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Rural societies in the face of climatic and environmental changes in West Africa

Benjamin Sultan
Richard Lalou
Mouftaou Amadou Sanni
et al.

Part III. Social changes in rural populations

Chapter 15. Female migration, a non-farming strategy for adaptation to climatic and environmental changes in the Imanan (Niger)

Amadou Oumarou

Texte intégral


1Labour migration of rural girls who go to towns as domestic servants is a very widespread phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa. In Niger, although it has developed remarkably in recent years, it is still little known. However it does have substantial proportions in various places in the country. Such migration is mainly seasonal and takes place during slack work periods of the year, that is to say from October to May. It is commonly referred to as an ‘exodus’ and, in addition to its economic purpose, plays a significant social and cultural role for rural populations.

2However, a new form of migration has been developing in the Imanan district for nearly two decades. This is the migration of women to Niamey, the capital of Niger, where they work as ‘maids’ in urban households during the dry season. This practice concerns all the sociocultural groups in the district in variable proportions and concerns both girls and married women.

  • 1 The results of a multidisciplinary research project are presented here. Entitled ‘Les changements (...)

3This chapter is based on research results1 and has three objectives: a) analysing the causes of the scale of female migration in the district of Imanan, b) examining the links that can be established between this practice and the various effects of climatic and environmental changes in this area, and c) examining the forms of social change in the district resulting from the migration of young women.

4Recent studies showed the importance of the geographical mobility of women for their capacity to get jobs that improve their incomes (Jacquemin, 2009; Destremau and Lautier, 2002; Comoe, 2005). This form of spatial mobility is analysed as both a strategic requirement for women and a practical means of obtaining goods (financial, material and human). For this chapter, the theory of the new economics of labour migration (Stark in Flahaux, 2011) seems appropriate for understanding this form of female migration. Indeed, this theory has two main features: a) it places the decision to migrate at the centre of the family unit b) it analyses the migrant as a person who wishes to attain a precise objective and who will return to his/her home area as soon as his/her economic situation is sufficient to face the risks to which the home household is exposed.

  • 2 Olivier De Sardan (2003: 179) talks in terms of ‘strategic groups’ to describe ‘more empirical soc (...)

5This study was constructed with a socio-anthropological approach involving the use of a set of techniques for the collection of quantitative data. They consisted of semi-directed interviews, observations and case studies. The ‘strategic groups’2 surveyed were the migrants themselves, their employers and/or guardians in Niamey, their family (blood relations or relations by marriage) and the local religious, customary and administrative authorities. A total of 48 interviews were conducted in both the migrants’ home region (the Imanan) and the host area (Niamey).

6– Four villages were investigated in the Imanan district: Bonkoukou (the main village of the district), Balley and Kochilan Bella, which display much female migration, and Kochilan Surgu, a village where this is small.

7– In the city of Niamey (the destination of these female migrants), four places were identified as sites for the concentration of immigrants from the Imanan. These are two places where migrants are housed by a person from the district: the National Museum and the headquarters of the union Union des syndicats des travailleurs du Niger (USTN) and two other sites where the migrants are housed in a shed, in a house or in the open air. These are Bukka Bokoye and Sabka Lahiya hotel.

8Here, a description of the framework of the evolution of female migration in the district of Imanan is followed by analysis of its main determinants and, finally, examination of the issues involved.

The district of Imanan, a framework for the analysis of female migration in Niger

9This first point describes the geographic context of the rural district of Imanan and forms of climatic and environmental changes. It is followed by analysis of the evolution of female migration.

Figure 1. Map of Imanan commune. Escape sites in red.

Female migration, a relevant subject for study in the district of Imanan

10There are several forms of migration according to the reason for the decision to leave (economic and/or social) and the stakeholders concerned (men, women, young people, old people).

11In several Nigerien districts, ‘internal migration triggered by rural poverty’ is the most visible. It long remained a masculine phenomenon. However, research by Locoh (1995) and by Comoe (2005) showed that the traditional migratory flows in West Africa that mainly involved men were gradually becoming more feminine. This feature is explained by two major factors: the socio-economic changes that are affecting the home societies of female migrants and the policy favouring family grouping in the destination zones. In fact, ‘the social roles assigned to each sex are undoubtedly constraints for the migration of women’ (Tahdani and Torado in Locoh, 1995: 92).

12However, in Nigerien rural areas (especially in the district of Imanan), this social organisation that institutes ‘social roles’, devoting a man/woman distribution of tasks between members of the community, seems to be developing. Female mobility now appears to form new dynamics that changes local approaches to economic, social and cultural structures. A geographic and socioeconomic description of the district of Imanan gives better understanding of the issues of female mobility in this area.

13Imanan rural district is about 140 km east of Niamey. It has an area of 506 sq. km and is bounded to the east by Kourfeye-Centre rural district, to the west and south by that of Tondikandia and, finally, to the north by Filinguée urban district.

14Overall, the morphology of Imanan consists of relatively fertile low laterite plateaux in the south and north-west of the district, crossed by the less fertile Dallol Bosso valley.

15As regards demography, the district has a population of 37,772 persons according to the general population and housing census (RGP/H, 2012). The population is made up of 70% Tuaregs (Surgu, Bella and Garassa), Zarma, Peuls and Haussa, who are in a minority and distributed throughout the district.

16As regards the economic aspect, the population of the district of Imanan is devoted mainly to crop farming and livestock. The entire population grows rainfed crops. However, livestock farming is performed mainly by two sociocultural groups—Peuls and Tuaregs. Fattening is the form of animal husbandry practiced in the other communities.

17These occupations are still affected by climatic events and demographic pressure. Indeed, for more than two decades, climatic variations in the form of poor spatiotemporal distribution of precipitations and continuous soil degradation mean that farming systems no longer meet the requirements of households.

18Deforestation and the drastic shrinking of herding routes and grazing areas, the gradual disappearance of plant cover and strong sales of crop residues and straw also form a major obstacle to livestock farming.

19As the yields of the main occupations are precarious, the population seems to be increasingly turned towards crafts, small retail operations, market gardening and migration. Although these are still secondary activities, they are essential for survival. Although female migration is an old practice, the context means that it is growing today. The forms and recent amplitude of the practice are examined below at the scale of the district.

Female migration, a growing practice in the Imanan

20Female mobility in the district of Imanan has changed both in the number of migrants and their status and the deep-seated reasons for their departure for Niamey.

21The surveys performed within the scope of this research showed that 20 years ago female migration was for conjunctural reasons. Women left for Niamey only very rarely and in clearly exceptional circumstances. Studying female migration in Côte d’Ivoire, Comoe (2005: 113) noted that ‘for a woman, migration is first a question of role, migrating is an individual decision, behaviour that runs against the expectations of society and is therefore considered to be an unconventional act’.

  • 3 Several authors (Bisillat, 1996; Koné and N’Gessan, 2005; Hambally, 2012) defined a female head of (...)

22Female migration was observed only when crop yields were short. In this case, only women who were heads of households and who had relations in the city could travel to seek a complement for their food stocks3.

  • 4 Crust formed at the bottom of the pan when a meal has been cooked.

23Migration to Niamey enabled these women to obtain foodstuffs: millet, maize, rice, cassava flour (gari) and leftovers of prepared foods4 going by the local name of kussu maassa. In addition to food, they were sometimes given a little money for purchasing grain.

24This type of movement is a form of short duration survival migration aimed at responding to occasional difficulty with regard to food. A search for aid for food, money or clothes after bad harvest years was thus the main reason for these women to go to Niamey.

25In a small proportion, this form of migration then concerned young married women and girls who visited relations who lived in Niamey. This act of courtesy concealed a search for new clothes and ‘rest’. Indeed, for a female ‘villager’, being in Niamey means a life without physical efforts and hence without work. The work concerned here is fetching water from the well (often deep and/or remote), gathering firewood, pounding millet and preparing meals. Not doing these everyday tasks means a real rest for these women. Going to Niamey was thus an opportunity ‘to care for the body’ as these migrants said in different interviews.

‘The oldest women only left for Niamey during food crisis periods in order to find food, and the younger ones to get clothes and profit from life in the city: resting for a while, gaining weight and becoming very clean. But before going to Niamey, they had to be sure that the relation they were going to stay with was self-sufficient and could handle their requests’ (a female migrant from the village of Bonkoukou, November 2013).

26A stay in Niamey was thus a time when women profited from ‘the living conditions of the city’ to become clean and to seek a new physical appearance that expresses a certain ‘affluence’, a certain ‘comfort’ (recorded in various interviews). When they returned to the village, they stood out from the other women by their dress (type of clothes and degree of cleanliness).

27Search for clothing in the city is closely linked with the precariousness of the food situation of village households. Purchasing clothes is closely dependent on the sale of part of the crops. This is only possible when annual crops are satisfactory.

28This type of journey concerned only a few families as years of poor harvest and severe food shortages were not very frequent.

‘Before, even if there were years of drought and shortage of food, the pattern was less regular. Five or six years or even more could go by with a food shortage. Rain was more plentiful and better balanced. There was rain from sowing to harvest and all the villages in the zone had the same season. But now, one village might be hoeing and another harvesting even if they are close to each other’ (discussion with a farmer in the village of Bonkoukou, November 2013).

29The observations above show that two major features can be used to analyse this form of female migration. They are first of all bad harvests, which are the result of meteorological events, and then the fact of having a relation in town.

‘[…] you couldn’t go to Niamey if you didn’t know anybody! A woman who did that would not be seen with a good eye as none left to look for work then’ (a woman from the village of Bonkoukou, November 2013).

30Girls who go to the city stay with a relation and for a predetermined length of time. They help the host family with domestic tasks without their contribution being seen as paid work. This form of migration is comparable to that of ‘the young niece’ described by Jacquemin (2009), who showed that in Abidjan the young niece is never paid in cash, but is housed, fed, clothes and helped in case of illness by her employer/guardian, who must also ‘do something’ (trousseau, pagnes, crockery, sewing machine, a small sum of money, etc.).

31This form of mobility can be defined as a rare practice used during occasional food shortages, following less complex motivation that is clearly defined and associated with a search for food or clothing.

32But today, even if this type of displacement still exists in the Imanan administrative area, it is giving way to another form of female mobility that is much more affirmed and systematic.

The new form of female mobility: many reasons

33The mobility of women in the Imanan administrative area who travel to Niamey has now become a form of mobility whose main motivation is the search for a paid job. But this overall motivation conceals more individual approaches related mainly to the matrimonial status of the migrant or her age, her sociocultural group or the nature of her social network.

Dwindling agricultural production

34Crops and livestock farming are essential activities for the local economy and seriously affected by the climatic and environmental changes observed in the zone. The changes result in a drastic decrease in farm yields and livestock numbers. Several surveys have shown the poverty of the farmland (‘Laboo bu!’ ‘The land is dead!’) when the crops are compared with those of past decades.

‘In the same field that I use today, the usual crop is 150 to 200 bundles of millet. But now I harvest only just half of that and I have more mouths to feed […]’ (a farmer from the village of Balley, August 2012).

35Indeed, whereas income from crop and livestock farming in the 1970s was sufficient to cover food requirements and other types of essential needs of the household, it can be seen clearly in the surveys that farmers in the Imanan administrative area can no longer grow sufficient grain in their fields to meet the food requirements of their households.

‘Before 1984 (a year of extreme drought), I always had some millet in my granary before the year’s harvests. But since then I have to buy millet even before the seventh month of the farming year. The fields don’t yield well any more. In recent years, although the rains are not late, there is a succession of heavy rains and the seedlings don’t grow; otherwise, crop pests arrive [...]’ (a resident of Belley Koira, August 2012).

36Farmers have developed several strategies to make up for the deficit: sale of livestock, goods or equipment, paid labour, sale of farming residues, straw or charcoal, seasonal migration, etc. There is substantial literature on the strategies used by farmers to handle food crises (Alpha Gado, 2010; Drame Yaye and Alpha Gado, 2006; Balla et al., 2009; Mounkaila, 2004; Oumarou, 2013).

  • 5 Report by the Institut national de la statistique (2012).

37Given the poor performances of farming combined with strong demographic growth (3.9%)5, the resources drawn from male migration no longer cover the requirements of households. But this role gradually dwindled because of the continued failure of heads of households to cover core family obligations—food and other basic needs of women and children (clothing, health care, body care products for women and the assembly of a trousseau for girls).

38The causes mentioned for this erosion of the responsibility of heads of households are associated mainly with poverty. Several features are listed by people surveyed to describe the climatic and environmental changes. They include:

39– variation in rainfall: the population of Imanan administrative district mention substantial changes in annual rainfall for a number of years. The changes concern the quantity of rain recorded (the local method for measuring rainfall is the depth of temporary ponds and the time they take to dry out after the date of the last rainfall), its distribution in time (the number of months covered by the rainy season) and space (the area covered by a rainfall event) and also the lateness or earliness of the first rains;

40– disturbance in the nature and strength of winds: this concerns the appearance of reddish dust the day before the first rains (a phenomenon not previously known to the people in the zone) and changes in the direction of winds during a single season;

‘[…] during the ‘‘jaw’’ cold season, the Harmattan generally blows from west to east. But in recent years the cold seasons are complicated, with winds from all directions and we can’t understand them!’ (a person interviewed in the village of Bonkoukou, October 2012).

41– marked change in temperatures: the temperatures in the various seasons are not those known before (higher in the hot season and lower in the cold season);

‘We have less and less mastery of the limits of the seasons. Usually, we understand when the end of the cold season starts because of the temperature that rises throughout the day. It may now be cold on one day, very hot on the next and then the cold comes back on the next day. We’re lost in this mixture!’(a customary chief in Imanan administrative district, October 2012).

  • 6 This point is examined in detail in Chapter 5 ‘When nature talks to us—Comparative analysis of rep (...)

42– disturbance of local knowledge of the advanced signs of changes of seasons6.

43The climatic changes mentioned above are accompanied by changes in the environment that the population has difficulty in explaining, even if people establish basic implicit links. Environmental changes are expressed as follows:

44– the disappearance of several shrub species, an in particular Ziziphus mauritania (darey), Balanites aegyptiaca (garbey), Acacia polyacantha spp. (dan), Grewia bicolor (kélli), Acacia macrostachya (tchidi), Adansonia digitata L. Bombacaceae (koo nya), Combretum nigricans (déli-nya) and herbaceous plants that are used as food or for medicinal purposes: délounfa, hanza, Gynandropsis gynandra (fubey), Leptadenia Hastata (hanamm), etc.;

45– the appearance of new shrub and herbaceous species of little use: Piliostigma reticulatum (kosorey);

46– the disappearance of animal species from the area. The recent disappearance of fauna in the administrative area was mentioned in several interviews:

‘[…] when we were young, we used to go hunting from the food of this hill and on the plateau. Hunting was organised every year and people caught hares, does, partridges, etc. But now there’s nothing. You hardly see a mouse when you cross the area!’(man about 40 years old from the village of Bonkoukou, November 2012).

47– continued soil degradation caused by various factors, the most frequently mentioned being erosion, leaching and sanding up.

48The literature on the relation between migration and environmental factors centres reflection on sudden natural catastrophes such as floods, hurricanes, landslides, droughts, etc. These events naturally cause massive population departures. For example, drought in Niger caused the displacement of a million people in 1985 (Hammer in Piguet, 2008).

49Here, climatic and environmental changes form part of a slow process that has clear effects on the economies of households and this contributes a movement of women to the city. Indeed, all the climatic and environmental changes mentioned have effects on the quality of the land farmed and hence on the farming productivity of households, whose main activities are still rainfed farming and animal husbandry. Related activities that are no less important are also disturbed by the limiting of access to natural resources (particularly for household equipment; for the home, trousseau).

50The effects of the climatic and environmental changes are seen as a succession of causes that affect the entire lives of households. This is shown diagrammatically in the figure below.

Figure 2. The causal cycle of female migration in Imanan administrative ditrict.

51A close link is established in several interviews between the economic difficulties of households resulting among other things from these climatic and environmental changes and labour mobility of women in the city of Niamey. However, several other factors are involved to varying degrees in the amplification of this phenomenon that concerns both an increasing number of people and the diversity of the persons who migrate.

‘It is difficult to give the precise number of women who leave for Niamey at the scale of the administrative district, but we know that we can say that four households in five are concerned. If the woman of the household does not go, at least one of her daughters leaves […]’ (a local councillor in the district of Imanan, November 2013).

52It is important to see whether the economic situation of households can be the only factor accounting for the magnitude of this practice. Field observations have shown the existence of several families belonging to precise social groups and that are not involved in female migration. This makes it possible to examine other aspects that might affect the scale of the practice in Imanan administrative district. Among other things, they include the sociocultural group involved, matrimonial status and the age and social network of the migrant. These features can be relevant indicators for analyses.

Sociocultural category as a factor in the likelihood of female mobility

53Female migration is not on the same scale in all the social groups in the Imanan administrative zone. Is there a link between female migration and membership of a sociocultural group? It is reminded that Tuaregs form the dominant group, consisting of Bella, Surgu and Garassa. The Bella form the group in which the largest number of migrants are recruited. In contrast, Surgu and Garassa women are rarely concerned by mobility because of their social position and economic level.

54For the people interviewed, the Surgu form the ‘nobility’, the class that holds local customary power. Their social position obliges them to respect social standards that include, among other things, ‘abstaining from carrying out paid work for a person other than a Surgu’. This aspect is highlighted by persons interviewed to account for the absence of migrant Surgu women. For them, a Surgu women employed as a servant in the city is ‘an aberration’ (kan si hagu), ‘shameful’ (haawi) for the woman concerned, her family and the community as a whole. But beyond these purely cultural considerations, there are economic reasons that contribute to explaining why Surgu women do not migrate. In fact, the Surgu have more fertile bottomland and capital in the form of livestock that enables them to face the annual bridging time. This means that they are less vulnerable than the other communities in the zone. However, it is noted that Surgu women go to Niamey for courtesy visits to their relatives.

  • 7 A bundle of millet is the measure used by farmers to evaluate their crop. A bundle can be the equi (...)
  • 8 The measure here is a local recipient that contains two litres.

55The Garassa form another Tuareg subgroup. They are specialised in various craft activities. The women of the community work with leather, perform tanning and make pillows and decorative objects. The sale of these items brings them fairly large incomes. They are also specialists in the traditional hairstyle (braids). All the women of the other communities in the area have their hair done by Garassa women. The latter are paid in kind or cash. Payment is generally in the form of an annual contract and consists of a bundle7 of millet or sorghum at harvest time. Other presents are added to this tacit contract. For example, the women whose hair is being braided bring one or two measures of grain8. Likewise, each time that one of their clients has a baby, the Garassa are given money and a piece of meat from the animal slaughtered on the day of the baptism. When there is a marriage, they receive up to 15,000 CFA francs in cash.

56All these activities bring in comparatively high incomes for the Garassa women. This partially accounts for their absence from female migration. The rare journeys of Garassa women to Niamey are within the framework of family meetings. Indeed, several Garassa men perform their traditional craft and work in Niamey. They make leather shoes, bags and belts and decorative pictures. When their wives join them, the latter work as hairdressers. This form of female migration is described by Comoe (2005) as ‘rewarding’ insofar as the woman migrates with her husband, joins him or follows another member of her family; independent migration by women is very quickly associated with prostitution (Pittin in Comoe, 2005: 92).

57It can be seen from the above that Surgu and Garassa women are less concerned by migration. For the former, even if the reason put forward is that they belong to a noble social group, the real reason is above all that they have sufficient resources to cover family requirements. The case of the Garassa better expresses the link between economic conditions and female migration. Profitable traditional activities that give a certain economic weight at district level mean that the women do not have to migrate to the city.

58Membership of a social group influences a woman’s possibility of migrating as it determines the possibilities of access to the resources of the members of a household at the local level. For example, being a member of a Garassa family gives more opportunities for a woman to have activities that generate income. A stated by Locoh (1995: 8), it is also because ‘far from limiting themselves to biological reproduction and generation solidarity, family groups have a determinant influence as production units and make a considerable contribution to social control by the transmission of the standards and values that govern behaviour’.

Matrimonial status and age as potential factors in migration

59Although female mobility used to be a practice of female heads of households, the phenomenon is now spreading to other categories of women in the Imanan administrative district, and especially married women and girls.

60Aged 20 to 35, these young women are strongly present in this migration activity even if they are the smallest category in numbers and stay in Niamey for shorter periods than the others. The reason put forward is mainly the refusal of certain men to allow their wives to go and work in the city. A return date is set in advance for those who succeed in gaining the assent of their husbands. A fairly common saying is still relevant here: ‘The first duty of a husband is to provide for the various needs of his wife’. The men who allow their wives to go to Niamey take a knock and so do not want them to say for too long.

‘We don’t always want our wives to go to the city. But often, when we cannot afford to buy them what the migrants bring back from Niamey, we are obliged to let them go and try their luck’ (the husband of a migrant from the village of Kochilan Bella, December 2013).

  • 9 A term coined by Goody (1969) and borrowed by Jacquemin (2002: 308) to describe form of circulatio (...)

61The largest category of migrants consists of girls 10 to 19 years old. There are no statistics recording the precise numbers but cross-referencing interview data shows that eight out of ten families in the district have girls who migrate. They are mainly girls who have just married but have not yet moved into the family home and girls in the process of getting married. The youngest of them (the under-15s) form a numerically small subgroup and go to Niamey on a ‘fosterage’9 basis.

62The main reason mentioned to justify the large scale of migration by young girls is the assembly of a trousseau forming the equipment for the bride’s house.

63The trousseau has changed, both as regards the type of goods and its role in the different households. The table below shows the change in the composition of the trousseau.

Tableau 1. The change in the wedding trousseau in the Imanan administrative district.

Tableau 1. The change in the wedding trousseau in the Imanan administrative district.

Source: field data de terrain, September-December 2013

64The table shows that the wedding trousseau used to consist mainly of items based on local products that were therefore easy to obtain. But making these things has become more difficult as the degradation of the environment causing the disappearance of several shrub and herbaceous species has contributed significantly to changes in the items forming today’s wedding trousseau for girls in the Imanan. Obtaining these goods requires resources that are not always available locally. Parents used to pay for the trousseau but small agricultural productivity means that they can no long cover this cost and this encourages girls to work on assembling it.

‘Before, only a little money was enough for a young man to get married. I got married two years after Kountché took power (1976) with only 12,500 CFA francs. This was amply sufficient to fit out the house of a bride. The equipment consisted of very few things in comparison with what is done today. You just had to buy a bed with wooden slats (tessat), a bed made of millet stems (dangarsa), a palm leaf mat, a leather pillow and a few cups and calabashes. It was all so simple and easy. In fact, some women made the mats and millet stem beds for their daughters and so they didn’t have to buy any. Really, there was none of the large expenditure that complicates young people’s weddings today’ (an inhabitant of Bonkoukou, November 2012).

65Today, trousseaux consist of a new generation of furniture, utilitarian objects and decoration. Tessat and dangarsa beds are replaced by other types, the most frequently mentioned being karbanda, doungounkoutourou, kano izé and formica beds. These beds appeared in the villages together with tables, carpets, wall coverings, chairs, etc.

66In addition to being costly, trousseaux have become like an arena for competition between young brides. Each tries to stand out by the quantity and quality of the items forming the trousseau. Here, this takes the form of the expression of the economic and social identity of the bride. Its size and the quality of the items form a factor in the integration or marginalisation of the bride in her peer network.

‘When a girl marries, people pay great attention to what she brings in the way of clothes, beds, decorative items, etc. People come from the whole village and even from nearby villages to attend the wedding and to make comments about the trousseau. Thus every girl first of all wants a complete, substantial trousseau on her wedding day’ (a woman from the village of Bonkoukou, November 2013).

67This competitive spirit in the assembly of a trousseau is the factor most commonly mentioned to explain the scale of journeys by girls to Niamey.

68All categories of female migrants do various types of job once they are in the city:

  • domestic work: this is the most common activity of migrants from the Imanan, but concerns mainly girls and young married women. They perform various domestic tasks: cooking, washing up, washing and sometimes looking after babies. The latter job is generally reserved for the youngest migrant girls aged from 9 to 12. Household staff are paid 3,000 to 20,000 CFA francs per month. Four key factors determine the amount: the age of the migrant, the nature and scale of the tasks to be performed, the migrant’s experience of this work and the level of the employer’s income;
  • small-scale trade: this consists of selling fritters or moringa leaves, known as copto in the Zarma language, etc. This work is done mainly by female heads of households;
  • the sale of food: this is a special activity insofar as not all migrants are capable. It requires considerable initial funds. The women who do it generally form a team of four or five to cook and sell rice; this is the case of the migrants within the premises of the National Museum. What is important is that they employ and/or house other migrants from the same district in their sales area.

69All these jobs mean that migrant women can earn money for the various requirements, the most important shown by the interviews being assembling trousseaux for girls, completing family food stocks, buying new clothes and presents for the family members who stayed in the village and ‘looking after their bodies’ (caring for their physique by means of good food and rest).

Social networks, an incitement for migration

70In the Imanan administrative district, women’s decision to migrate is not just associated with a need to meet immediate requirements or a desire to travel. They also have to obtain information about the practical features of life and access to work once they are in Niamey. Access to information depends on the potential migrant’s social network. Discussing theory of networks and social capital, Piguet (2013: 150) showed that ‘networks are both sources of information and providers of aid and support for travelling and for settling in the destination country’.

71Having a network thus means that the prospective migrant has the possibility of finding work and has practical support for her stay.

‘[…] it’s those who return who say what you have to do to get work once you’re in Niamey. They help us to look for work via friends of their employers or their guardians.’

72This form of placement is the most common and the most effective. It makes it possible to establish mutual confidence between the new employee and her employer more rapidly.

‘When you find work through a friend, it’s really better because if she has got on well with her employer you will get on just as well and you may get presents in addition to your pay.’

73The second way of finding a job is the door-to-door method in which the migrant goes from house to house in the city to ask for work as a maid. However, this strategy is used by migrants with a poor social network.

74In addition, a migrant must have somewhere to stay while looking for work in town. This is where migrants live in Niamey during their stay. Comparison of the data collected shows that various places in Niamey are possible for migrants from the Imanan:

  • with people from the home district: migrants are housed by a family member or simply by someone from their home village. These are mainly the wives of labourers, caretakers or masons. It is the case of the masons within the premises of the National Museum or of the caretaker of the USTN, where several migrants are housed. A kind of tacit ‘win-win’ partnership takes shape between the migrants and their ‘guardians’, but without this being an enounced condition. Each migrant brings back from her workplace a meal that she shares with the members of the host family. The greater the number of migrants, the more dishes there are and this enables the host family to handle its life better;
  • alone (in independent housing): according to the statements made, some migrants live independently in a shed or in a hut they build themselves in non-built land, in the industrial zone (Bukka Bokoye), near the green belt or in abandoned public places such as the ex-hotel Sabka Lahia. This type of lodgings above all concerns women heads of households who can house young migrants;
  • at the employer’s house: some employers agree to house their domestic staff, although this is not very common. The migrants who live in employers’ homes are considered as fully-fledged maids, even if they have to learn everything. They must be taught household tasks (cooking, shopping, various kinds of cleaning) and also learn about life in town. Staying in their employer’s home implies both a form of integration in the family (living space in the home, more visible relations with family members) and a kind of ‘veiled marginalisation’. Indeed, the spatial overlapping in which the life of the servant and that of her mistress are juxtaposed creates a feeling of encroachment, of lack of privacy and irritation in many situations (Destremau and Lautier, 2002: 253).

75The surveys show that most migrants do not want to be housed in their mistresses’ homes because they would have less freedom, especially in the evening. This expresses the migrant’s desire for freedom.

An ambivalent phenomenom

76For the migrants, their families and the community in general, female migration as practised in the Imanan administrative district has advantages and limits that deserve examination.

A factor in the increased autonomy of women?

77Migration of women to Niamey has financial, material and symbolic advantages. Income from migration means that the women concerned gain a degree of autonomy.

More visible participation of women in covering the food requirements of the household

78The resources drawn from migration enable women to participate more actively in covering the food and material needs of households. In the particular case of girls, migration enables them to pay for a large proportion of their trousseaux. One of the women interviewed gave this explanation:

‘Migration has several positive aspects for us. First, we help the men to cover the food requirements of the household. Then, the girls manage to cover all or a large part of the expenditure on their trousseaux and this goes towards compensating the poverty of the parents, who thus feel relieved’ (a migrant from the village of Kochilan Bella, November 2013).

79Thus migrants participate greatly in the management of households through the purchase of food, remittances or sending leftover food (‘hauru kogo’) when they are in Niamey.

More marked economic independence of girls

80Their stay in Niamey means that girls obtain resources that enable them to buy their trousseaux. This new role is changing somewhat the relations between men and women in the administrative district of Imanan. Indeed, by covering the large expenditure related to their marriage, girls take responsibility and thus have greater decision with regard to the choice of a husband.

A new appearance or ‘look’ for migrants

81On their return from the city, all categories of migrant (from young girl to older women) differ from those who stayed in the village by their jewellery, clothes and physique. The fact of spending several months without doing ‘physical work’ (pounding millet, drawing water or collected wood) means that migrant women have softer, more feminine bodies than those who stayed in the village. These new physical features mean that they are attractive for the villagers. Migration thus contributes to improving the social image of women in the Imanan.

82In addition to these positive effects of female migration, many persons interviewed consider that female mobility is more a cause of harmful consequences for the migrant, her family and the community as a whole.

A perversion of social values in the Imanan

83A stay in the city is a period of weak social control for migrant women and a few behave in ways considered to be counter to ‘village ethics’. These are:

  • unwanted pregnancies: several young migrants return to the village with unwanted pregnancies or venereal diseases. The places where migrants group after their work are places for the young women to sing and dance in the presence of their boyfriends, who are small traders, also migrants. These places are called alzanaye, a Zarma term that means ‘festivities’ and, in other words ‘live youth to the full’. The migrant girls who go to these places easily become pregnant and thus marginalised because of various sociocultural and religious reasons;
  • unexpected divorces: the mobility of women in the city is a regular cause of divorce, especially in young couples. According to the persons interviewed, it is more often women who ask for divorce. The temptation of life in the city may cause disdain for village life and the first thing to do to be able to go back freely is to ask for divorce. Some take lovers in the city and finish by ending their marriage in the village. Other find that their husbands are too close to traditions and no longer match their taste. In these cases, they decide to refund their dowry with their own money, or have it refunded by their new lover.

‘My nephew, who lives in Arlit married a migrant girl. When he came to Bonkoukou to take his wife to Arlit, he didn’t find her. His bride was in Niamey. So her father decided to go and get her. But he came back without her. He said that she had hidden and he couldn’t find her. My nephew waited for a few days and his wife still did not want to come back […]. She didn’t want her marriage any more. People say that she has a job and earns 50,000 CFA francs per month and prefers to divorce rather than lose her job. My nephew did not want to go back to Arlit without a wife because in this case he would be the laughing-stock of his friends. So in the end he married another girl and went back with her’ (interview of a women from the village of Bonkoukou, November 2013).

84The rare occasions when men ask for divorce in in the case of married women who become pregnant or flaunt lovers;

  • refusal to carry out certain household tasks in the village: when they return to the village, some migrants refuse to do work that requires a physical effort or that is carried out in the sun: pounding, drawing water or looking for firewood;
  • refusal to return to the village: although not very common, there are cases of migrants who decide not to return to the village after a long stay in the city. They get married there and no longer return to their home village.

85In addition to these forms of breaking with local values in the district, female migration is a barrier to the schooling of girls. Indeed, several girls leave school to enter the seasonal migration cycle.

‘Female migration is a dangerous phenomenon for the school. Here, in Balley, we note the abandoning of school by girls from the second year of primary school onwards. But the largest numbers concern the fourth and fifth years of primary school. In all, 17 girls have abandoned school this year. This is serious! Because of migration, we rarely have girls who go on to secondary education. They all want to go to Niamey, and their parents can’t do anything because they profit from the situation themselves […]’ (a teacher in the village of Balley, November 2013).

86The features above show clearly that even if it seems to be an alternative giving households the possibility of obtaining resources and the migrant the possibility of emancipation, female migration in the administrative district of Imanan causes real problems. This applies both to certain migrants (divorces, pregnancies, diseases, refusal to return to the village, etc.) and to the community in general (change of family relations, removal of girls from schools).


87Today, female migration in the rural district of Imanan is a key component of the way of life of women. It contributes to covering the food and clothing requirements of households and helps girls to assemble their trousseaux that were previously purchased entirely by their parents. Low incomes and the small opportunity for paid jobs is the foundation of parents’ withdrawal from performing some of their social roles. This gives practical legitimacy to female migration, and especially the migration of girls, that now affects several households in the district.

88Only two socio-professional groups are still little concerned by migration: the Garrassa, families of craftsmen for whom working with leather and braiding are important activities that generate income, and the Surgu, the group with customary power and the most fertile land. Four main features can be observed after this study:

  • even though migration goes back a long way, that of women is recent in the district of Imanan and has increased in recent decades;
  • the scale of migration can be seen as a both individual and collective response (it also involves other members of the family) to the economic difficulties of households;
  • migration to the city of Niamey is gradually becoming a stage in life (an obligatory period) for many young women in the Imanan;
  • female migration causes local family disturbances, in particular because of the weakening of parental and marital authority (increased autonomy for women).



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1 The results of a multidisciplinary research project are presented here. Entitled ‘Les changements environnementaux et sociaux en Afrique: passé, présent et futur (ESCAPE)’ (Environmental and social changes in Africa: past, present and future), it has been running in four West African countries (Benin, Mali, Niger and Senegal) since 2011. In Niger, a team of three LASDEL scientists are performing research on the human sciences aspect. This chapter results from the ‘Perception and signs of climatic and environmental changes and non-farm responses made’ investigated in the Nigerien administrative zones of Imanan and Dantiandou.

2 Olivier De Sardan (2003: 179) talks in terms of ‘strategic groups’ to describe ‘more empirical social groups of varying size that defend common interests, in particular through social and political action’.

3 Several authors (Bisillat, 1996; Koné and N’Gessan, 2005; Hambally, 2012) defined a female head of household using several indicators: widow, prolonged absence of the husband resulting in his wife living alone, economic precariousness of the husband meaning that his wife must cover the essential needs of the household. In general, this category of woman has several dependents and elaborates a range of strategies to feed them (paid labour, small-scale trade, use of local social networks, seasonal migration, etc./).

4 Crust formed at the bottom of the pan when a meal has been cooked.

5 Report by the Institut national de la statistique (2012).

6 This point is examined in detail in Chapter 5 ‘When nature talks to us—Comparative analysis of representations of climatic and environmental changes’.

7 A bundle of millet is the measure used by farmers to evaluate their crop. A bundle can be the equivalent of 25 kg of millet in Imanan.

8 The measure here is a local recipient that contains two litres.

9 A term coined by Goody (1969) and borrowed by Jacquemin (2002: 308) to describe form of circulation of children in family solidarity networks—different to adoption—that allows the host family to keep a girl to help with domestic tasks.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1. Map of Imanan commune. Escape sites in red.
Fichier image/jpeg, 146k
Légende Figure 2. The causal cycle of female migration in Imanan administrative ditrict.
Fichier image/jpeg, 118k
Titre Tableau 1. The change in the wedding trousseau in the Imanan administrative district.
Légende Source: field data de terrain, September-December 2013
Fichier image/jpeg, 151k

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