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Adolescent girls’ migration and transition to adulthood in sub-Saharan Africa

20 Apr 2015
Véronique Hertrich and Marie Lesclingand, Senior Researcher at the French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED); Lecturer at Nice-Sophia Antipolis University (Migration and Society Research Unit, URMIS)

Migration of adolescent girls has been overlooked in African population studies for decades, due to a lack of relevant data and because migration studies have always tended to focus on men, on international flows and on related economic issues. Today the contribution of adolescent girls to migration is no longer a question, it is a fact. Among adolescent international migrants, the sex ratio is close to equilibrium, with a small surplus of boys at the worldwide level (53% at age 15-19), while girls outnumber boys in sub-Saharan Africa (51%), especially in Western Africa (53%) (United Nations, 2013).

Adolescent girls are also strongly represented in internal migration, which occurs on a larger scale than international migration in most countries. According to a recent literature review (Temin et al., 2013), at ages 15-19, more urban girls are migrants than urban boys. The phenomenon of girls’ migration is especially visible in the cities: in most African countries where a Demographic and Health Survey was conducted in the 2000s, 20% to 60% of urban girls aged 15-19 are recent migrants (i.e. arrived in the locality in the previous five years).

Adolescent girls’ migration: a common practice, a wide range of situations

Measuring adolescent migration is a challenge, both because detailed data are rare (mainly provided by small scale studies), and because estimates are affected by the definitions used. The criteria taken into account in terms of distance (short/long), of destination (as a change of locality, district, region, country), of duration (including or excluding temporary and short moves) or of reasons for migration (taking into account family and marital moves or limiting migration to independent moves; including or excluding forced migration and asylum-seeking, etc.) will necessarily influence the overall picture.

However there is agreement that mobility during adolescence is experienced by a considerable proportion of African women today, possibly a majority (Temin et al., 2013; Juarez et al., 2013; Yaqub, 2009). In fact, girls’ migration is an old practice, rooted in family and marriage systems. Indeed in contexts of patrilocality and early marriage, young women traditionally left their home village to live with their husband. Moving for fosterage or as part of a family was also frequent. In short, child and youth mobility is far from new. However, when speaking about adolescent migration today, the focus is usually on independent migration to urban areas. This includes migration for work and educational purposes, both of which have fuelled a growing trend of migration to urban areas among adolescent girls in Africa in recent decades.

Opportunities versus vulnerability?

Until recently, migration of adolescent girls had largely negative connotations, with adolescent girls being perceived as vulnerable victims, exposed to psychological, physical and sexual health problems, and lacking legal rights and protection at work and in everyday life. Dramatic situations do indeed exist and require appropriate responses, but they do not tell the whole story. Focusing on them biases our approach and draws attention away from the issues adolescent migrants may raise as actors of their life and as members of their family and communities. Growing empirical evidence (Hashim and Thorsen, 2011; Temin et al., 2013; Yaqub, 2009) in various African populations shows that girls take a more active role in migration decisions than is widely believed. By giving voice to teenagers and their families, qualitative research reveals that agency exists for many of them.

Adolescent girls move to the cities to find opportunities that are lacking in their villages: they want to work, to learn, to earn money and develop new skills. The city provides a temporary escape from the constraints of rural life, in terms of living and working conditions, as well as family control. These girls want to get a taste of urban life, to broaden their personal experience and to gain autonomy before assuming the status of an adult woman. For many adolescents, urban migration is not intended to be permanent and does not signify a rejection of their rural background or a breaking of ties. It is rather a stage in their life, before returning home and getting married.

Urban migration, a stage in the transition to adulthood

Migration during adolescence differs from migration at older ages because it intersects with many other changes experienced simultaneously during the transition to adulthood, including leaving school and entering employment, as well as entry into sexuality, conjugal union and childbearing. Adolescence is also a period of life where individuals take control of their own lives and claim more autonomy from their family and community. Migration introduces another layer of complexity to the conditions of entry into adulthood, both because it is an additional step on the path to adulthood for many adolescents, and because it modifies their social and physical environment (Juarez et al., 2013). Does migration introduce positive inputs in young women’s lives or do negative effects prevail? It would be misleading to look for a single, definitive answer. There is a huge diversity of situations, and positive and negative aspects probably coexist in many individual migration histories. The best we can do is to qualify some entrenched views on the effects of adolescent girls’ migration.

One issue concerns education. Adolescent migration is often considered as a cause of girls' under-education, especially when they leave school to move to the city. In fact, census statistics show that urban migrant girls are more educated than rural non-migrant girls, though less educated than local urban girls (Temin et al. 2013). Many girls move to the city to further their education, taking advantage of the greater availability, choice and quality of urban schools, while for others the drivers are personal and professional aspirations nurtured during previous school years. In fact, in many rural settings, it is the lack of opportunities in education that push adolescent girls to the cities: serving as domestic workers or saleswomen, getting informal education through apprenticeships or evening classes, are seen as good ways to learn new skills and to compensate to some extent for their lack of formal education.

Another common idea is that migrant girls are isolated in the cities, with less family and social support, and therefore at greater risk of abuse and exploitation. Such situations of acute vulnerability exist, but there is also evidence that migrant girls are not left to fend for themselves unaided. In Western Africa, migration has been a part of livelihood strategies for decades and most family networks include relatives in the capital and main cities. The majority of migrant girls do not travel alone, but often with peers, or sometimes with a relative or member of their community (Hashim and Thorsen, 2011). The previous urban experience of their escort as well as the family and community connections in the city are a stepping-stone for integration, providing first accommodation and sometimes serving as intermediaries on the job market. Thanks to multi-locational family networks in Africa, parents usually know where their daughter is, even if she doesn't tell them. Finally, marriage and reproductive health is another key issue.

There is consistent evidence in different countries (Temin et al., 2013) that urban migration is associated with a decrease in early marriage. While marriage is a common reason for rural-to-rural migration, adolescent urban migration occurs mainly before marriage. Migrant girls marry later than their rural non-migrant peers and are changing the marriage patterns in their villages. In Mali (Hertrich and Lesclingand 2012), migrant girls now have freedom to decide when to return and marry, and this in turn has contributed to the general decline of arranged marriages. While adolescent migration is growing and marriage is occurring later, premarital sexuality and pregnancies are also increasing.

Age at sexual initiation may be decreasing for migrant girls (Temin at al., 2013). But even if this is not the case, the fact that age at marriage is increasing means that more women are experiencing sexuality and childbearing out of wedlock. While there is a dark side to this situation, since single mothers and their children often face discrimination, along with economic and social hardship, there is also a lighter side, as it means increasing access for women to a period of premarital life and autonomous sexuality. Both together point up the need to develop education and services in contraception and reproductive health for adolescent girls.

Political challenge: broaden and secure the range of opportunities for adolescent girls

While girls’ migration is commonly associated with vulnerability, the girls themselves speak first and foremost about opportunities. Policies are therefore needed to develop, enhance and secure the range of options available to them in their communities. This includes access to high-quality schooling at primary and secondary levels, but also opportunities outside formal education, including training and income-generating activities. Gender inequality is a key issue, and actions and attitudes supporting adolescent girls’ autonomy and agency in their families and communities should be promoted. If they are better prepared and more aware of alternative options, adolescent girls will be more able to make informed and appropriate decisions about whether to migrate voluntarily or to stay. The constraints and risks faced by girls in the cities are not only linked to their migrant status: for instance, the promotion of labor rights, and the development of education, actions and services for adolescents in the area of reproductive health have a strong potential impact on the well-being of migrant girls, without specifically targeting this population group.

Adolescent migration and gender. Focus on a longitudinal study in Mali

It would be a mistake to consider the characteristics and patterns of adolescent migration as fixed. On the contrary, practices that were once considered as problematic can gain legitimacy over time and produce leverage effects in other areas. A change of this kind has been observed in south-east Mali thanks to a small-scale longitudinal survey conducted over the last 25 years (Hertrich and Lesclingand, 2012). Until the 1980s, labour migration was only a male affair, but it became widespread among girls in the 1990s, reshaping transition to adulthood for both sexes. Indeed labour migration has become a key event of youth, concerning over 80% of girls and boys. Girls go to the cities to work as domestic servants with the aim of earning money to buy clothes and kitchen utensils (the “trousseau”) before returning to the village to marry. These are the so-called "little maids" who are considered to be especially vulnerable and exposed to harsh working conditions.

However they consider migration as an opportunity to learn new skills (the national language, know-how in domestic matters, self-presentation skills…), to boost their self-esteem and improve their status in the village. Having experienced urban life, women feel more confident to act as interlocutors of NGOs or to negotiate in cases of conflict with their husbands or their in-laws; they also know that returning to the city is still an option for them. Conversely, non-migration is rarely a deliberate choice but the outcome of constraints such as early marriage or family obligations. In this context, vulnerability is associated much more with “non-migration” than with “migration”. For a long time, girls’ migration, in contrast to male migration, was socially condemned, especially by family heads and men. But today it has become a fact of life. Now almost all girls migrate and it is girls who take the lead: they move to the cities more often and at younger ages than boys. This changes the story, both for the young men who feel obliged to acquire urban experience to get a chance of being considered by the girls, and for the fathers whose control over girls' lives, including their marriage, is no longer taken for granted.


Hashim, I. and D. Thorsen. 2011. Child Migration in Africa. London, Zed Books.
Hertrich, V. and M. Lesclingand. 2012. “Adolescent migration and the 1990s nuptiality transition in Mali”, Population Studies: A Journal of Demography, 66, 2: 147-166.
Juárez, F., LeGrand, T., Lloyd, C.B., Singh, S., and Hertrich, V. (special editors), 2013. Youth Migration and Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Volume 648, No 1, July 2013.
Temin, M., M. R. Montgomery, S. Engebretsen and K. M. Barker. 2013. Girls on the Move: Adolescent Girls and Migration in the Developing World. A Girls count report on adolescent girls. New York, Population Council.
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2013. Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Age and Sex (United Nations database, POP/DB/MIG/Stock/Rev.2013).
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