by Julie Litchfield
This year on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2016, I will be speaking at a conference on migration at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare, presenting some of the Migrating out of Poverty research undertaken in collaboration with the Centre for Applied Social Sciences (CASS) at the University of Zimbabwe.
Colleagues at CASS have carried out extensive qualitative fieldwork in migrant-sending communities across the country and one of the observations they have made is that families often describe women migrants as the “saviour of the family”, less likely to forget their families at home and more likely to send a range of cash and goods than male migrants.
Just over a year ago in April 2015 we carried out a fairly large survey of households to probe deeper into migration and remittances. We have been able to collect data on the type of remittances sent home by individual migrants, the frequency and value of remittances as well as data on each household’s living standards, and I have been using this data to investigate the belief that women are the saviours of the family.
First I wanted to explore if families regard migration as a positive or a negative development. We asked households several questions about their perception of migration as a route out of poverty and were surprised that only around half felt that households with migrants were generally better off than those without. Digging deeper, I found that migration is seen as a good thing by those households who receive remittances, especially among female headed households.
Looking at who remits, I discovered that what migrants remit differs. Male migrants are slightly more likely to remit cash than female migrants, a large proportion of whom send goods, such as food, clothing and school items. Interestingly however, proportionately more women than men migrants send both cash and goods, and while the cash they send is lower in value, the value of goods is higher. This resonates strongly with findings of our CASS colleagues in the qualitative research. Perhaps this mixture of remittances suits households’ needs better and that is why women migrants are described as saviours.
To explore the idea deeper, I estimated a simple econometric model of remittance receipt. This helps me to explore what factors affect the probability that a household receives remittances. As my independent factors, I included variables on the household size and composition, whether the migrant has left behind children at home and also variables that capture the household’s assets and current living conditions. The theory behind this model is that remittances might be motivated by altruistic reasons (concern over aging parents, younger siblings for example) or for exchange reasons (for example the need to continue to contribute to the household and protect inheritable assets, or to maintain a certain social standing within the home community).
My results suggest that the independent factors that affect whether or not a household receives remittances differ between male and female migrants. Remittances to households from male migrants depend heavily on the assets of the household: households with bigger houses or a higher standard of living are more likely to receive remittances than those households we might regard as poorer. In contrast, remittances from female migrants are unaffected by these factors. Instead, female remittances depend almost entirely on the demographic make-up of the household: older heads of households, larger households and households where the migrant has left children behind are the only factors that appear to play any role in the remittance model. These factors also affect remittances receipt from male migrants but what is striking is the absence of any relationship between female remittances and household wealth and living standards: female migrants remit regardless of whether the household is rich or poor.
What does this tell us? We need to be careful about jumping too quickly to the conclusion that women care more about their families than men. One interpretation is that what underlies these differences is a complex set of rules and norms that are highly gendered and work at numerous levels within the household and the wider community. Male migrants may need to send remittances home to maintain their social standing not just within their own household but also in the community. Perhaps more is at stake the better off their household, both in terms of what they might inherit or the role they might be able to fulfil when they return. A preference for sending cash might help with this aim. Women on the other hand may be seeking only the approval of their household as a caring, dutiful daughter for example, and thus send goods which they believe the family needs and demonstrates thoughtfulness and concern.
Understanding this complex set of rules and norms is difficult and warrants further research, especially when designing policy. Policies to reduce the transaction costs of sending formal cash remittances for example may have little effect on remittances from women if they continue to place value on sending remittances in the form of goods. A so-called diaspora bond may only be attractive to male migrants. What is clear is that policy on migration in general and on remittances in particular needs to be informed by a deeper understanding of these gendered patterns of behaviour.
Julie's presentation slides can be accessed here.
 I would like to thank the National Gallery of Zimbabwe for their kind invitation to speak at their conference and the British Council (Zimbabwe) for generously funding my visit.
 Their remittances are very responsive to whether they have a child at home, much more so than female migrants.
Dr Julie Litchfield is the Theme Leader for Quantitative Research for the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium (MOOP) and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Sussex. The Working Paper discussing aspects of the findings of the Zimbabwe survey is now available. See also Eva-Maria Egger's presentation of the preliminary findings of MOOP's household survey conducted in Zimbabwe and her related blog discussing the context: Migration in Southern Africa: A Visit to the City of Migrants.