Global Resources

The role of discriminatory social institutions in female South-South migration

Author: G. Ferrant, M. Tuccio, E. Loiseau, K. Nowacka
Publisher: OECD Development Centre
Publication Date: Apr 2014

Migration patterns, choices and outcomes are not gender neutral. Women account for almost half of all global migration, and within that are a number of important gendered differences and considerations that must be explored and accounted for. Until recently, much of the literature on female migration has focused on South-North migration, while traditionally, female migration has been understood as a byproduct of male migration. Yet South-South migration represents half of the global total, and growing economic and educational opportunities for women mean more are migrating independently. Therefore, there is a knowledge gap in female South-South migration, as well as on how gender-based discrimination and rights violations may influence women’s decisions.

This paper, produced by the OECD Development Centre, seeks to fill this gap through analysis of the findings of their Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI). The paper provides an overview of the trends and drivers of female migration, and on the potential impact of levels of gender inequality and discrimination in social institutions in origin countries on women’s destination choices (or lack thereof). Finally, the paper focuses on the influential role of gender discrimination in destination countries as a factor in South-South female migration patterns.

Analysis of the data gathered highlights a number of trends and characteristics within South-South migration decisions and flows, including:

  • Discriminatory social norms and institutions play a role in decision-making, both in countries of origin and the subsequent migratory destination.
  • An increasing number of women are migrating, and more women are doing so as principal visa holders, which may be explained by increasing women’s education and employment opportunities.
  • Being married with children reduces the likelihood of women migrating, although the opposite is true for men; conversely, highly educated women are more likely to migrate, while male equivalents are more likely to stay.
  • Women’s migration increases in line with the level of gender-based discrimination in their home country, but only up to a point. In the most oppressive areas, migration levels drop, reflecting the absence of power for women to make such decisions.
  • Women migrating from areas with low gender discrimination levels will generally migrate to other areas of low discrimination, while women from areas of extreme discrimination are more likely to migrate to countries with similarly high levels of discrimination. This reflects the lack of decision-making power within the household, as well as geographical and cultural proximity.
  • Women from countries whose gender discrimination is categorised as medium were more likely to migrate to countries that have less gender discrimination, suggesting that women who have some choice in migration destination seek fairer social institutions and cultures.


The policy recommendations in this publication are split into two themes. The first focuses on improving sex-disaggregated data on migration and social institutions. The authors recommend that data gaps (such as information on irregular, seasonal, and return migration) be addressed. Additionally, policy effectiveness can be strengthened through expanding data collection and empirical analysis. The second set of recommendations concerns the need to recognise and tackle discriminatory social institutions in both origin and destination countries. Strong legislative frameworks should be implemented alongside the promotion of gender equality in the workplace and public life, and barriers to women’s empowerment should be eliminated. This means tackling all infringements on women’s physical integrity and rights, and supporting women’s independence in matters of migration. Finally, destination countries should invest in an enabling environment that facilitates women migrants’ reception and integration; and community outreach activities with trained female staff should be encouraged as a complement to integration policies.

The authors conclude that, in addition to standard determinants of migration such as wealth differences between countries, the level of discrimination within social institutions, and others variables concerning gender equality, should also be considered as an important factor explaining female migration.