Migration is a gendered process. Why doesn’t the news reflect that more?

30/04/2024     4 min read     By Ahlem Khattab

Research on migration continues to evolve, adopting a gender perspective to better understand this global phenomenon. But society stays in majority stuck on outdated, biased perceptions of women migrants.

Whether on a search engine or through a prompt for a generative AI tool, if you want to see what a “migrant” looks like online, you’ll be first met with pictures of lone black men or groups of non-white people, mostly men and boys, overcrowding boats or walking in untidy lines carrying their belongings.

Such images are reminiscent of what we’ve seen a lot on the news around the world in 2015-2016 with the “migrant crisis,” and have since made their way to our collective consciousness. No matter that migration has been around for nearly as long as humans have existed on the Earth, or that women made up around 48% of international migrants in 2020 (latest data available).

To this day, similar images still appear in the news, while shipwrecks, new statistics, and political discourse around border control remain the main entry points to talk about migration. Gender is rarely made part of the story.

“There is an invisibility,” says Eleonore Kofman, a researcher who’s been studying gender and migration since the 1990s, a professor of Gender, Migration and Citizenship at Middlesex University (UK), and a migrant herself (just like the author of this article). “[Women] are really invisible in a lot of issues around migration.” And not just in the news, but in society as a whole.

For a long time, women weren’t really considered as “active agents in the global mobility phenomenon,” but rather as “passive followers.”

Women may even try to make themselves invisible “as a means of protection,” according to Elsa Tyszler, a sociologist who focuses on border violence. In a 2022 interview with Le Monde, she explains: “At the borders, migrant women from Africa and the Middle East are made doubly vulnerable because they are subject to racist migration control practices and also to sexism, at different levels.”

“In the political field, I would say that there is a strategy of rendering women invisible that serves to legitimize a violent, even mortifying, struggle against immigration from the countries of the global South to the global North (the West). So, it is represented as eminently male and clandestine, and is immediately criminalized when it involves non-white men from Africa or the Middle East,” Elsa Tyszler tells Le Monde.


In a short reader titled Gender and Migration (2022), Eleonore Kofman and her colleague and co-author Anastasia Christou present a critical overview of how a gendered understanding of migration has developed over the years in this field of research. It seems that it is only in the 1970s and 1980s that migration has started to be analyzed through a gender lens. For a long time, women weren’t really considered as “active agents in the global mobility phenomenon,” but rather as “passive followers.” 

Despite this evolution in the study of migration, in society, the outdated perception remains engrained, especially when it comes to family migration. “As the term goes, ‘trailing spouses,’ they’re following a man. But they’re not necessarily just following a man. It may be that the couple has decided that they’re going to move together, that both of them are trying to get the most out of the new possibilities,” Eleonore Kofman notes. There’s also a growing number of women who are migrating on their own (although lack of data remains an issue) – in search of new opportunities for various reasons, but mostly to escape personal, societal, or political situations restricting their freedom to choose how to live. 

The researcher gives the example of a group of sisters from Afghanistan who migrated to Europe. Before the official takeover of Kabul in 2021, the Taliban tried to force their father to give them as wives, but he told his daughters they needed to leave. He was shot as a result, but the girls managed to escape and made it to Greece. “The assumption was always, ‘Oh, Afghan women. There must have been a man that they were just following.’ But they weren’t.” 

“A gender perspective means recognizing the diversity not just of categories but of experiences, situations, and context.”

There’s also the question of victimhood versus victimization. In many cases, women are victims, but that doesn’t define them, and it doesn’t mean that they have no agency. “Women aren’t just victims, though it doesn’t mean that none of them experience [victimhood]. But they’re not just victims. If we reduce them to that, there’s almost no point in having a gendered perspective. A gender perspective means recognizing the diversity not just of categories but of experiences, situations, and context.”

Reading this, you might be thinking, “Yes, of course. Obviously, women have agency, they’re not just victims. How do I go further? How can I actually cover migration with a gender lens?”

When it comes to giving more visibility to the experiences of women and gender-diverse people with migration, there are different things to consider. For instance, the drivers of migration. “We find that women have a tendency to migrate more because there are some discriminatory elements in their lives. So it could be domestic violence. It could be a lack of economic or educational opportunities. These are some of the kinds of things that enter into what’s called gender persecution.” It might also be interesting to explore the potential barriers to migrating at all, taking into account not just gender but also race, class and/or caste, religion, disability, and sexuality.

And when they manage to leave, how do migrants of different genders move? What job markets do they choose or have to default to? What regulations do they have to face? Do they have access to means of communication and technology in the same way? Are there opportunities that are affected by one’s gender? 

One thing to keep in mind, as highlighted in Gender and Migration, is that looking at migration through a gender lens isn’t just about focusing on women, but is also about recognizing men’s experiences and addressing masculinity.

Editor’s Picks