By Dorte Thorsen
Tangail is a district in central Bangladesh, where migration to Southeast Asia and the Middle East is born of poverty. Most of the households are considered poor, though to different degrees related to how food secure they are. Those who engage in migration are mostly from middling poor households. After the first priority of satisfying consumption needs is met, remittances are used for investment in property (land and housing) and in the education of the next generation. It is this investment in education that is of interest when thinking about how remittances shape youths’ life paths, but it is not just a question of being able to afford education or not.
Over the past months I have enjoyed working with the authors of the new Migrating out of Poverty Working Paper 40. which addresses how international migration and the availability of remittances shape left-behind rural youths’ ideas of what a good future involves and how it can be pursued. The paper takes a step further than previous analyses and explores the cultural, social and economic dimensions underpinning youth aspirations and pathways. It demonstrates that gender and generational inequality impact on youths' capacity to aspire and that all youths do not benefit equally from the opportunity spaces created by remittances.
Youths’ opportunity for pursuing education is influenced by a number of factors. In Tangail, education is seen as a means to upward social mobility and youths - irrespective of their age, gender and economic circumstances - aspire to complete higher secondary school. They are much less interested in higher education. This is often because it is more difficult to access and because youths are under pressure 'to be established'.
The economic standing of households and the perception that education equates social mobility affects youths’ ability and interest in pursuing education. The investment of remittances enables youths from migrant household to attend school, at least until they have completed higher secondary school and sometimes also in higher education. But the opportunity space for education is also determined by norms outlining men’s and women’s social positions and responsibilities in adult life. Male youth are to become breadwinners and, eventually, heads of households, while young women are to become care-givers and home-makers.
The gender norms related to male youths can enable access to education if school certificates and diplomas have been a pathway to secure employment for others. However, gender norms can also be constraining if parents are pushing for their son to become established as a breadwinner. The opportunity space for education intersects with concerns about the temporality of migration in a complicated manner. The preference for education can be underpinned by a desire for the longer-term security of regular payment, pension schemes etc. associated with government employment. The choice to leave education can also be rooted in the stopping of remittances or the need for a son to replace an ailing migrant father or mother by travelling for work.
Perceptions of social and economic status affect male youths’ educational and occupational choices. Government jobs are popular because they are perceived to offer long-term security, whereas migration is often seen as a temporary income. Again, opportunity spaces grow and shrink as a result of migration and remittance sending. On the one hand, remittances may allow youths to pursue the pathway(s) they desire the most by allocating money to education and the bribes necessary to land a government job. Remittances also allow youths to migrate. On the other hand, the experiences passed on by migrants about the hardships of migration affect youths’ perception of desirable destinations and migrant occupations and may sway their preference towards government jobs.
Female youths’ future role as care-givers is intimately connected to marriage. In a setting where daughters are married off when they are 15-19 years old, female youths rarely have space to continue education beyond higher secondary school. An interesting point emerging from the research is that educated women are considered better mothers. So even if the role as care-giver limits the length of time spent in education, it consolidates the opportunity space for female youths to complete higher secondary school.
Opportunity spaces for youth to make choices about their occupation are closely linked with cultural and social constructions of what type of work is suitable for female and male youths. The emphasis on women’s care-giving responsibilities in the home and the idea that they are unable to make decisions and need protection shrinks the opportunity spaces for rural female youths. They rarely pursue jobs within Bangladesh and they do not become migrants. Only divorced and widowed women and women whose husband does not meet his economic responsibilities go abroad to work. The desired pathway for female youths is marriage, and only marriage failure opens other opportunity spaces. That said remittances do shape female youths’ marriages. They allow for a wider choice of marriage partners if remittances are allocated to pay the dowry and they may allow for a marriage to break down because the family can support a divorced daughter and her children. Yet, the reliance on remittances to pay the dowry may also push for an earlier marriage if remittances are soon to dry up.
Through its intriguing combination of Appadurai's concept of the capacity to aspire and feminist approaches to understanding intra-household behaviour, the paper exposes ways in which the cultural and socio-economic dimensions of migration can be enabling and constraining at the same time, in different ways for female and male youths. It is this analysis that has brought out fresh insights into the conundrums of how remittances affect female and male youths’ life paths.