Gender and migration
The motives and consequences of human mobility are shaped by various factors such as customary rules based on gender expectations, ethnicity, race, age and class. Among these, it can be argued that gender has the biggest impact on the migration experiences of men, women, boys, girls and persons identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI). Thus, including gender considerations in policymaking and planning can contribute to individuals’ social and economic empowerment and promote gender equality; leaving such considerations out can expose them to further risks and vulnerabilities and perpetuate or exacerbate inequalities.
The Global Compact for Migration and the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants call for more migration data to be disaggregated by sex and age. They acknowledge that sex-disaggregated data allow for the identification and analysis of specific vulnerabilities and capacities of women and men, revealing gaps and inequalities. These data also enable the analysis of how gender norms might influence the experiences of women and men in migration processes, and in turn how their experiences might change gender norms. While it is important to consider the experiences of women and girls, which have sometimes been overlooked, it is equally important to also consider the experiences of men, boys and LGBTI persons, who are also exposed to forms of gender-based violence or vulnerabilities during different migration processes.
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Key terms and concepts that pertain to gender and migration are as follows:
According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), sex-disaggregated data are “any data on individuals broken down by sex. Gender statistics rely on these sex-disaggregated data and reflect the realities of the lives of women and men and policy issues relating to gender” (EIGE, 2017).
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), gender “refers to the socially constructed roles and relationships, personality traits, attitudes, behaviors, values, relative power and influence that society ascribes to people based on their assigned sex. Gender is relational and refers not simply to women, men or other gender groups, but to the relationship between them. Although notions of gender are deeply rooted in every culture, they are also changeable over time and have wide variations both within and between cultures” (IOM, 2015).
According to the United Nations (UN) Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), "Gender refers to the roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society at a given time considers appropriate for men and women. In addition to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, gender also refers to the relations between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. (UN Women Training Centre’s Glossary, n.d.).
There are several relevant concepts such as gender equality and gender-based violence that are widely discussed in the migration field.
According to IOM’s LGBTI Glossary, gender identity refers to "each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth or the gender attributed to them by society. It includes the personal sense of the body which may involve a desire for modification of appearance or function of the body by medical, surgical or other means.” (IOM’s LGBTI Glossary, 2020).
The share of female migrants has not changed significantly in the past 60 years. However, more female migrants are migrating independently for work, education and as heads of households. Despite these improvements, female migrants may still face stronger discrimination, are more vulnerable to mistreatment, and can experience double discrimination as both migrants and as women in their host country in comparison to male migrants. Nonetheless, male migrants are also exposed to vulnerabilities in the migration processes. Therefore, gender-responsive data on migration have the potential to promote greater equality and offer opportunities for disadvantaged groups.
At mid-year 2020, female migrants comprised somewhat less than half, 135 million or 48.1 per cent, of the global international migrant stock (UN DESA, 2020). The share of female migrants has declined from 49.4 per cent at mid-year 2000 to 48.1 per cent at mid-year 2020, whereas the proportion of male migrants grew from 50.6 per cent at mid-year 2000 to 51.9 per cent at mid-year 2020 (ibid.).
The slightly larger presence of males in the international migrant stock was also reflected in the proportion of male migrant workers. In 2019, there were more male migrant workers, 99 million or 58.5 per cent, than female, 70 million or 41.5 per cent (ILO, 2021). Among international migrants globally in 2019, women represented a lower share (47.9%) and also had a relatively lower labour market participation rate compared to men (59.8% vs. 77.5%) (ibid.).
Significant regional variations existed in the share of women among total migrant workers. In 2019, women represented more than 50 per cent of all migrant workers in Northern, Southern and Western Europe but the share was below 20 per cent in the Arab States (ILO, 2021). Though the labour force participation of migrant womenwas lower than that of migrant men, the labour force participation rate of migrant womenwas higher than that of non-migrant women in many countries. High income countries had the highest participation gap with 12 percentage points between migrant women and non-migrant women, followed by lower-middle income countries (with a participation gap of 10 percentage points) (ibid.).
Among displaced populations as of 2021, 50 per cent of the internally displaced population (IDPs) (53.2 million) and 48 per cent of the total number of people displaced across borders (21.3 million) were women and girls (UNHCR, 2022).
Information on sex is only available for 1 out of 3 people (18,851 of the nearly 53,000 people) who lost their lives during migration globally between January 2014 and December 2022 (IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, 2023). Of these 18,851 migrant deaths where data on sex are available, 30.2 per cent were women; this data represents identified female adults only and excludes minors who are often not disaggregated by sex in official sources. More than half of the deaths of identified female migrants occurred during sea crossings, where the survival chances of women were limited as they were pregnant or caring for their children on board.
Asia and Africa
From mid-year 2000 to 2020, the estimated stock of male international migrants grew significantly by 89 per cent in Asia, to 49.8 million, whereas the share of female international migrants in Asia grew by 57 per cent (UN DESA, 2020). This growth in male migrants has been fueled by the increasing demand for male migrant workers in the oil-producing countries of Western Asia. The share of female migrants at mid-year 2020 was lower both in Asia (41.8 per cent) and in Africa (47.1 per cent) (UN DESA, 2020). Thus, male international migrants significantly outnumber female international migrants in these regions. However, between mid-year 2000 to 2020, the increase in the estimated stock of female international migrants in Africa (69 per cent) was slightly higher than the increase in male migrants (68 per cent) (UN DESA, 2020).
Europe and Northern America
At mid-year 2020, female migrants comprised slightly more than half of all international migrants in Europe and Northern America. The share of females among all international migrants reached 51.6 per cent in Europe and 51.8 per cent in Northern America (UN DESA, 2020). The larger share of female migrants in these regions is because of a combination of two factors: the presence of older migrants in the population and the tendency of longer life expectancies of female migrants in comparison with males.
Latin America and the Caribbean
At mid-year 2020, female international migrants (49.5 per cent) were slightly outnumbered by the proportion of male international migrants (50.5 per cent) in Latin America and the Caribbean. Moreover, during mid-year 2000-2020, the stock of male international migrants grew slightly faster than that of female international migrants (UN DESA, 2020).
At 50.5 per cent, female migrants accounted for a slightly higher share than male migrants in the international migrant stock in Oceania at mid-year 2020 (UN DESA, 2020). In the two decades between mid-year 2000 and mid-year 2020, the estimated number of female migrants increased slightly faster than male international migrants in Oceania (ibid.).
Data on gender and migration are collected and analyzed separately for male and female migrants. Although sex-disaggregated data are not always collected, major data sources that collect sex-disaggregated migration-related data are population censuses, administrative registers, and sample surveys such as labor force surveys and income and living condition surveys. Data from these data sources are compiled in databases. The following are the databases on migration disaggregated by sex.
The Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) provides several international migrant stock datasets for all countries and areas and disaggregates data by sex, age and origin. UN DESA publishes datasets on a bi-yearly basis. Its latest dataset on the international migrant stock was published in 2020.
The International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Department of Statistics (ILOSTAT) has a database on Key Indicators of the Labour Market (KILM). This database provides datasets on labour migration that are grouped into three major themes: international migrant stock, nationals abroad and international migrant flow. These themes contain estimates of demographic stocks/flows and labour migrant stocks/flows and are predominantly disaggregated by sex and age. The database provides labour migration statistics for all countries and areas of the world on an annual basis.
The ILO reports "Global Estimates on Migrant Workers" from 2015 and 2018 provide estimates on the share of labour migrant workers among the total international migrants and highlights regions and industries where international migrant workers are established. They also present demographic characteristics of international labour migration, and the 2015 report specifically focuses on the proportion of female and male migrant workers in domestic work globally.
IOM’s Migration Law Database consolidates information on international migration law and frames it in a comprehensive manner. It draws together migration-related instruments including gender-related norms in the migration context. The database contains relevant international, regional and bilateral treaties, international and regional resolutions, declarations and other instruments.
IOM and Polaris pulled together existing data on human trafficking and created the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC) repository. It contains data on 108,613 cases of human trafficking disaggregated by sex and age. An anonymized version of this dataset is available for public download.
BRIDGE was a gender and development research service at the Institute of Development Studies, which advocated for the significance of a gender perspective in endeavours to reduce poverty and promote social justice in the migration processes. Among other development-related objectives, BRIDGE focused on gender aspects of migration.
The ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific has a database called the International Labour Migration Statistics (ILMS) Database which compiles a variety of statistical sources on international migrants and international migrant workers. It generates statistical data from population and housing censuses, labour force surveys, household surveys, enterprise surveys and administrative records. The ILMS Database presents datasets on the international migrant stock, international migrant flow and nationals abroad. Data are broken down by sex, age, employment status, education, occupation, economic activity and origin.
The Gender Statistics Database, a database of the European Union (EU)’s European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), provides statistical evidence on numerous themes including migration from all over the EU and beyond, at the EU, Member State and European Level. It contains estimates on the immigrant stock, immigration and emigration flows, and migration and education. Data are disaggregated by sex, age, migration status and 55 other migration-related indicators. This database is used by the Member States to comply with the European Commission’s (EC) Strategy on Gender Equality and monitor their progress.
Data on population demography and migration are collected by Eurostat on a yearly basis. The Population (Demography, Migration, and Projections) database has a dataset on migration and citizenship data, which is divided into three major thematic groups: immigration, emigration, and acquisition and loss of citizenship. The estimates are mostly disaggregated by sex, age group, citizenship, country of birth, and ranking in the Human Development Index.
Eurostat’s database on asylum and managed migration is based on data collected from the Member States’ Ministries of Interior and related Immigration Agencies. The database presents data on asylum, residence permits and the enforcement of immigration legislation (EIL). Data on asylum and residence permits are mostly disaggregated by sex and age group.
OECD’s Migration Statistics contains databases on Immigrants in OECD countries (DIOC) and non-OECD countries (DIOC-E). These databases present data on several demographic and labour market characteristics of the population of 32 OECD member countries and 68 non-members. The thematic datasets of this database are broken down by seven core variables: gender (male/female), age, duration of stay, labour market outcomes, field of study, the place of birth and educational attainment.
OECD’s Gender, Institutions and Development database (GID-DB) presents comparative data on gender-based discrimination in social institutions such as legal, cultural and traditional practices and covers 160 countries for 2014. The database consists of variables such as the legal age of marriage, early marriage rates, parental authority in marriage and after divorce, violence against women, reproductive integrity, female genital mutilation, and other gender topics. This database provides datasets on the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), which measures the extent to which social institutions are discriminatory, to reveal main drivers of gender inequality and their impact on women’s empowerment opportunities. This dataset has 21 variables of discriminatory social institutions that are grouped into five sub-indices such as discriminatory family code, restricted physical integrity, son bias, restricted civil liberties and restricted resources/assets.
By disaggregating and analyzing data by the variables “female” and “male” migrant, researchers produce broad migration statistics on these two different groups. However, to understand more thoroughly the gender patterns present throughout the migration processes, more qualitative studies and inclusion of specific relevant questions in surveys are needed to reveal the power imbalances in migration decisions, labor markets, remittance sending/utilization, and the impact of migration on social relations in the households and communities experiencing out-migration.Back to top
Data strengths & limitations
Sex-disaggregated data are essential to question erroneous gender stereotypes such as labeling only women as a vulnerable migrant group. Information broken down by sex also provides a better understanding of the gender dimension of migration. The data sources listed above mostly provide disaggregated data on male and female migrants, which enable users to reveal differences, inequalities between these two groups. Subsequently, these particular data sources can be helpful to ensure the equal opportunity of male and female migrants to benefit from migration. By using sex-disaggregated data sources, policymakers will be able to initiate effective programs based on solid, accurate and reliable data. Nevertheless, there are some limitations to existing data and data sources:
Sex disaggregated data are not always collected, particularly in certain contexts such as displacement situations. For example, the Global Internal Displacement Database (GIDD) provides a limited amount of sex-disaggregated data on internal displacement because data are not collected by sex; data are instead collected by household. Similarly, data on migrants’ deaths are only occasionally disaggregated by sex because it is highly contingent on the identification of bodies (IOM, 2019). There are other reasons why data are rarely disaggregated by sex. Some authorities have low statistical capacities to produce more granular data; are unwilling to collect and disaggregate data; and/or aim to protect migrants’ post mortem privacy and therefore disseminate aggregated data.
The collection of data and definition of gender are not always comprehensive enough: The collection of data at the national level should, but does not always, include gender mainstreaming methodologies to capture the experiences of people who identify as something other than male or female. Moreover, the definition of gender, which is currently viewed as being the same thing as sex or equated to female migrants, should be more comprehensive to include the different needs of men and persons identifying as LGBTI.
Analysis is limited because some data producers do not disaggregate data by sex. For example, the World Bank Migration Database, which among other data contains remittances data, mostly contains sex-aggregated data, which makes it difficult to extract gender-driven inequalities and exclusions. Moreover, this sort of limited data often distorts the reality and risks equating women/girls and men’s migration experiences and outcomes. Thus, it becomes difficult to distinguish gender differences in remittance sending, amount of money, frequency, channels, reasons, among other issues.
Despite attempts to disaggregate migration data by sexual orientation and gender identity, data are hardly ever disaggregated by LGBTI identification: “Leave no one behind” is the principle which is at the core of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. One of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups, which should not be left behind, are persons identifying as LGBTI. Producers of migration and gender statistics should incorporate such variables as gender identity and sexual orientation to collect data on LGBTI persons’ experiences and inequalities in migration processes. However, this particular disaggregation should not compromise the security and well-being of LGBTI people in countries and regions where discriminatory laws and policies exist and prejudiced customary rules prevail.