Urban Migration of Adolescent Girls: Quantitative Results from Developing Countries

Mark R. Montgomery, Deborah Balk, Zhen Liu, Siddharth Agarwal, Eleri Jones, Susana Adamo. Urban Migration of Adolescent Girls: Quantitative Results from Developing Countries In M. White (Ed.), International handbook of migration and population: Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-7282-2_26 pp. 573

Posted: 21 May 2016

See all articles by Siddharth Agarwal

Siddharth Agarwal

Urban Health Resource Centre; Dept. of International Health, JHBSPH

Date Written: April 30, 2016


Internal migration is one of the fundamental processes by which poor countries transform themselves, with a well-recognized role in propelling national economic growth (Lewis 1954; World Bank 2009). It is equally significant in the lives of individuals. For all who migrate — girls and women, boys and men — the move marks a transition from one environment that is relatively familiar to another about which much may be unknown. In making the passage from the known to unknown, each migrant is likely to confront a range of risks and social dislocations, doing so in the hope of securing better life-prospects for the long term. Protection and safe passage are especially important for adolescent girls. The period from age 10 to 19 is fraught with risk yet also rich with opportunity, a time of multiple transitions when many girls leave their parents and natal homes for new surroundings.

This chapter draws upon quantitative evidence to develop a portrait of the developing-country adolescent girls and young women who migrate to cities and towns. The evidence comes in the form of a large number of well-standardized censuses and demographic surveys, which we supplement with studies of specific countries and regions. Many types of evidence are needed to illuminate girls’ lives, but knowledge of the size of migration flows and their demographic composition is essential to understanding the scale of program resources required to reach girls in need, and to get a sense of where within a country those resources should be deployed.

The focus on urban destinations is justified in part by the remarkable demographic transformation that is underway world-wide. According to demographic forecasts, the countries of the developing world will grow by nearly 3 billion in total population by 2050, with nearly all of this growth taking place in their cities and towns (United Nations 2012). By 2030, the populations of rural areas are forecast to be on the decline. The lives of adolescent girls as well as other demographic groups will increasingly be lived in urban environments.

The more fundamental rationale, however, has less to do with demography than with governance. Cities are important settings in which to consider adolescent girls because of their potential to connect girls to the resources that could provide both protection and opportunity. Cities are places where all manner of resources — capital, institutions, government — are concentrated. A well-governed city provides even its poor and newly-arrived residents with ready access to good schools, effective health care, and beneficial social services. But if a city’s governance system bears little resemblance to this ideal, new migrants can find themselves socially excluded and unable to take advantage of resources that may be no more than a stone’s throw away.

A preview of findings: In synthesizing the evidence, we reach some conclusions that confirm commonly held views of migration and others that challenge or flatly contradict these views. We confirm that in many poor countries, substantial percentages of urban adolescent girls (aged 10 to 19) are recent in-migrants, whether from rural villages or other urban areas. The percentages differ by country and data source, but credible estimates range as high as 40 percent in census-based data and almost double that percentage in data drawn from demographic surveys. The empirical materials we use reveal no upward time trends in migration operating systematically either across or within most countries, despite what is often asserted in the literature on migration. (Time trends are evident in a few countries, to be sure.) An important finding is that in the majority of surveys, more urban in-migrant girls come from other cities and towns than from rural villages. Yet the literature hardly acknowledges urban-to-urban migrants, offering surprisingly few accounts of their experiences and needs.

The literature is often read to suggest that urban migrants live, disproportionately, in slums. We find, in some contrast to this common belief, that migrant urban girls are no more or less likely to live in homes with inadequate drinking water and sanitation than are urban non-migrant girls. In other respects, however, our findings are in closer agreement with the literature. Migrant urban girls often live in what would appear to be socially isolating circumstances. Most migrant girls are unmarried at the time of their move. After arrival, they are much less likely to reside in households headed by a relative, and they are also less likely to live with a mother, father, or spouse. As a group, young migrant girls have levels of education that exceed those of rural non-migrant girls, but which fall short of the education attained by non-migrant urban girls of the same age. Even so, a significant percentage of migrant girls are able to continue their schooling after arrival. For other migrants, the human capital assets they bring to the urban labor market are mainly those that they had acquired before moving.

In summary, in several respects the empirical findings of this chapter are at variance with a literature that has perhaps overly emphasized rural-to-urban migration and which has often asserted that migrants as a group are disadvantaged across the board. To understand what weight to give these findings, it is important to appreciate the weaknesses of the empirical evidence we examine as well as the strengths. It is fair to say that demographic data on migration are broad in coverage but thin in content. Population censuses cannot probe into the social and economic details of adolescent girls’ lives, and may well undercount or miss entirely those girls who work as domestics or who live in marginalized circumstances. Much more could be expected of demographic surveys, which have greater scope for inquiry, but neither of the major on-going international survey programs —- the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), sponsored by the US Agency for International Development, and the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), sponsored by UNICEF — has ever made internal migration a data-collection priority. Indeed, the DHS has recently abandoned the two questions on migration that its surveys had asked for over twenty years, and the MICS program has never collected any migration information at all. As a consequence, although much can be learned about lives of adolescent girls and boys from these important survey programs, rather little can be learned about the specific experiences and circumstances of recently arrived migrants.

Suggested Citation

Agarwal, Siddharth, Urban Migration of Adolescent Girls: Quantitative Results from Developing Countries (April 30, 2016). Mark R. Montgomery, Deborah Balk, Zhen Liu, Siddharth Agarwal, Eleri Jones, Susana Adamo. Urban Migration of Adolescent Girls: Quantitative Results from Developing Countries In M. White (Ed.), International handbook of migration and population: Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-7282-2_26 pp. 573, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2782221

Siddharth Agarwal (Contact Author)

Urban Health Resource Centre ( email )

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