When Women Are Left Behind
When Women Are Left Behind;
In many areas, male migration has contributed to a rise of female-headed households, a phenomenon that has challenged the traditional patterns of gender-based roles in rural areas. For example, it has been estimated that approximately one third of the households in sub-Saharan Africa are permanently headed by women, either widows or women who are single, divorced or separated from their partners.Many more farm households are de facto headed by women while men are away. With increased migratory flows and the absence of husbands or male members of households, women take over traditionally male tasks and responsibilities.
The women left behind potentially face difficulties, such as increased burdens on their time, inadequate access to resources, and restrictions on their ownership of property and participation in decision-making. In Uganda, for example, while male smallholder farmers often out- migrated, leaving women responsible for cultivation and management, the men still retained ownership and control of decision-making.80 This resulted in delayed decision-making, which adversely affected animal health and crop productivity. In some cases, because of the absence of the husband, the woman had to move in with her husband’s relatives and control over resources was passed on to other male relatives. The impact of the additional workload on women is considerably noticeable in areas where social support systems and services are weak or eroded.
Often children, particularly girls, are called upon to assume domestic tasks, thereby compromising their own education. Women employ different strategies to compensate for the loss of male labour. They may organize labour exchange with other women, work longer hours themselves or, if they have means from remittance and other income sources, hire additional labour. They also adopt such strategies as reducing the area under cultivation or switching to crops that may be less labour-intensive but also less nutritious.81 Female heads of households often face greater obstacles than male heads of households in meeting the needs of their households, because of lower economic and social status, lack of resources and lack of control over agricultural income, and a heavy workload that may reduce their overall productivity.
Their situation is further exacerbated when they receive few or no remittances. Despite these problems, male migration can bring substantial benefits to the women left behind in rural areas, including increased empowerment. The most obvious benefit is increased family income through remittances. Women may also have an opportunity to acquire new skills and capacities. Running a household in the absence of adult male members can help women gain more self-esteem and independence.
When women migrate The migration of women is governed by gender norms regarding the appropriateness of their migrating alone, their role and position within their families, the level of their social and economic independence, and the availability of networks that provide information on and facilitate access to employment.83 Lack of access to resources at home, particularly productive land, is one factor that contributes to women’s migration from rural areas.84 Women also migrate in order to escape the hardship of rural life and patriarchal and social control.
There are also many positive pull-factors that encourage rural women to migrate, including attractive income earning opportunities at the intended destination.85 When women migrate in search of new job opportunities, they may develop new skills, attitudes and behavioural patterns and decide to build an independent life rather than resume their former roles. For many women migrants, the migration process may contribute positively to their self-esteem, because they have to assume more responsibilities and gain new experiences as migrants.
In addition, their remittances often provide an important source of cash income for the family and increase their standing in their households and communities.86 The extent to which this positive effect materializes depends on a number of factors, including the legal status of migrants and the general attitudes toward migrants, as well as the gender-specific policies and practices in receiving countries.87 The nature of the migratory networks women use for assistance in finding a job and/or for a safety net in times of emergencies is also important.
Networks based on patriarchal control can weaken women’s ability to take advantage of new opportunities, such as exposure to new values, roles and market demands. In addition, middlemen or agencies can play a central role in organizing the migration of rural women, with the possible risk of exploitation. Migrant women are often uninformed about their rights and obligations, which leads to different forms of exploitation, including harsh and dangerous working conditions; violence by employers; low pay; confiscation of identification documents; and deportation.
The effect of gender-based discriminatory behaviours is often compounded by their status as foreigners and by racist treatment in the receiving countries. Migrant women may enter illegally in the receiving country or be recruited for mostly unskilled and low-paid jobs that provide little protection from abuse.88 The absence of women who migrate can have a significant impact on families and communities left behind. On the positive side, remittances from women migrants contribute to greater quality of life, better health and education, and investments in housing or businesses. However, the effects on children left behind when women migrate are increasingly identified as problematic.
Generally, men do not necessarily take on additional domestic roles. Negative outcomes of migration on families left behind include an increase in social problems, such as low educational achievements, early pregnancy or increased drug use among children. An often-unexplored dimension of women’s migration is the personal cost experienced by many migrating women who leave their families behind to provide economic resources.89 While men’s absence is mostly perceived as part of their responsibility as providers for their families, women migrants may receive social blame for not fulfilling their traditional roles as caretakers.
However, women who migrate and return, whether temporarily or permanently, bring new skills from their migration experience. Some programmes facilitate the return of professional migrants with special skills to their countries of origin in order to support economic development. An example is the United Nations Development Programme–operated TOKTEN (Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals) project, which supports temporary return to the country of origin.91 Returning migrants often have to renegotiate their position within the household and community.
Long term migrants may not wish to resume their traditional work and prefer to engage in different activities that earn better income or bring higher status. Men tend to resume their decision-making position in the household. Women migrants are generally less likely to fit easily back into their former roles. They may be more inclined to challenge the established gender roles and prevailing customs in the family. This can create strong conflicts, leading to domestic violence or women’s re-migration.
Although immigration policies make circulation of migrants difficult, the pressure to leave again tends to be strong when the money sent home by a female migrant has been used differently than anticipated (spent rather than saved or invested). This leaves neither savings nor an economic base for the future, which for single women can diminish their prospects of getting married or caring for economic dependants. However, if returning female migrants have accumulated income, they may have the opportunity to set up a business in their home village, such as micro enterprises or trading activities, which may elevate their social status and allow them to serve as role models for other rural women.