Panel 5

African Women Migrants: Reflections Along the Journey

Panel organisers: Hanna Amanuel, Addis Continental School of Public Health, Ethiopia. Danait Mengist, Harvard University, United States. Luwam Dirar, EriLaws, United States.


Predominant discourses on migration today often reduce migrant experiences to acts of economic upward mobility—with a hyper-emphasis on South-North migration, while deflecting attention from the more common South-South migration—and/or spectacular expressions of political protest against ‘failed’ African states. In this panel, we argue that the causes of migration are not easily generalizable. While we do not aim to list all the push and pull factors for African migrants, we seek to disaggregate the category of African migrants by focusing on the experiences of African women at three key points along their journeys: at home, in transit, and at the destination. As Eritrean migrant women drawing from legal and African studies, we aim to discuss the gendered aspects of migration within and from Africa—a lens that is often overlooked.

The key questions that orient this panel includes: what gendered factors motivate women—across various ethnic, geographic, and class lines—to leave ‘home’? How do African women migrants ‘in transit’ construct and navigate their womanhood's and sexualities? How are African women migrants imagined by state and non-state actors (i.e. the police, healthcare providers, humanitarian aid organizers)? Lastly, once they have reached their ‘destination’, how do the policies of bodies like the European Union frame and approach African women migrants? The panel will conclude with policy recommendations that take seriously the complex, gendered experiences of African women migrants.

Approved abstracts panel 5

1. “Who would not love to give birth in America?” The Views, Lived Experiences and Meaning for having American ‘Jackpot Babies’ Among Urban Dwellers in Ghana

Author: Ada Adoley Allotey, Centre for Migration Studies, University of Ghana, Ghana.

Contemporary studies have tried to understand the motivations behind expectant women participating in birth tourism to the USA, probably for citizenship and a passport. Yet, most of the studies have not explored (especially within sub-Saharan Africa) the perceptions of citizens back in the home countries of these expectant women on their decision to have American ‘jackpot babies’, what the real motivations are for those who are yet to embark on birth tourism and the ‘lived’ experiences of Ghanaian families with American ‘jackpot babies’. Using a survey and semi-structured in-depth interviews, data was collected from 261 urban dwellers from the Greater Accra, Ashanti and Central regions, and 17 Ghanaian families with American ‘jackpot babies’, respectively. The majority of urban dwellers were aware of the birth tourism to the USA and more than fifty percent of those sampled expressed their desire to have ‘American jackpot babies’. The study found that urban dwellers who had positive views  on the decision by some Ghanaian women to give birth in the USA believed that they acted ‘rationally’ by seeking their own interests to have access to better medical care during pregnancy and delivery, to secure a better future and opportunities for their children and it was a good strategy for future survival. On the other hand, respondents who were not enthused about this form of tourism view the birth tourists’ decision as an unnecessary venture, a sign of low self-esteem and lack of confidence in Ghana as a country, and an exhibition of unpatriotic behaviour. For the Ghanaian families with American ‘jackpot babies’, the American birthright citizenship, social realities in Ghana and their long-term aspirations which encompass factors such as quality of life and caring motivated them to give birth in the USA, sometimes at the peril of the mothers-to-be and their unborn children.

2. Renegotiating gender relations within transnational space: the case study of Eritrean women in Milan 1975-2015

Author: Mikal Woldu, SOAS, University of London, UK.

Migration is a gendered experience, shaping male and female migrants differently. Literature on migration suggests that with the experience of displacement from one’s cultural and social moorings, ‘traditional’ social structures tend to be weakened, resulting in changes to the traditional division of labour and understating of gender relations and roles.

By looking at the case study of Eritrean women in Milan between the late 1970s and 2015, I intend to explore the changing Eritrean-specific gender roles emerging within transnational spaces, and analyse to what extent they remain the same or different over time, and across generations.

Specifically, I wish to explore to what extent competing conceptions of gender roles, between the home-country and the country  of settlement, are negotiated and reconstructed across different dimensions, by looking at individuals’ households (child-rearing, division of labour within the home), education/employment choices (are expectations for second generations gendered?) and by looking at informants’ social networks.

3. Is Feminization of International Migration in the Making in Post-2000 Eritrea

Author: Netserreab Ghebremichael Andom, Independent researcher associated with CEDEJ-Khartoum, Sudan.

Since the dawn of the millennium, youth irregular migration has captured public attention both through extensive media coverage and scholarly works. Deploying a state-centric perspective, Eritrea has, in those narratives, been dubbed as ‘a country whose citizens want to forget’ (Copnall, 2009). Such narratives and discourses invoke the civil and political rights violations that the repressive Eritrean politico-military elites have used since 2001 as the main culprit to the human tragedy that Eritrean irregular youth migrants experience during, en route and after their flight in search of protection and fulfilled life. Strikingly such narratives generally depict that all Eritrean youths – irrespective of their gender – are fleeing their homeland owing to indiscriminate state violence.

Up until fairly recently migration studies was short of gendered perspectives (Mahler and Pessar, 2006).  Owing to activists’ efforts, horrifying media coverage that female migrants experience and heated policy debates among migrant receiving countries such knowledge lacuna is however starting to be addressed (Schrover and Moloney, 2013).  In the context of what some activists have dubbed as “Millennium- ⁄Sawa-refugee”, researchers have in fact gone further to highlight that since Eritrean female youths are the victims of gender-specific violence mostly perpetrated by corrupt and unaccountable state authorities (notably those in the defense sector), they are either more vulnerable to state violence or have already experienced a disproportionate proportion of violence (Abdulkader, 2008; SIHA, 2013; and COIE, 2015). Such assertions suggest that Eritrean female migrants’ plight does not only deserve a sympathizing heart from human rights defenders and the refugee regime, but also a special consideration in granting adequate protection by the western countries as part of their claim of moral superiority to the former colonized societies.

Using critical realist perspective that is informed by extended field observation both in Eritrea and Sudan, in this paper I argue two overlooked factors that specifically account for the surge in Eritrean female youths’ exit from their homeland: First, the Eritrean government’s relative softer exit policy for female youths. While Eritrean policy makers have, since the outbreak of the Ethio-Eritrean second war, reverted to “state hardness”, they have mostly adopted a softer national service recruitment and emigration policies towards females. The authorities’ favorable emigration policy towards females is likely to be rationalized on two assumptions: 1) Supposition of female migrants’ lesser subversive political engagements, and 2) Actual or perceived possibilities of greater remittances from female migrants.

The second overlooked factors that explicates the surge in Eritrean female youths’ independent international migration relates to the gradual erosion of patriarchal ideology that used to have full control over their mobility. Among other factors that brought about such socio-cultural transformation, the “multiple uncertainties” that post-2000s Eritrean communities have experienced is implicitly and explicitly resulting in parental goading of female emigration as a “risk aversion strategy.”

4. Rethinking Eritrean Women’s’ Struggle for Emancipation: Social Oppression and Migration

Author: Danait Mengist, Harvard University, United States.

Sporting an afro and wearing her khaki shorts, the female freedom fighter, or tegadalit, was the iconic image of the Eritrean struggle for liberation at the dawn of the country’s independence.  The 30-year war of independence fought by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) against neighboring Ethiopia distinguishes itself not only for being the longest lasting in African history but also for having the highest level of participation by women.  More than 30% of the EPLF, the dominant group in the fight for independence, consisted of women.  These women participated in the struggle at an unprecedented level; they played a wide range of roles such as “front-line fighters, superior officers, soldiers, cell organizers, fund-raisers, operatives, medics, car mechanics, etc…” (Campbell 2005: 378) As a revolutionary group, the EPLF’s aims were double-fold.  On the one hand, it was fighting the vastly more powerful and well-funded Ethiopian military, while on the other hand it was working to eradicate traditional social structures in favor of an egalitarian and collective, revolutionary society. (Frankland 1996: 415) Women’s empowerment was deemed essential to challenging traditional society and therefore necessary to the liberation movement.  Despite protests from patriarchal voices in society, the EPLF brought about concrete changes in marriage and land ownership laws that greatly improved the lives of women. Furthermore, by providing education to all its members, it gave women access to opportunities that were previously unavailable to them.

After the EPLF victory in May 1991 and Eritrea’s subsequent ascent to statehood, the improved status of women continued to be a point of pride within the newly established government.  Legally, the new state granted women equal rights in the 1997 Constitution and established a quota system that guarantees at least 30% membership of women in the national assembly (Mekonnen and van Reisen 2011: 60).  While these developments appeared to continue the progressive ideals fostered during the liberation struggle, in reality many of the changes were left unimplemented.  For instance, even though the Constitution was ratified in 1997, it has yet to be put into practice, meaning that the rights it guarantees to women have yet to take effect.  Furthermore, following the second war against Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000, the Eritrean government, under the rule of former EPLF leaders now renamed the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), has increasingly turned towards authoritarian measures to maintain control of the country and dispel any opposition.  What effects might these changes have on the progression of women’s migration? Are the ideals of women’s rights that were so heavily promoted during the liberation war continuing to be upheld in Eritrea or are the current realities of women’s lives far different from the image of the empowered khaki-wearing tegadalit? In this paper, I argue that the causes of migration for Eritrean women are not only political or economic oppression but also social.

5. States of Suspension: Navigating Eritrean Womanhood and Sexuality in Khartoum

Author: Hanna Amanuel, Addis Continental Institute of Public Health, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork in Khartoum, Sudan, I explore how humanitarian aid organizers, state actors, and Eritreans themselves construct, act upon, and navigate Eritrean womanhood and sexuality. My paper centers sexuality—and the violent attack on it—as a lens through which to explore mass migration from Eritrea to Sudan, a focal point that has been under-explored in scholarship on forced migration. In this presentation, I explore how Eritrean women negotiate their positionalities in public and private spaces. The questions that orient my talk include: how do institutions of authority evoke Eritrean, or ‘habesh,’ women in public life? What sort of relational practices evolve in a state of radical uncertainty about what is to come? I argue that Eritrean women are often tactful, adopting identities that enable them to survive in alienating and violent spaces. Furthermore, at the center of Eritrean womanhood and sexuality as evoked and acted upon by others, lies an interior world where Eritrean women self-make. Khartoum, then, operates not only as a state of suspension, but also as a state of movement, of seeking connection, and of self-making.

6. An intersectional account of Ethiopian women’s circular migration

Author: Dusit Abdi Ali, Master student of cultural anthropology at Uppsala University, Sweden.

Even though migration experience is very personal, it affects families and communities.  Ethiopian women’s migration to the Middle East and the Gulf States is commonly seen positive and normally labeled as voluntary labour migration by their families, their peers, the Ethiopian authorities and society at large. However, an intersectional analysis shows different elements exerting several levels of pressure upon the women’s decision of leaving/returning Ethiopia for working in the Middle East and the Gulf States. In this presentation, we will review, on the one hand, which elements are behind the processes of migration and re-migration, and on the other hand, how these factors shape the complexity of everyday life of migrant Ethiopian women both at home and abroad. The ethnographic fieldwork, in which this paper builds on, comprises observations and semi-structured interviews with 12 Ethiopian women, carried out in Addis Ababa in spring 2016. The results extracted from fieldwork reveals a somewhat different reality that the simple account of women pursuing economic gains. Even when there are indeed economic reasons implicated, other elements such as family obligations, class affiliation and the influence of gender-oriented labor market are also fostering women to decide to migrate, but also to return and to migrate again in a circular migration flow. Besides this, the intersection of different identities and belongings condition the women’s position in front of other actors such as migration agencies, at home, and employers, abroad. In conclusion, this paper intends to illustrate how different elements engage in the development of circular migration of Ethiopian women and how these create tensions between different factors pointing out, as well, the importance of intersectionality in analyzing these phenomena.

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