A gender analysis of migration looks beyond simple differences in migration behaviour between men and women; it examines the inequalities underlying those differences and how these are shaped by the social and cultural contexts of the individual.
Migration can provide new opportunities to improve women and men’s lives and change oppressive gender relations. However, migration can also entrench inequalities and expose women to new vulnerabilities.
Outmigration from the African rural areas to the more industrialised centres has invariably led to the decline of agricultural production, as wives of migrants are entrusted, or rather left to struggle, with the responsibility of subsistence farming households.
Research indicates that remittances improve families’ overall economic well-being, while also fostering social capital formation through increasing the minimal amount of money that households save or give as gifts to other households.
“My husband traveled to our national capital about three years ago because there are no jobs in the village. The rains do not fall as they used to so the harvest from our farm is smaller and we do not have enough foodstuffs to sell in our local market. With my husband in the city, I have to work harder on our farm and also take care of the family. My husband sends as much money as he can to support me and our four children, but it is usually not enough. But at the same time it is better than nothing. My husband visits us especially during our Yam Festival and even sends a little money to his and my parents from time to time. It is good to see him happier than when he was in the village. The villagers also respect me more because my husband lives in the city” .
The Gender and Migration Nexus
Research on migration has changed considerably in the past decade, shifting toward the analysis of gender as a social construction; focusing on relations between males and females can greatly enhance the understanding of the causes, processes and impact of migration. Knowing how these differences play out can be important to promote gender equality and empower women.
A gender analysis of migration looks beyond simple differences in migration behaviour between men and women and examines the inequalities underlying those differences. It looks at how these are shaped by the social and cultural contexts of the individual, and the influence that membership of social groups and economic and political conditions can have on the migration experience.
The research undertaken for my recently published book Gender, Livelihoods and Migration in Africa, supports the argument that gender is an important factor in the migration process. Migration affects women and men differently depending on the context of the migration decision, the migration journey itself, as well as the impact of migration.
The impact of migration for women and men depends on many factors, all of which have gender implications. These include: the type of migration such as temporary, permanent, irregular, regular, labour, natural disaster- or conflict-induced; or whether the migrant is independent or a dependent spouse. Migration as a transforming experience can improve or worsen the position of women in families and society. It can also do that for men, but often not in a way that is as gender-specific.
The Gendered Migration Experience
There are often a combination of factors, which may play out differently for women and men. Individuals may migrate out of desire for a better life, or to escape poverty, political persecution, or social or family pressures. However, gender roles, relations and inequalities affect who migrates and why, how the decision is made. Gender also influences the migration impact on migrants themselves, on sending households and on receiving areas.
The gendered migration process, how often men migrate compared to women varies from one geographical regional region to another. The general perception of migration is that it was predominantly a male phenomenon during the large labour movements of the 1960s and 1970s, with women and children following in secondary waves of family reunification in the 1980s and 1990s.
But by the 1990s, women were migrating in far higher numbers, both as family members and independently, voluntarily or involuntarily. The gender distribution among migrants today is reasonably balanced, with almost 50 per cent of the global migrant population today being female, although the increase has been mainly in the developed world.
Many factors exist that shape the decision to migrate and make migration more or less possible for women and men. These include both systemic and macro factors, such as the state of the national economy, and individual or micro factors, such as gender-specific stages in the life-cycle.
Individual factors of migration include age, urban/rural origins, marital status, position and role in the family and educational status. Family factors include size, age/sex composition, life-cycle stage and structure of family. Societal factors include those community norms and cultural values that determine whether or not women can migrate.
Certain macro characteristics of the country of origin can also influence gender-specific migration propensities. These characteristics can interact with the gender relations in the sending communities and affect decisions regarding who moves and when.
Gendered Impact of Migration on Households
The impact of migration for women and men depend on many factors, all of which have gender implications. These include gender relations within the household, the attitudes of sending communities and the type of migration policies of receiving countries. Gender also affects how migrants adapt to the new community or country, the extent of contact with the original household and the possibility of return and successful reintegration.
Research shows that migration can provide new opportunities to improve women and men’s lives and change oppressive gender relations. However, migration can also entrench inequalities and expose women to new vulnerabilities. Migration may offer women and men education and career opportunities that may not be available to them at home. Migration can also provide a vital source of income for migrant women and their families, and earn them greater autonomy, self-confidence and social status.
For many poor women, migration has strengthened their agency within structures that normally offer them few opportunities. There are also a number of negative characteristics about female migration including lower opportunities to migrate for lack of resources that are generally more available to males in many societies.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the legacy of outmigration from the rural economies to the more industrialised centres continues to have a profound impact on the agricultural livelihoods of households resulting in decreased male labour. Outmigration has invariably led to the decline of agricultural production, as wives of migrants are entrusted, or rather left to struggle, with the responsibility of subsistence farming households.
Meanwhile erratic rains, drought, shortage of fertile land, and lack of markets for farm products have all compounded the decline of agricultural livelihoods. In some traditional societies, the subordinate role of women has remained intact, despite their new earning power abroad.
In addition to decreased livelihoods, women in sending communities are left to manage increased workloads as labour migration has forced women to undertake the rearing of children alone. Many households lack the stabilising influence of a father and are thus incapable of providing the support network needed for family stability. In many communities a woman’s decision-making power does not necessarily increase with higher productive and reproductive workload.
There is a general argument that remittances from migrants compensates for agricultural labour loss. Evidence from our research shows that remittances act as insurance against adverse shocks during crisis and natural disasters. However the study found that the bulk of remittances are spent on consumption rather than savings and investments.
Based on evidence from the micro-data, it seems that remittances improve families’ overall economic well-being, while also fostering social capital formation through increasing the minimal amount of money that households save or give as gifts to other households.
In terms of gender, poverty and inequality implications it has also been revealed that remittances are more likely to be sent if migrants’ households are located in rural areas. Although remittances indirectly boost economic development by raising local incomes and demand, they are not associated with higher probability of spending on education among the migrants’ households.
When the effect of remittances was investigated through analyzing the impact of remittances on economic growth and poor households’ production and consumption patterns across sub-Saharan Africa, it was found that remittance flows do not affect all sectors and residents symmetrically and have a rather limited impact in terms of poverty and income inequality.
The links between gender, livelihoods and migration are complex; and there is an immense paucity of information, data and analysis on all three and their linkages. This gendered experience of migration calls for an in-depth gender analysis and the development of gender-inclusive migration policies and programmes.
The more evidence we have of the benefits of migration for poverty reduction, and the specific contributions of females and males, the more policies are likely to cohere naturally around these three related issues. Lastly, if both women and men are to benefit from the empowering and development potential of migration, a shift to a gendered approach to migration from a development perspective is needed.