Time to Look at Girls: Adolescent Girls Migration and Development

What are the constraints and opportunies linked to migration for adolescent girls ? How do they affect their capacity to choose and to act to determine their future opportunities ?

Project Summary

The research explores the links between migration of adolescent girls and development in the Global South through a holistic approach that contextualises adolescents’ and young women’s agency, choices and migration experiences. More migrants move within their own region than migrate to North countries. This mixed-method and multi-sited research focuses on adolescent girls who migrate internally and internationally from Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Sudan. By considering different geographical realities, the research will explore variation in the impact adolescent girls’ migration has on their own lives, on their families and communities, and potentially on the social development of countries with different development scenarios.

The research fills an existing gap in knowledge about the reasons adolescent girls migrate and their aspirations and experiences. It will provide insights into their agency and capacity to choose, their future opportunities, as well as constraints and how these are shaped contextually.The project will feed into the global campaign “Destination Unknown” recently launched by Terre des Hommes (TDH) who is a project partner. The research will contribute to global policy debates by producing policy relevant analysis, data and recommendations.

Academic Output

Executive Summary

In the past decade the number of children that are leaving their places of origin in search of better livelihoods is increasing rapidly. The large majority of these children are adolescents, and many of these adolescent migrants are girls (see Temin et al 2013). In the literature on migration and development the migration of children and adolescents is mainly described in the context of trafficking and exploitation. The focus on exploited and abused child migrants in international advocacy has made it difficult to recognise and address the needs of other migrating children. A number of studies (see for example Whitehead, Hashim, and Iversen 2007; Jacquemin 2009; Hashim and Thorsen 2011) have criticized this approach, by showing that early migration is often children’s and adolescents’ own decision and that their reasons for migrating are often very similar to those of 20­25 year old. In the past five years an increasing body of literature has been published that pays attention to the agency of children (see for example Huijsmans 2011), yet few of these more nuanced accounts have included the experiences of adolescent girl migrants. They are invisible in both quantitative and qualitative studies. Exceptions are a number of studies on domestic workers and sex workers in Africa and Asia (see for example Erulkar, Mekbib, Simie and Gulema 2006; Camacho 2006; Erulkar and Mekbib 2007; Jacquemin 2009; Klocker 2007; Van Blerk 2008; Guo, Chow and Palinka 2011).


Time to Look at Girls: Adolescent Girls’ Migration in Bangladesh

The fieldwork in Bangladesh took place between January 2014 and December 2015 among Bangladeshi adolescent girls and young women migrants.

Most of the migrants we interviewed come for vulnerable household that, at the time of their migration lacked economic and social resources. From the answers to the questionnaire and the life stories it appears clearly how the decision to migrate and the process of decision-making are the result of many interrelated factors with poverty, defined by the respondents as ‘obhab’ (literally lack) playing pivotal role in most of the cases.

By listening to girls’ migration stories we understand not just the multiplicity of circumstances behind their migration but also the complexity of the situation in which the decision to migrate maturates.


Time to Look at Girls: Adolescent Girls’ Migration in Ethiopia

The fieldwork in Ethiopia took place between March and September 2014. The large majority of the interviewed girls reported that they took the decision to migrate themselves, sometimes without consulting their parents. There was a strong link between the decision to migrate and the negative role of step-parents, aunts and uncles, who abused the girls physically, mentally or sexually.


Time to Look at Girls: Adolescent Girls’ Migration to Sudan

The fieldwork in Sudan took place between March 2014 and September 2015 among Eritrean and Ethiopian adolescent girl and young women migrants and refugees.

he combination of economic pressures faced by their families, often households experiencing crisis due to the death of one or both parents or separation, abuse experienced from relatives or step-parents, lack of educational and work opportunities, and in some cases religious and political pressures, provided the background to girls’ decision-making processes with regards to migration.

Young Eritrean girls and women refugees often referred to the pressure of national service, the lack of work opportunities, political and religious persecution, as well as the impossibility of achieving a life one would like to have.

Other key factors behind the decisions of both Ethiopian and Eritrean adolescent girls and young women to migrate are linked to the gender norms that operate in both societies.

Working Paper

Time to Look at Girls: Adolescent Girls’ Migration in the South

Adolescent girls are increasingly being identified as a crucial segment of the population, whose successful transition into adulthood is of major importance for their own lives and that of the people around them (see Temin et al.). This notion, which is nowadays known as the Girl Effect, has inspired an increasing number of international organizations to start investing in girls, aiming to break the cycles of poverty and in doing so work towards the social and economic development of the population as a whole.

The migration of adolescent girls can have major implications for their transition into adulthood. While migration of girls is sometimes negative, when they are trafficked and exploited, the mobility of others and sometimes of these girls too may offer them new and better opportunities with positive implications for their future lives.


Adolescent Girls’ Migration in The Global South – Transitions into Adulthood

This book provides a nuanced, complex, comparative analysis of adolescent girls’ migration and mobility in the Global South. The stories and the narratives of migrant girls collected in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Sudan guide the readers in drawing the contours of their lives on the move, a complex, fluid scenario of choices, constraints, setbacks, risks, aspirations and experiences in which internal or international migration plays a pivotal role. The main argument of the book is that migration of adolescent girls intersects with other important transitions in their lives, such as those related to education, work, marriage and childbearing, and that this affects their transition into adulthood in various ways. While migration is sometimes negative, it can also offer girls new and better opportunities with positive implications for their future lives. The book explores also how concepts of adolescence and adulthood for girls are being transformed in the context of migration.

Read the publication

Research Team

Katarzyna Grabska
Graduate Institute Geneva

Chowdhury Abrar
Principal Member
Royal University of Dhaka

Marina de Regt
Principal Member
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Mirela Shuteriqi
Principal Member

Gervais Appave
Associated Member
IOM International Organisation for Migration

Jacqueline Barrin
Associated Member
Graduate Institute Geneva

Md Kamal Uddin
Associated Member

Alessandro Monsutti
Graduate Institute Geneva

Balghis Badri
Principal Member
Ahfad University for Women

Nicoletta Del Franco
Principal Member
Terre des Hommes

Ann Whitehead
Principal Member
University of Sussex

Wahida Banu
Associated Member

Jerome Elie
Associated Member

Ignacio Packer
Associated Member





Policy domains



Ethiopia, Sudan, Bangladesh

Host Institution