West and Central Africa: More Women Search for Equality through Migration

Kaltoum, a Malian returnee, decided to choose what her friends call a "man's job": metal carpentry. Photo: IOM

Dakar – For many women across West and Central Africa, migration is a way to increase access to productive assets – such as land, information, finance, education – and economic opportunities. Migration also provides women the opportunity to escape patriarchal social structures and to improve their autonomy and status.    

As recent research from Côte d’Ivoire reveals many women there migrate to be economically independent, solely so they can take care of their children, themselves and be emancipated from social pressures and what are known as “gendered expectations”. 

For years, certain factors related to female migrants have been missing from the narrative of migration in West and Central Africa. Now, as new research and testimony from the migrants themselves suggest, the quest for equality is driving an increasing number of women and girls to migrate within and beyond the region. 

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) noticed signs of this trend through its assisted voluntary return activities. In West and Central Africa,  up to two out of 10 returning migrants are women. In countries like Côte d’Ivoire, more than 25 per cent of the returnee population is female. 

Through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative, more than 85,000 migrants have been assisted with post-arrival reception and reintegration assistance in West, Central, North and East Africa. Overall, 14 per cent are women. 

There is a downside of course. Because women increasingly migrate alone – often without informing peers or family members of their plans –  they may be more vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse along dangerous migration routes.  

Very often, women's return is harder because of the stigmatization and shame they feel from their experiences such as sexual abuse. The psychosocial support they receive is an essential step that allows them to rebuild themselves and to reestablish links with their relatives and loved ones.  

For women whose journeys did not end as they wished, reintegration offers opportunities for gender equality and a second chance to achieve lost dreams. 

“I know that it is a difficult journey for everyone, but women are more vulnerable than men,” said Aline, a Guinean returnee. 

She was a first-year midwifery student in Conakry before difficult family conditions pushed her to leave Guinea. When she returned home in 2017 after a difficult time in Libya, she decided to use her reintegration package to finish her studies and help other women. 

“I had no one to help me or to fund my studies,” Aline recalled in a recent interview. 

Some women who return home come out of their journeys feeling stronger, more empowered. Some even aspire to realize the dreams that they had not considered achievable before they left home.  

Kaltoum, a Malian returnee, provides a classic example of this transformation. She is challenging her community’s gender clichés by seeking as part of her reintegration assistance what her friends call a ‘man's job’: welding.  

“This training is a second chance for me, and I am ready to commit myself to this job in order to be able to take care of myself, all alone,” she affirmed. 

Others, like Rafiatou, have decided to lend their voices to awaken the consciousness of their sisters. When she returned to Cameroon in 2017, she joined an organization of returnees raising awareness on safe migration.  

“I do this sacrifice because young women and girls must know what the risks are along the way,” she explained.  

For more information, please contact Florence Kim at IOM’s Regional Office for West and Central Africa, Tel: +221 78 620 62 13, Email: