Friday, 7 March 2014

Women on the Move: Migrating for liberation and empowerment

By Endang Sugiyarto

One of the key trends in international migration today is the growing feminization of migration flows. More and more women have been migrating abroad and the latest estimate shows that women migrants already number about a half of all migrants, indicating that the migrant stock is already gender balanced (see World Bank and UN data on this).[1] A similar feminization trend is also observed for internal migration (Deshingkar and Grimm, 2005).

Women used to be in the latter category of ‘the migrant and their families’, migrating mainly as following mothers, daughters or other relatives. But now one can witness increasing flows of ‘single’ women migrating abroad as independent labourers in search of better lives for themselves and ‘their’ families. The significant increase in their number has been accompanied by a rise in their economic contributions to their host and home countries, as well as to their families. The rise in these last two has occurred despite the fact that they tend to earn less than their male counterparts, since they compensate by sending relatively more remittances, and doing so more regularly and consistently. Women also tend to spend more remittances on family oriented expenditures therefore it makes sense to expect remittances to have an increased development impact as a result of the increased participation of women participation in international migration.

On the theoretical side, the idea that the migrant is only motivated to move due to the significant differences in wage levels and expected income between origin and destination is out of date, for it ignores the interplay of a range of dynamics, some of which are gender specific and particularly relevant to women. Moreover, economic factors do not have a gender-neutral impact; economic development may change male and female roles, and the demand for international migrants can also be gender specific. Therefore, the explicit consideration of gender in the study of migration and remittances is long overdue.

The nature of work-based contracts, which tend to be temporary in the first instance, and the immigration policies which prevent workers from taking their families with them when they move, demonstrate the sentiment that the workers are wanted but their families are not. These features have the impact of further strengthening the flows of single women. These women have been migrating for various reasons, many of which can be classified as liberating and empowering. In addition to the economic freedom of better pay and income at their destination, many single women go abroad due to family dissolution, lack of choice and direction in their home country, and to escape from ‘domestic constraints’ resulting from personal and other circumstances including bad or failed marriages, traditional communities, and limited local opportunities in general. For them, migration is a symbolic act to end suffering and to move on to a new life. Not all of them succeed, unfortunately, as many become victims of abuse and exploitations of different forms.

It is interesting to look empirically at where these women come from, the nature of the sending households, and their occupation abroad. A case study on Indonesia, using Susenas data, shows that around 60 per cent of Indonesian migrants are women. I also found strong push factors within their household conditions and the characteristics attributed to the places they live that encourage some of them to create networks and diaspora that further ease the migration process, resulting in migrant pockets. The phenomenon of migrant pockets is not unique to Indonesia as they can also be observed in countries such as Bangladesh, China, and Pakistan (Skeldon, 2008), and others. As we all know, migration takes place not only because of need and ability, but also opportunity that is strengthened by the development and availability of networks, not necessarily only by migrants themselves, but also by recruiting agencies and markets as migration can be a lucrative business.

Moreover, the women mostly come from poorer, less educated and agriculture based family backgrounds. Most – 68 per cent - work as domestic workers, which is arguably the easiest occupation for them to access. The National Account concept of their pre-migration activities is of ‘unpaid domestic work’. However after migration they enter the international sphere as paid domestic workers, part of the ‘global nanny chain’ or ‘the international division of reproductive labour’ whereby a person – usually a woman - leaves their home to take up a paid caring role abroad, resulting in the caring role within their own family being delegated to another person. At the national level there have been calls for men not to marry their domestic workers in order to create an illusion of increasing national product (gross domestic product - GDP) by ensuring that salaried work does not become unpaid domestic work.

All this highlights the phenomenon of migration out of necessity and demands better facilitation and protection. More needs to be done to transform the increase in women’s international migration into a new force for women’s liberation and empowerment!

Endang Sugiyarto is a doctoral candidate in Migration Studies at the University of Sussex, funded by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.

[1] The DEMIG project argues that the absence of women in historic migration data is due more to the invisibility of women in research before the 1980s rather than being an indication that women were not migrating. The gender aspect of migration was under-researched and what has happened since has in fact been a feminization of scientific interest rather than a feminization of migration flows (see for more information).

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