Girls and Migration: Best Practice for a Growing Trend

This article was originally published in the Guardian 

It’s increasingly a fact of life that adolescent girls in developing countries are migrating to cities in large numbers. With the right support it can be a positive experience.

Adolescent girls in developing countries are migrating to cities in large numbers. Effective policies and programmes to build girls’ skills, knowledge, and social networks are needed to ensure that if and when they migrate, their moves are voluntary, safe, and productive and their rights are protected.

A new report from the Population Council, Girls on the Move: Adolescent Girls and Migration in the Developing World, examines for the first time the social and economic drivers of internal migration for adolescent girls in developing countries, and the links between urban migration, risk, and opportunity.

Government policies and NGO programmes often view migration as a problem that should be fixed, and have evicted migrants and slum-dwellers from their city homes – without acknowledging migration’s potential benefits. Current programs and policies for migrant girls tend to be reactive, responding to harmful outcomes when they occur but often failing to build the protective assets girls need to make the most of the potential benefits of migration.

Some programs recognise the importance of building girls’ assets before things go wrong. In this essay we outline three such programs that work with girls at three distinct phases of migration: pre-departure, in transit, and settling in.

Preparing migrant girls before departure

A small number of programs aim to improve readiness for safe and informed migration by providing information on legal procedures, services, and support systems in destination communities. Pre-departure programs are especially relevant in communities with well-established migration routes, involving networking between community members from sending and receiving areas.

In response to high rates of rural-to-urban labour migration, World Education Cambodia implemented the Pre-Industry Life Skills Programme in one rural community, reaching almost 600 adolescents (90% of whom were female). Pils provided health skills and knowledge about safer migration, including information on how to secure a job in a garment factory, worker rights, maps of factory locations, how to live in a new city, and general financial management. Pre- and post-test measures showed that the program raised knowledge and improved girls’ ability to protect themselves.

Protecting migrant girls in transit

ransit hubs such as bus and train stations can be particularly dangerous for unaccompanied girls. The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour and the Project to Prevent Trafficking in Girls and Young Women for Labour Exploitation launched the Spring Rain Campaign in bus and train stations in China, where they distributed nearly 1 million brochures and provided young female migrants with basic information on transport, accommodation, and employment agencies to link them to legitimate work opportunities.

Following the Spring Rain Campaign, more than 60,000 girls visited safe recruitment agencies, and one-third of them found employment. Local governments embraced the campaign messages and materials and incorporated them into their work in a number of cities. Campaigns continue to be organised at transportation hubs in China.

Building migrant girls’ social capital in cities

Social networks are essential to stabilising migrant girls’ lives in their new homes and helping them deal with unexpected events, but migrant girls often lack such social support. The Biruh Tesfa programme – a partnership between the Population Council, the Ethiopian Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs, regional bureaus of WCY, and local administrations – aims to reduce the social isolation of out-of-school girls aged 10–19 living in low-income urban areas of Ethiopia. These hard-to-reach girls were recruited by mentors who went door-to-door in catchment areas. To-date, some 60,000 girls in 18 cities have participated in Biruh Tesfa, nearly two-thirds of whom are migrants.

The programme gathers girls in a safe venue and provides training on basic and financial literacy, HIV/reproductive health education, and gender-based violence. The girls also get identification cards, referrals to social services, subsidised medical services, and material support such as books, pencils, reusable sanitary pads, and soap. 

Girls in Biruh Tesfa were found to be more than twice as likely to report having social support as girls in control sites. They were also twice as likely to have high scores for their knowledge about HIV and where to obtain voluntary counseling and testing, and to also want to be tested.

Girls’ migration is increasingly a fact of life in urban areas of the developing world, and with the right support it can be a positive experience. But in order to ensure that scarce resources support effective approaches, more data is needed that reflect the diversity of migrant girls’ experiences, illuminate transitions into risk, and highlight the best entry points for intervention.

Miriam Temin is a Population Council consultant and Mark Montgomery, Sarah Engebretsen, and Kate Barker are researchers in the Population Council’s poverty, gender, and youth programme. Follow the population Council on Twitter: @Pop_Council.