Understanding and Empowering Migrant Girls

People have always migrated as they seek better lives for themselves. This is true even for adolescent girls, who are on the move in ever greater numbers. Because of their age and sex, migrant girls are especially vulnerable to risks, such as exploitative employment. To learn more about the motivations and needs of migrant adolescent girls, Population Council staff and colleagues wrote Girls on the Move: Adolescent Girls & Migration in the Developing World, a new report in the Girls Count series.

The report is the first of its kind to examine the social and economic determinants of internal migration to urban areas for adolescent girls in developing countries, as well as the links between migration, risk, and opportunity. The report’s authors—Miriam Temin, Mark R. Montgomery, Sarah Engebretsen, and Kathryn M. Barker—explore a wide range of evidence on migrant girls, including findings on programs.

Migration can certainly be risky. But the research conducted for Girls on the Move shows that given the right support and protection, adolescent girls’ migration can increase their autonomy, opportunities, and economic and social well-being. To make the most of the opportunities migration can provide, girls need adequate preparation before they migrate, safe travel during their journey, and support once they arrive at their destination.

Why Girls? Why Urban Migration?

When a migrant girl is successful, she creates a ripple effect through generations: families and future children will be better off because of her ability to finish school, get a job, and stay healthy. If these girls arrive at their destination and settle in safely, their diligence and industriousness can enable them to capitalize on new opportunities and become productive, contributing members of their community—making lasting changes in their lives and the lives of their family members.

Cities are areas that provide concentrated resources that girls seek—schools, diverse job markets, health care—and new ways of thinking about gender. The authors found that girls who move to cities may be better able to make choices about their own lives, given the greater autonomy they may have after migration.

What Do We Know?

Research for the report revealed that a substantial percentage of adolescent girls in the cities of developing countries are recent in-migrants. The circumstances behind the decision to migrate vary, and the decisionmaking preceding a girl’s migration can be complex. Familial pressure and obligations interact with a girl’s personal desire to move. New research for Girls on the Move shows that school and work opportunities are the primary reasons adolescent girls give for migration. A significant minority of girls move to escape hardship—such as neglect or abuse resulting from poverty or disruption of their family structure—and to escape child marriage.

Girls also move to keep up with peers, who return to rural villages with new clothing and goods available only in cities. As a young migrant from Tanzania describes:

“When [a girl who had migrated to the city] came back, she was very beautiful and she had money and everything, so I knew no matter how difficult life might be in the cities, still you can’t compare with the village life…so I was waiting for an opportunity to come [to the city].”

—Sabina, 17, Tanzania

In addition to their personal betterment, girls also move to help provide for their family’s needs, such as helping to pay for younger siblings’ school fees. A girl from Vietnam explained:

“I decided myself to leave and come here because I want to help my family because they are poor.”

—Phuong, 18, Vietnam

Benefits of Migration

Migrant girls in urban areas typically have higher educational levels than rural nonmigrant girls. These girls may start out more highly educated, and this may make them more likely to migrate. However, urban migrant girls are also more likely than rural nonmigrant girls to be enrolled in school in their new urban homes, though not at the levels achieved by urban nonmigrant girls.

Many migrant girls who are not enrolled in formal education also benefit from living in urban areas. Migrant adolescent girls engaged in domestic work in West Africa stress the value of urban employment, which provides “on the job training” and a way to gain practical skills and knowledge that could not be attained through formal schooling.

Migration can also empower adolescent girls economically. Working migrant girls can generate savings, which allow them to meet their basic needs and plan for the future. Evidence shows that some migrant girls also provide for their families with their earnings by caring for aging parents and paying for siblings’ schooling. Remittances from migrant daughters can help raise the living standards of families in rural homes.

Many parents report that a girl’s status increases because of her ability to contribute financially to the family budget. This gives girls a greater say in family decisionmaking. When migrant girls successfully participate in school and work, they change the perception of girls’ roles and position in society. In areas where many girls migrate, this may lead communities to re-think the value of girls. This can affect marriage practices by reducing parents’ and community elders’ influence over the timing and choice of a husband.

Qualitative research shows that even in difficult circumstances—enduring harsh work environments or living on the street—many migrant girls say they prefer their lives after migration to the lives they left behind. These girls see themselves as taking action to improve their circumstances and prospects, even if they must endure difficult situations to do so.

Accelerating Action for Migrant Girls

Enabling migrant girls to secure their human rights, build their protective assets, and unlock their considerable potential requires actions at three distinct phases of migration: pre-departure, in transit, and settling in. The researchers found that 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. The authors did uncover and describe some promising programs that recognize the importance of building girls’ assets before things go wrong.

Preparing Migrant Girls Before Departure

A few 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 labor migration, World Education Cambodia implemented the Pre-Industry Life Skills Programme (PILS) in a sending community of rural Cambodia, reaching almost 600 adolescents (90 percent 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

Transit hubs such as bus and train stations can be particularly dangerous for unaccompanied girls. The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) and the Project to Prevent Trafficking in Girls and Young Women for Labor 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 organized at transportation hubs in China.

Building Migrant Girls’ Social Capital in Cities

Social networks are essential to stabilizing 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 program—a partnership between the Population Council, the Ethiopian Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth (WCY) 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 program areas. To date, some 60,000 girls in 18 cities have participated in Biruh Tesfa, nearly two-thirds of whom are migrants.

The program gathers girls in a safe location and provides training in basic and financial literacy, HIV/reproductive health education, and gender-based violence. The girls also receive identification cards, referrals to social services, subsidized 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 want to be tested.

Without support, girls can find themselves isolated or in circumstances that are dangerous, abusive, or economically exploitative. Preparing girls before they leave, protecting them along the way, and assisting them where they land will help ensure that they flourish. Their success will make greater prosperity possible for them, their families, their communities, and the world.


Temin, Miriam, Mark R. Montgomery, Sarah Engebretsen, and Kathryn M. Barker. 2013. Girls on the Move: Adolescent Girls & Migration in the Developing World. A Girls Count report on Adolescent Girls. New York: Population Council.

Outside Funding

The Nike Foundation and the United Nations Foundation