Health Consequences for Mothers and Children: The Feminzation of Migration in West Africa

| November 30, 2012 | 0 Comments

Image credit: US Department of State.

In the summer of 2010, while interning at a migration health policy organization in Dakar, Senegal, I was speaking with my manager about the benefits and challenges of living in Senegal versus the United States.  An educated and well-traveled Senegalese woman expressed that it was much easier to live in Africa than in the United States because domestic help was readily available and inexpensive.  In addition to the comforts of familiarity in her home country, the availability of cheap domestic help was a main reason that she and her family planned to remain in Dakar.

The significance of her comment did not strike me then, as I, too, was thinking of the ease of a life with cheap child care, a cook, and a maid. However, I have increasingly come to consider the women who perform such tasks in the homes of upper class families.  They tend to be young, have small children, and have come to the city to escape rural poverty.  The “feminization of migration” is increasingly common; International Organization for Migration reports that in 2010 women comprised 51.2% of all migrants in Senegal (IOM Senegal).  Though men who leave their villages travel alone or with other men, women tend to bring their children along to the cities.

The main rationale for migration is the prospect of improved economic opportunities, including better access to health care, but the health consequences of migration for women and children migrants are largely negative.  There is some evidence that improved nutrition is possible in cities since food may be scare and malnutrition common in rural areas.  Female migrants in cities like Dakar tend to “work as maids in better-off urban households … and eat the same food as their employer [so] fat and meat intakes are likely to be much greater than in the rural areas,” which may reduce growth faltering in late adolescence and early adulthood for women (Coly).  Alternatively, though, women and girls who work as domestics “have greater energy expenditures, more physical activity, and less sleep than their rural counterparts,” indicating that long-term health improvements are unlikely (Coly).

Evidence also suggests higher rates of mortality in children who have migrated from rural areas than in children originally from urban areas (Brockerhoff).  The persistence of poverty in urban migrant populations usually means sub-standard housing, lack of drinking water, improper disposal of waste, and other environmental hazards that increase children’s risk of infection or injury (Brockerhoff).  Environmental risks are compounded by pre-existing risks since mothers usually have little education and families often remain removed from the rest of the urban population, thereby “[perpetuating] ‘traditional’ beliefs and behaviors, and effectively deny[ing] migrants access to modern institutions and ideas, including modern health services” (Brockerhoff).

Surely women will not stop migrating with their children in search of improved economic opportunities.  Still, it is important to note the health risks associated with rural to urban migration and to develop techniques to help women avoid them.  The Alliance for Migration, Leadership, and Development, where I interned in Dakar, works to improve migrant health locally, as well as taking a pan-African perspective to influence migration policy.  Migration is an important tool for international development, but we must consider the health and wellbeing of women and children when forming policies to facilitate their mobility.


  1. Martin Brockerhoff. “Child Survival in Big Cities: The Disadvantages of Migrants” Social Science and Medicine: Vol. 40 No. 10, pp. 1371-1382, 1995.
  2. Aminata Ndiaye Coly,Jacqueline Milet, Aldiouma Diallo, Tofene Ndiaye,  Eric Benefice, Francxois Simondon, Salimata Wade, and Kirsten B. Simondon “Preschool Stunting, Adolescent Migration, Catch-Up Growth, and Adult Height in Young Senegalese Men and Women of Rural Origin.” The Journal of Nutrition 2006.
  3. The International Organization for Migration. Senegal Country Profile. Last updated: Main text: August 2011, Facts and figures: April 2012. < africa-and-the-middle-east/central-and-west-africa/senegal.html>.

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