Thursday, 23 July 2015

Migration and changing intra-household gender roles and power relations

By Collins Yeboah


In Ghana, both young men and women migrate internationally and internally. Young, single men who migrate internationally dream of a better life, for example as construction workers in Libya or as professional football players in Europe, but early research on Ghanaian women migrants going abroad focused on those who migrated to work as commercial sex workers in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire. Analysis of internal migration focused on migration from Northern to Southern Ghana due to the relative impoverishment of the north vis-√†-vis the south of the country. Such migration initially involved young men who moved down to work on cocoa farms or as tenant farmers and more recently as scrap metal dealers. Since the economic downturn of the 1980s however, young, single women have begun to migrate internally, usually from the poorer northern part of the country to the south, and have been the subject of much scholarly interest. 
 
The Centre for Migration Studies, under the auspices of the Migrating out of Poverty Research programme, is currently undertaking a study, “Migration, Intra-Household Dynamics and Youth Aspirations in Ghana” which examines the ways in which migration can move people out of poverty. As I reflect on this, I remember my encounter with Asana in a commercial vehicle in my recent trip to Tamale in the north of Ghana, which epitomises the experiences of female migrants from the North to the South. 
 
Asana sits next to me in a bus from Tamale in the Northern Region of Ghana going to Accra, in the southern part of the country. She had spent several minutes on the phone. At a rest stop, Asana explained to me why she had had such a long telephone conversation.  Her husband, Fuseini has used the money she had left for the children’s school fees to buy seeds for the farm instead, something they did not agree on. She laments that her husband is only a subsistence farmer and the proceeds of the farm cannot fully provide for their needs and those of their three children (Abiba, 17, Musah, 15 and Moustapha, 11). With the help of a friend she migrated to Accra a year and a half ago to find work that would enable her to support the family. Since her migration she has consistently sent GHS 200 (approximately US $61) to her husband each month for the upkeep of the family which has improved their standard of living. As Asana is supporting the family financially, her husband Fuseini sees to the household chores and raises the children, tasks which, according to the society’s gender norms, would traditionally have been done exclusively by Asana. 
 
The conversation with Asana suggests that migration can change household gender roles. In Ghana, labour migration is socially constructed in accordance with idealised notions of gendered work and responsibilities. Men are often seen as “potential earners” and as household breadwinners, thus they are often favoured to migrate, while women are expected to stay behind to take care of the household. However, this structuring of gender roles is in the process of changing as evidenced by Asana’s migration to Accra in search of ways to enhance the wellbeing and survival of the household. 
 
Traditionally, women in Northern Ghana do not own lands but instead “borrow” them and are therefore excluded from agrarian decision-making. Studies indicate that a land crisis is leading to “deagrarianisation” or a societal moving away from agricultural production, and an increase in women’s non-farming activities, specifically in the processing of shea butter and groundnut oil as well as rice husking. Such non-farm activities do not provide enough income for the women yet they are expected to contribute towards the household’s food needs. As a result some of them migrate to the south in order to diversify their livelihoods. These migrant women provide financial support to their household through remittances.  It further brings to bear that household survival requires the contribution of each of its members irrespective of gender. Asana providing financial support for the family while Fuseini does the household chores and takes care of their children demonstrates the ways gender roles can change as a result of migration.
 
Asana’s story also illustrates how migrant remittances can have significant influence on power relations within household. Studies have shown that the sending of remittances may improve the position of women in their families and thereby enhance their participation in household decision-making. Despite receiving generally lower wages than men, research indicates that migrant women generally remit sums equal to those sent by their male counterparts. This can increase migrant women’s influence on household decisions while reducing their husbands' control over household resources.
 
Asana tells me that before her migration “I dared not ask what he used the money we got from the sales of the crops for. He used to tell me it was none of my business. I couldn’t even ask for the children’s school fees”. However she continues, “Now, I provide the money so I make decisions about what the money should be used on. You know something”, she explained “he wouldn’t have used the money to buy seeds if I were still there. I have told him to look for money to pay the fees else I won’t send him money again. I have done that before”, she concluded.    
 
This is a demonstration of how Asana has used migration as a means to increase her negotiation power within the household. She now has control over what the remittances she sends should be used for. Until her migration to Accra, such decisions were solely determined by her husband.
 
Migration has increasingly become a significant driver of transformation within the family and household and a significant livelihood strategy adopted by many to move out of poverty. However, there are relatively few studies on how the migration process affects intra-household power relations and gender roles. Thus the Centre for Migration Studies project “Migration, Intra-household Dynamics and Youth Aspirations in Ghana” will result in an in-depth understanding of the dynamics that surround internal migration and household relations. More so, as a society with gendered roles and rights, it will examine how migration is changing these roles and provide insights on how gender roles and ideologies are contested, reinforced or renegotiated within Ghanaian society.
 
 
Collins Yeboah is the Communications Officer for the West Africa hub of the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium, based at the Centre for Migration Studies, University of Ghana.

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