lot simpler to empathize with women in rural areas who live in the peripheries of major cities, and to see why migrating would be a justifiable next step.

As traditional theorists of migration tend to represent migration as a male activity ignoring the gendered factors involved in leaving one’s country, this thesis takes a feminist approach at regarding the increase of women migrants. Though traditionally theorists such as Kelson and Delaet (2001) believed that women mainly migrated to join husbands abroad, a very small percentage of women are in need of doing this today. According to UN Women, between 2000 and 2015, “the number of international migrants has increased by 41% to reach 244 million... Almost half of them are women” (UN Women). Though sub-Saharan African women only make up about 40% of all African migrants, that number is very significant for there to be no representation of them in media and literature. Women make up around 75% of all international migrant workers. So there is factual evidence to support that women are not solely migrating to reconnect with their husbands. Another traditionally held belief is that women migrate to support their families. However, women in West Africa migrate for a variety of reasons that stem from colonial legacies in globalization which I will explain in a further section. Despite the evidence, much of the theories surrounding why women migrate are rooted in narrow sexist ideas about what women want, and this ideology causes reporters and news outlets to disregard women’s cases of migration because they are already searching for stories of migrant men- rendering migrant women invisible.

For African Women specifically, traditional theorists of migration believed that they migrate because they are illiterate and have limited access to resources, however this ignores the wide range of structural constraints and inequalities that prevent African women from participating more fully in the migrating process. However what the 2005 UN report highlighted was that women do not really have control over their mobility. Susan Mann believes that relations like this are changing, where African women are being relied on for foreign work such as childcare, eldercare, house care, or other forms of domestic work traditionally performed by housewives in what could be called individual dependency theory. African women are a major population of migrants, occupying many places along the Western Mediterranean route. Because gender is all about power dynamics, it informs social relations such as communicating routes, working in the low-waged labor market, and safety takes on an entirely different meaning in relation to discussing migrant men's social relations.


When studying abroad in Ghana, I recall asking my tour guide about the impacts that migration to Europe had made on Ghanaian society. The tour guide told me about his niece who two months prior had finally earned enough money to migrate to Europe through the Sahara desert. He spoke about his niece in a proud manner, saying that “she will become big one day.” Delving deeper into the story, the tour guide told me that he does not know where his niece was along the Western Mediterranean route, and that he nor his family had not heard back from her in the two months that she has been gone.

I knew that the journey that migrants take to arrive to Europe was long, but I never imagined that it would take over 30 days to arrive to a region that would take no more than 10 hours by plane. Media has for a very long time dictated the way in which consumers of media perceive migration as films, novels, and the news seemingly reflect reality and tell the full story; However this has never been the case on the subject of migration. Several news stories on the subject of migration in the US and abroad are not only centered on male migrants, but the women are barely present. This representation counters the fact that women comprise slightly less than half of all international migrants: 49% as of 2000 and 48% as of 2017 (according to 2017 UN report). Female migrants even outnumber male migrants in Europe, Northern America, Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean. However as noted by Mendes and Silva in their piece Women, Migration, and the Media, “as women’s bodies move across borders, discussion about the representation of female experiences in the migration process still remains somewhat mute” (243).

Irregular migration (or illegal migration) to Europe has attracted political outcry and media attention, with video of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa flowing into Europe, climbing over gates, and participating in the political tactic of fear mongering to create a narrative of invaders with an “us versus them” dichotomy. Despite this created and inflated concern, women rarely receive any coverage, nor are they interviewed on any major news casting. This just means that their plight is poorly understood, and they do not even have a voice for providing clarity. Most citizens and policy makers in European countries think that the reasons for movements among migrants are as simple as “poverty and war are pushing Africans to leave their homes, and an available region with a booming economy and welfare benefits is in the developed world” (Akiwumi, 2018). Though there is truth to this quick assumption, the premise lacks complexity and demonstrates that many people in the developed world do not care to think beyond the surface with regards to the migrant issue. Most studies of African undocumented migration to Europe are either small-scale or speculative, causing researchers to call for further examination of this issue (Beauchemin 2009).

These beliefs about the reasons for migration often fall under the umbrella of “grand narratives” which come out of globalization as a way of easily understanding the world. However, these beliefs generalize and present as truths since there is a lack of migrants voices that are taken into account in the discourse. Also the grand narratives are typically imposed concepts of a perceived reality from the more developed countries. These narratives are critiqued by post-colonial feminists who tend to stray away from Western oversimplifications of the rest of the world. They de-center Western thought by centering and acknowledging the multiplicity of marginalized women’s experiences. These perceptions should serve as models for how to speak on the issue of migration as it pertains to women and their experiences.

West African migrant women are not just left out of the newspapers and networks; they are even left out of fictional literature, written out of the story books. During the colonial period, only a sub-group of elite African men had the privilege of going to school, learning how to read and write, and writing themselves back into history from the previous erasure on the part of the colonizers. However, after independence, women have still had trouble accessing higher education, and publishing houses became businesses run by men. Ousmane Sembene, a Senegalese filmmaker, created a film called Black Girl (1966) on a Senegalese women who was tricked into becoming a domestic worker for a white family in France. This was a legitimate threat and fear for West African women during the 1960s and 1970s. Sembene's goal in creating this movie was to capture African women’s experience because he did not see fellow female filmmakers at the major cinematic conferences.

Sembene's film was far from typical, and two films that were released prior to the release of Black Girl were Frontières (2002) (translation: Borders) and La Pirogue (2012) (translation: The Canoe). Both of these films follow the journey of West African migrant men. In Frontières, a woman is found in the Sahara being sexually abused and the men save her, while in La Pirogue a woman is found hiding in the boat as a stowaway. In both of these films, women are regarded as exceptional cases. These films are dangerous, because they feed the narrative that women rarely migrate, therefore they do not need to be accounted for in international policy or laws that can protect them. Though these films are fiction, they are influenced by the news sources which in turn influence how consumers of media perceive migration in West Africa.

In addition, despite the history of mobility and the recent visibility of sub-Saharan African migrants in the developed world, researchers have noted that transnational migration from sub-Saharan Africa has relatively been low. One of Hatton and Williamson’s (2005) chapters Where are all the Africans? Argues that the demographic and economic patterns of sub-Saharan Africa in the past 20 years are similar to those that drove the European mass migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries. This generational shift has also produced a growing group of young Africans with limited prospects in these difficult economic conditions.

When examining the trends closely, there is a lot more nuance in the statistics than is presented on the news or portrayed in cinema. Statistics can tell a story as well, as IOM Dakar states on the official page “Migration Profiles were conceived of as more than just statistical reports; they were also intended to be government-owned tools for facilitating policy development” (IOM). Profiles such as these need to be examined in order to become tools for the government and aid around building policies that supports West African migrant women.


Motivations for migration

In all the cases for migration through the Sahara desert along the Western Mediterranean route, there is always a strong motivation for wanting to either leave their country or arrive in the host country. This is because the journey through the desert for West African migrant women who are not familiar with the desert is extremely dangerous and only slightly less deadly than going through the Atlantic. From all the literature read on this topic, I have boiled down the motivations for migrating for West African migrant women into five categories; four of which I will discuss in this section. The reason why women are migrating are due to:

  • Poverty

  • Climate change and the deterioration of the environment

  • Growing urbanization

  • Violence and public safety

The UN defines poverty as a human condition characterized by the sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights (UNHCR, 1996). As this definition explains, poverty goes far beyond lack of income, as it does not only deprive the poor of income but of opportunity as well. Poor health due to inadequate nutrition, hygiene, and health services further limits their prospects for work. This fact is worsened by insecurity and lack of opportunity. Living in a marginal condition as poor West African women do, with no resources to fall back on, shocks become impossible to offset.

The Ghanaian Deputy Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, Mr. Benito Owusu Bio, says “If communities are given power to manage the natural resources, habitats will be secured and local communities will be strengthened.'' However if you do not have access to working with the largest exports of a country, or the exports which bring profit into the country, then it is difficult to find work elsewhere and sustain it. In 2017, Ghana’s top exports (2017) were gold, bringing in about $4.9 billion and is a major pollutant to the environment, cocoa, bringing in about $2.7 billion, and crude, bringing in about $1.4 billion. Though women in the rural areas do have access to land, access to water becomes an issue for irrigating the plants, the process of cocoa cultivation must be heavily regulated in order for the goods to be exported, and the production of cocoa in Ghana has a reputation of exploiting children as cheap labor.

Currently one out of four Ghanaians lives on less than $2 a day. In Senegal, 38% of the population makes under $1.90 as of 2011 (The World Bank). So how could these countries be full of natural resources but such a large percentage of people living well under the poverty line? This is because many of the reserves for natural resources are not run by the company, therefore do not employ the local citizens. The only Ghanaian government-run oil company owns 15% of Ghana's oil fields. Due to transnationalism, an oil company such as Exxon may not be based in any particular country but can have some factories in Africa, some in Asia, and some in Latin America as low-waged workers cultivate raw materials to be bought and sold. Susan Mann speaks on these “Global Factories” and how the division of labor inside and outside of these factories create competition and conflict between women (330).

This thesis will not be addressing the subject of climate change much, however one of the major reasons for migrating is due to the climate change effects on the land. The economic situation in Senegal had declined starting in the 1960s; A major drought known as the “Sahel drought” started in 1969, the world market for Senegal’s major cash crop, peanuts, collapsed, the population grew enormously, and the 1973 oil crisis deeply reduced Senegal’s economic prospects (Mezger Kveder 2012).

As mentioned previously, almost half (42%) of Senegalese people live in urban areas (Population Reference Bureau 2012). This growing urbanization has led to the adoption of SAPs which were unfortunately cutting services that were of use to women in rural areas, such as agricultural subsidies. In addition, women were pushed farther to the margins of the agricultural food sector for the cash crops which can be exported. Education and health care became much more expensive so many mothers had to withdraw their children from school. Ghana launched its Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) in 1983. The World Bank and IMF believed that their SAPs in Ghana alleviated poverty when in fact, it did the opposite. According to Anyinam in their article “Spatial Implications of Structural Adjustment Programs in Ghana,” poverty in Ghana was actually higher after structural adjustment than before its implementation. This economic hit immediately impacted women in the rural areas who could no longer sell their goods to people who could not afford them. And though Ghana experienced a minimum wage increase of 75% in the first three years of the SAPs, much of these gains were never felt amongst due to a rise in food prices, and the payment of high fees for social services.

The issues of violence and public safety in West Africa stem from the violent colonial histories of these countries. Colonialism was a masculine and violent state which claim dominance by forced and could only be overthrown with force. Imperial beliefs state that no land is occupied territory unless white settlers claimed it and deemed it legitimate. The appropriation of West African land in the eyes of the colonizer stripped them of their power, which they could only regain through taking it back. The other way of taking power from the European’s point of view was to abuse and humiliate the native women. Senegal signed a treaty with France to gain their independence, and due to the lack of force, the French maintain their presence in the region to this day. Though Ghana was a little more forceful in their fight for independence, Ghana still remains a part of the commonwealth due to leadership post-Kwame Nkrumah. After independence in these countries, the ideology that violence is the method to get what you want, and the abuse of African women is OK still linger to this day. Masculinity in West Africa for men focuses on domination which never the focus before colonialism. In addition, as these countries have adopted the capitalist system (by force), the fight for resources in these countries is typically a violent pursuit as you are often dealing with people who have nothing. Women are particularly susceptible to this violence, leading them to seek safer environments elsewhere.

Dangers Faced by Women

This section examines what dangers West African migrant women face in the Sahara. These dangers are both circumstantial as well as man-made. West African migrant women tend to take the Sahara path as shown in Figure 3 as opposed to taking a boat around the West African coast and arriving in Spain, as they often do not have the financial means for safe accommodations, and rafts, dinghies, and canoe approach have high mortality rates.

Consequences that women face

In transit:

Economic exploitation

Human trafficking (sex industry, house slaves)

Dehydration and famine


Alternative circuits

In host country:

Discrimination (sexist, racial, xenophobic)

Informal labor market

Going through the Sahara desert to arrive in North Africa and Europe is extremely dangerous if unfamiliar with the terrain. Being in a cargo truck for 15 hours driving along sand can lead a migrant in a variety of directions, most of which they have no desire to go to. Without painting Arabs and Bédouins from these Saharatowns as all anti-black smugglers waiting for West Africans to exploit, this section will delve into how West African migrant women are particularly vulnerable to smugglers (who are always men) and the dangers they are likely to face along the way. Then it will briefly discuss migrant women’s liminality in North Africa, and lastly address potential dangers faced in Europe. Figure 5 is a Trans-Saharan migration map with the differing routes, however unfortunately West African migrant women are not lead in the immediate direction of their destination as the map lays out.

Typically women who are making these journeys to Europe do not live in either the major cities or the port cities; they often live in the marginal cities, so their journey begins when they find means to arrive at the start destination. Journalists have actually done considerable work covering the extensive migration networks as laid out in Figure 5, however the literature gathered does not go into details regarding where migrants spend most of their time along the migration networks. The lives of any West African migrant currently in Saharatowns are unknown. However what is known is that black people are specifically targeted, and are placed in grotesque, racialized conditions which make it hard to leave without reinforcing their dependency on cheap black labor (Hagan, 2017). A book titled Black Morocco: A History Of Slavery, Race, And Islam by Chouki El Hamel highlights how North Africa and the Saharan region cannot deny its history of slavery which has a huge impact on the perception of sub-Saharan Africans today (El Hamel, 2014, p. 4). Though this is not simply a black/Arab or black/white issue, understanding the racial context of the Saharatowns is important to understanding how West African migrant women felt and dealt with along this route. During this route, these women face racial violence, sexual abuse, dangerous housing, and/or discriminatory work arrangements to potentially “fund” their continuation along the route (Hagan, 7).

The Tuaregs, semi-nomadic Muslims who live in parts of Mali, Algeria and Niger, are often the people who transport sub-Saharan migrants through Tuareg lands, driving trucks or “Hiluxes” that they can navigate on sand. Tamanrasset and Agadez- cities located in Algeria- are locals for tourism and trade, with a lot of diversity (Hagal, 42). These cities are often not like the Sahara towns that many West Africans find themselves for weeks, months, and years. Little knowledge regarding how many women are there located in these cities now, how they plan on leaving them, and what their stories are known- though it is certain that many West African migrants do not arrive in North Africa.

Upon arrival to North Africa, West African migrant women are faced with another set of complications. For starters, it is hard to obtain a job as a foreigner, so migrant women who cannot support themselves financially are likely to experience homelessness. Jobs in big cities for West African women could include doing hair, selling clothes and jewelry, or selling other goods. However their access to certain spaces to do this work is limited. Also dark women in North Africa are sometimes looked at as prostitutes as the underlying assumption is that they are there to make money. Situations where migrant women are approached by men and reject them are vulnerable to possible harassment or being reported to the gendarmes.

North Africa for centuries has acted as a region of destination and not of transit for sub-Saharan Africans, so the shift in roles from destination to transit country allow sub-Saharan Africans to move to and from Europe (not easily; many migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean). This has created some animosity for the sub-Saharan Africans from the North Africans. Though Algeria and Morocco act as transit countries during the “migrant crisis,” West African migrant women see their séjour in these countries as temporary. However, more often than not, they get stuck in the Rif Mountains as it is dangerous to reach the heavily-guarded dual-continent border to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla (Stenner, 2019). The European Union has outsourced its border protection to the Moroccan authorities, whereby any abuse of West African migrants is not on Europeans soil. In this regard, West African migrants become the temporary underlass, positioning Morocco closer to Spain, closer to whiteness.

Once you arrive in Europe, the discrimination does not end but takes a different form. One major danger that West African women face in Europe is sex trafficking. In a broadcast from NPR titled Sold Into Sex Slavery: The Plight Of African Women Migrating To Europe(2015), Frayer, the reporter, was gathering research on migrants while in Spain, and claimed that she was startled to see so many African women pregnant. A Spanish social worker named Encarnación Marquez says "Sex is traded just like money, to bribe border guards or police… some migrants sell sex to human traffickers, in exchange for smuggling them into Europe. This is a tragedy no one talks about." West African migrant women are in danger at every step of the way in their search for a better life.

Migrant Women’s Role in the Global Economy

Women in developing nations typically occupy the lower side of the economic spectrum when it comes to the global labor market. In Ghana specifically, the agricultural sector is the largest sector of employment, and the proportion of women above 15 whose main jobs were in that sector remained at 51% in 1999 and 2006 (IOM, 2009). This means that women’s regular income is derived from the ground, so she is dependent upon the rich land though that is not what she will always get.

West African women are some of the main producers of the labor force; they have become a major element in the system of social protection. They contribute to prosperity without many benefits for them, they are paid low wages which in turn creates wealth in some other man's pocket- they are one of the most vulnerable populations, where the rich elite are capitalizing off of their desperation. The systematic link leading women’s confinement to low-waged labor either in-country or abroad connect to two developments as noted by Sassen “the growing presence of women from developing economies in the variety of global circuits, and the rise in unemployment and debt in those same economies”(Saunders, 90).

Though much of the data collected refers specifically to women of the Third World, I believe that this applies to migrants as well who transcend borders though are faced with very similar economic systems which confine them to a trade and pay them very little fore this. Sassen identified three phases that can explain the gendering of the global economy and how that connects to internationalization:

  • Women work in the household and through subsistence farming while the men work on cash crops to bring in the income

  • Internationalizing manufacturing production to where it has become increasing more feminized.

  • Women transforming their own notion of membership and how they are portrayed

Currently, West African migrant women seem to be in the third phase, where they are altering gender patterns and trans-nationalizing their homes. This phase ultimately provides women with the most agency and one could say that their mobility is empowering. However in the creation of new pathways for West African migrant women, they almost always working within the same alternative circuits which global systems profit from. The UN reported that criminal organizations which deal in trafficking and sex work generated an estimated $3.5 billion just from trafficking migrants per year. These global circuits which include trafficking, domestic workers, and prostitution are seeing an increasing number of women and operate partly or wholly in the “shadow economy” (Saunders, 2007, 103). The question that must always be asked is who is benefitting from women need to earn any sort of income, and how can services move from under the shadows so that regulations can support migrant workers as workers?

The Context of Reception

Upon arrival to Europe, migrants are often sold upon a dream that the big cities in Europe are regions full of opportunity. Though this traditional way of thinking is a bit outdated, migrants coming from nothing still believe that Europe has something to offer them in terms of a better life. In Vickstrom's dissertation The production and consequences of migrant irregularity: Senegalese in France, Italy, and Spain (2013), Vickstrom is interested in examining the political and social climates in these three European countries to discover how Senegalese migrants are received by their host countries. Portes and Rumbaut call this the “context of reception” and define it as “the policies of the receiving government, the conditions of the host labor market, and the characteristics of the immigrant’s ethnic community” (Portes and Rumbaut, 2014). Beginning with the political, Vickstrom observes that the political climate surrounding migration in Europe has been a controversial topic for some time. He says “although some European countries have long histories of welcoming immigrants, the relative cultural and ethnic homogeneity of many others has thrown recent increases in foreign-born populations into sharp relief” (Vickstrom, 2).

For the Senegalese population specifically in France, they have had somewhat of a regular status during the 1960s and 1970s; though most Senegalese migrants were sans papiers, their acceptance into France was at the time welcoming. There is still a bit of animosity in France as these two decades followed the independence of many of France’s territories, but the migrants were there to work and the country was accepting of their cheap labor. There was no explicit authorization to enter or reside in France and migrants were able to take advantage of the regularization procedures once they entered the country “illegally”. Irregularity became more common among Senegalese migrants, however once the rules for regularization become much more strict in the 1980s and 90s, anxiety over immigrant integration has also increased with the recognition that unauthorized persons had this illegal status associated with their arrivals (Vickstrom, 9).

Is Migration a Choice for Women?

In rural areas of West Africa, there are regions of immense poverty, health issues that go untreated, land degradation and a high male and female unemployment which pushes women to take on more responsibility and provide family income. These are only some of the factors that contribute to the steady increase in female migration. However the feminization of migration parallels with the feminization of poverty as well as the feminization of work. Though the feminization of work seems like a positive thing, many of the jobs women are obtaining globally are criminally low-waged. And the competition for any job at all leads to women working in unsuitable conditions, working very hard in fear of being replaced.

The cyclical nature of an increasing number of women migrating autonomously is that the increase gives women an illusion that they do have a choice in deciding their fate. If the choice is “I can either stay in my country and starve or work as a servant in Mauritania,” there is an illusion that women have choices and women hold the power to make those choices. Though I am not interested in denying women’s agency, I argue that the choice to migrate is beyond most women’s control with the support of feminist sources.

If women are chasing survival, they are being controlled. As stated in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights all people have right to not be discriminated based off of who you are, to move where about they please, and to not be enslaved. Though these rights are human rights and do not apply to any specific country, they do show us how a specific country’s laws may contrast with one's basic human rights. If women in Ghana do not feel safe where they live due to violence, leaving their regions is less of a choice and more of a necessity. Feeling like you have to work in brutal jobs that pay very little and do not offer their employees health benefits in order to eat at night is a violation of human rights- that is why many of these factories operate in tax-free zones which are practically lawless (Mann, 330). These cases give rise to specific problematic forms of migration, such as the commercialized migration of women and girls as domestic workers and caregivers, often resulting in the trafficking of women for labor and sexual exploitation.

The link between poor, low-earning women and the emergence of sources for profit-making on a systematic governmental level, is lack of choice on the part of the women. Systems in the Sahel build their markets off of vulnerable populations who do not know the terrain well enough to escape, who would do anything to live safely and securely. West African migrant women have little to no control over their fate, as there are not enough policies that reflect what women need- therefore they need to be in positions to make decisions for themselves.


This thesis was focused primarily on the historical, social, and economic contexts of the West African migration of women, women’s priorities in a host country, and the hazardous journey that they make from their home countries, along the Western Mediterranean Route, and to Europe. What barely received any attention in migrant discourse is the racism, lack of housing, and relative poverty that migrants are likely to face when arriving in Europe. Today, women are taking enormous risks to reach security, often at the risk of dying. Motivations to move that are worth dying deserve to be acknowledged and brought to the center of the discussion. The purpose of this thesis is to make the case that women’s wants and needs are not addressed because they are migrants, because they are African, and additionally because they are women. Living within these intersections makes life harder due to systems of oppression.

West African migrant women have little to no control over their fate. This dire problem cannot be addressed unless policy makers, journalists, and global aid organizations understand the gravity of the consequences that West African women face in their home countries as well as abroad. Also this issue cannot be addressed until women with similar identities and backgrounds are put in the positions of power to properly represent themselves as well as address their needs and concerns. The UN Women's official page explicitly says that “placing women in decision-making roles and including their needs and realities in policies and solutions designed to address global migration and the refugee crisis make them more sustainable and responsive” (UN Women).

Transnational solidarity comes to mind when strategizing potential long-term solutions to making migration a choice and not a necessity as mandated by the IOM. When thinking transnationally about liberation from these global systems, a few ideas which arise include mapping routes in the Sahara which are declared “safe to stay’” for darker-skinned women; authors seeking to tell their stories of what they faced on their journey to survive in order to recognize that it occurred and find community in those with similar experiences; independent journalists doing incredible labor on the ground, working to give voice to the voiceless and recognize women’s agency, as well as speak truth to power. The potential to strategize solutions is in the future for my thesis and I wish to continue strategizing with women who have made their way to North Africa and Europe in the future. In this study I wish I could have done more of incorporating African feminisms into my analysis so I hope to explore those themes more as well.

Since the emergence of African Literature written in European languages in the 20th century, the recurring theme of immigration has been based on the experience of the male author and developed through the creation of a male protagonist; this is especially true in Francophone African Literature. The experience of the migrant women did not appear in African Literature in French until very recently, even though women are at the center of current debates in France on the issue of immigration and there are roughly the same amount of migrant women as men. In future work I would like to delve further into the literature and cinema of West African migration of women, as I know it exists however unpopular. Although female writers from francophone Africa began to appear on the literary scene in the last two decades, they are outnumbered by men and few focus on the theme of the immigrant woman. I would also be interested in doing a study examining gendered discrimination face by women of the Maghreb in France.

Today, European critics of immigration coming from African countries claim that women have too many children and their adolescents suffer from a high rate of delinquency. Some authorities in France have demanded that the women undergo DNA testing in order to determine the parentage of these children who are growing up in large families. In future research I would like to examine the rhetoric used in European newspapers and news channels against West African migrant women and contextualize the claims in a history of biological racism harking back to Sara Baartman of the 19th century.


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