Dusit Abdi Ali recently obtained her master’s degree from the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at Uppsala University in Sweden. She wrote her master thesis about the migration and re-migration of Ethiopian domestic workers, which includes interviews held with twelve women. In this article, Dusit will elaborate on the (intersectional) findings of her master thesis.

Addis Abeba  

By Dusit Abdi Ali

Intersectional account of Ethiopian women’s circular migration

Migration and re-migration of economically and socially marginalized Ethiopian women and girls has become a phenomenon. In recent years, Ethiopia has turned into a significant source of low-skilled domestic labor sender country and circular migration is one of the movements in soar as thousands of women and girls migrate and re-migrate from Ethiopia to the Middle East and the Gulf States. Even though migration experience is very personal, it affects families as well as communities. When looking at migration flows in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is an important country, as the country is a hub for migrant people. With regard to Ethiopian female migrants, their migration is interrelated with conflicts, ecological or economic despair and a number of issues that are linked to gender discrimination. Addressing this topic with an intersectional lens is important because it allows us to understand how different variables intertwine and make up the complexities of Ethiopian female migration to the Middle East.

Intersectional reasons for circular migration to the Middle East

Ethiopian women’s migration to the Middle East and the Gulf States is commonly seen as positive and normally labeled as voluntary labor migration by their families, their peers, the authorities and society at large. However, an intersectional analysis shows different elements exerting several levels of pressure upon the women’s decision of leaving Ethiopia to work in the Middle East and the Gulf States. Ethiopian women migrating as domestic worker to the Middle East have not only become a movement, but the number of migrants has also risen rapidly within the region in recent years. The historic connection of the continent and its geographical proximity has increased migration to the Middle Eastern region. The other main pull factors to the region include job opportunities and better salaries.

However, the women’s limited arrangement of their visa at the destination countries is one of the aspects of their temporary and circular migration. This has created a temporary and typically repetitive movement of a migrant worker between home and host county, for the purpose of employment. To obtain employment in one of the countries in the Middle East and the Gulf states, all foreign residents are subjected to a special visa under a sponsorship system known as Khafala. This short-term contract system is distinct from the Middle East and the Gulf States, which is used for labor migrant recruitment. All of the female migrant domestic workers are engaged in this sponsorship system, in which local individuals with citizenship can obtain permission to sponsor migrant workers and are legally responsible for the labor contract. According to the system, employers are responsible for the employees’ work permit and legal status.

Treatment of Ethiopian migrant women in countries of destination

The Khafala sponsorship contract system and the treatment of labor migrants in Middle Eastern countries are linked. The migrant’s powerless position is imposed by the system and the society. Furthermore, the women’s account demonstrates how agencies and the employers use the contract to exploit the women’s situation. This structural system can be analyzed with intersectional theory, as it provides an important framework for the analysis of complex interactions that shape relations of dominance and resistance between migrant and employee. The contract generates easy opportunities for the exploitation of migrants; domestic workers are particularly vulnerable under the Khafala arrangement because they are isolated within the homes of their employers. The sponsorship scheme moreover provides a control mechanism for policymakers of labor importing countries by allowing them to adjust the number of migrants permitted to enter according to their labor demand. In the Khafala system, there is no path to permanent residency or naturalization; migrants are permitted to work until their visa validity period. Generally, the women were forced to stay through their two or three year’s sponsorship contract, as migrant domestic workers cannot change their place of employment without obtaining prior approval from employers. Also, women are often in debt and completely dependent on their host families. This has created a movement of going back and forth to the same or to a different country in the region.

Perception of Ethiopian migrant women in the country of origin

According to my informants, many people in Ethiopia are ambivalent about migrant women returning from the Middle East. In general, they are seen as great contributors because they improve their families’ socio-economic status. At the same time, their moral values are also very much distrusted. It shows that their suffering in the countries of destination has not been taken into consideration. There is generally a negative emphasis on the return of these women as it is seen as a failure, and when they do succeed they are still mistrusted. Their migration and their success have an added value, either negative or positive, depending on the individual’s perception. For these women, going to the Middle East has positive consequences in the sense that they could improve their lives, but it also comes with a lot of negative effects, such as ill reputation in their home countries, and mental stress and physical as well as verbal abuse abroad.

Women’s desires and motivations for a better life have created a complex case in terms of socio-economic relations. The women are expected to help with managing the household but they should not be totally independent, as their independence creates fractures in the traditional male hierarchy and structure. Migration creates a contradicting view on migrant women as both champions and immoral persons. This ambivalent interrelation puts migrant women in a hard-pressed position. The economic opportunity has forced them in a distressing situation and they are tolerating the hardship and discrimination they are faced with.

In general, the economic opportunities abroad have influenced the women’s lives, their social status, and mobility both in positive and negative terms. Gendered prejudice and gender division of labor intersect in many ways; negative stereotypes are noticeable and have a stigmatizing effect on women. The norms people hold in general, and their effects on returnee migrants are difficult to assert. Based on information from my informants, migration is a source of women’s economic empowerment and self-confidence, but their experiences also show the negative gender relations in the country of origin.


The results extracted from fieldwork reveals a somewhat different reality than the simple account of women pursuing economic gains. Even when there are indeed economic reasons implicated, other elements such as family obligations 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 at home and employers abroad. Poverty, limited employment and economic prospects make the women’s situation complex, even though the government of Ethiopia has implemented a number of policies and legal forms to improve women’s rights. In general, women’s decision-making power is limited and there is still gender discrimination in the labor market. The problem has not been regarded as a priority for societies and in the countries of destination. A continued study and research on the domestic workers’ issue, to understand the women’s situation and to create a sustainable socio-economic policy, is necessary.