Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Remittances, fluid subject positions, and social change


By Dorte Thorsen


How do we discover subtle changes in cultural norms that otherwise seem steadfast? Cultural norms that sketch the social positions of women and men in broad brush strokes and shape relationships between spouses and across generations. What elasticities creep into those norms allowing one person to stretch beyond socially imposed limitations while keeping another bound by power hierarchies and culturally stipulated ways of behaving?

Since the conference Gendered Dimensions of Migration in Singapore 30 June – 2 July 2015, the author of a new Migrating out of Poverty working paper and I have come back to these questions again and again. Our reflections have panned out in an analytical framework that centres on gender identification as a fluid process through exploring how people are ‘doing gender’, how gender norms are subverted and dwelled in, and how intra-household decision-making sustains simultaneous elements of cooperation and conflict. It makes for a noteworthy analysis of intra-household relations.

Unsettling the idea of migration as a gendered phenomenon

In Tangail district in central Bangladesh dominant gender norms consider men as the main breadwinners and women as the carers of all members of the household. Married and unmarried men alike are expected to work for their household. To be considered good and responsible they have to do everything possible to provide for their parents, wife and children. Women, on the other hand, gain social status from their reproductive competency and modest demeanour. They are seen to be needing their husband’s or male relatives’ protection to be safe and sound.

Because of these norms labour migration has come to be seen as a male phenomenon. Around 90 percent of the international migrants from Bangladesh are men.

However, in countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia international migration is said to have become feminised. This is because of a shift in migrant flows to meet the demand for female workers in domestic service or labour-intensive industrial production lines.

The labelling of migration as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ phenomenon thus often depends on the gender of the migrant. However, the attention paid to the impact of migration on left-behind spouses, children and ageing parents suggests that the effects of migration are tightly knit into the social fabric of communities with high levels of migration. The gendered effects of migration expand way beyond consideration of the sex of the person who travels.

Women’s fluid subject positions

The extended case studies presented in the paper reveal that women’s subject positions change when their everyday life changes because of migration. As wives of migrants, they have to deal with institutions and people outside the household and make day-to-day and sometimes bigger decisions.

No matter the degree to which they observed purdah (the practice of women occupying secluded spaces away from the gaze of men who are not part of the family) before the husband’s migration, they come to perform their duty as a good wife by becoming de facto household heads dealing with banks, money lenders, businesses, schools etc.

As remittances managers, women interact in the public sphere and influence the pathways of their children while also upholding their care-giving responsibilities. Some of them become dominant matriarchs in the absence of their husband without this being considered a transgression of gender norms. The idea of men’s labour migration as necessary and beneficial for the household and for maintaining men’s social position, creates new subject positions for women which gain social legitimacy due to number of women acting as remittance managers.

Transgressing norms by bridging feminine and masculine behaviour

Rural women only become international labour migrants when in exceptional need. Often they have been widowed or abandoned by the husband or male members of the family are unable, or unwilling, to provide for them and their children.

As migrants, women transgress the dominant norms related to purdah, honour, and the need for protection by taking responsibility as providers for their families. As the wife of a husband who stays behind, their proactivity highlights the husband’s incapacity but also the trade-off they make between retaining their reputation as a good wife and a good mother. Their challenge of the husband’s social standing is further cemented if they choose sending remittances to members of their natal family or, once their children come of age, to their children.

Married female migrants perform flexible subjectivities but so do their husband if the marriage has not broken down. They use the norms sketching gendered responsibilities and privileges differently to increase their bargaining power to claim control over how remittances should be used.

Sometimes the result is open conflict, often bargaining is implicit and a give-and-take between adhering to some gender norms while subverting others.

Limitations on subject positions

It is clear that the migration of married men and women sparks transformations in their social positions and marital relations. The dynamics surrounding remittances from migrants who are not married, or whose marriage has ended, offer different insights.

Most women in Tangail district marry before they turn twenty, hence few female youths migrate abroad. Female migrants are usually women who have been widowed, abandoned by their husband, or divorced and have children in their charge. While they can expect support from their natal family, the economic standing of the family may foster the need for them to migrate. By letting their father or brother take control of the use of remittances, they reiterate a more traditional feminine subject position than married female migrants. They underscore the idea of women needing protection and by doing so they make claims on their family’s continued support to ensure their future.

Unmarried male migrants have not yet been married. Their responsibilities are usually towards their parents and they often fall into the trap of the social hierarchy in rural Bangladesh, where it is the patriarch’s prerogative to make decisions. Sons have little say in how remittances are used and investments tend to be made in family property and welfare. By reiterating a more traditional masculine subject position, male migrant youths may gain little in terms of ensuring their future materially.

Subject positions in flux

The working paper argues that as soon as male migrants return home, their wives’ roles as remittance managers come to an end as the husband is keen to consolidate his position and reputation in the community. Changes to an individual’s subject positions may thus seem somewhat rigid. This is not the author’s intention however.

The in-flux nature of subject positions is more discernible in the case of female migrants. Their limited numbers in combination with their exceptional need arising from the private sphere of households opens space for disapproving of their performance of wifehood. Female migrants do not have the same social legitimacy as the wives of migrants but must constantly navigate how they conduct themselves, the choices they make, and how they convert their remittances into other resources to stay within the bounds of womanhood in rural Bangladesh. This is a constant navigation of social relations and different forms of resources. Subject positions are thus fluid and intangible in themselves.

Due to the short-term nature of the fieldwork that underpins the paper, the analysis cannot capture the effect of the knowledge and experience that women accrue through managing remittances or migrating. However, the insights gained into marital and intergenerational relations help us appreciate that women are unlikely to shed this capability upon the husband’s or their own return.

Although they may take up more traditional and submissive social positions in public to adhere to the dominant norms, their understanding and experience of how the gender system works has changed. A theme that would be interesting to explore in future research then is how return migration impact on conjugal and intergenerational relationships. Of equal interest is the question of how return migration transforms the subject positions embodied by women and men.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The ways that remittances shape youths’ educational and occupational life paths in Bangladesh

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.

Remittance-education-gender linkages

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.

Male youths

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

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.

Fresh insights

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.







Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The View from Cuff Road


By So Young Chang


Being a migrant worker rights’ advocate can mean confronting very unflattering aspects of a society. It means challenging ideas around national identity, the right to belong, pathways to citizenship, and other sensitive topics. Considering the civil society landscape in Singapore, I picked up on the perception that many NGOs working on migrant support and advocacy are spearheaded by expats.

That made me curious. What does this imply for the NGOs and their impact? How do the “expats” position themselves and present their message? What compels them to campaign for the rights of outsiders as someone who might be perceived as an outsider by others? Do they tend to appeal to globally established norms around human rights? The context lends itself to thinking critically about what makes an activist and what it means to be an activist. What are the values and ideals that one fights for and just how universal are they?

Debbie’s story
Debbie makes her way to Little India on weekday mornings around 07:30. She has committed to this routine practice of volunteerism and humanitarianism for many years. I first find her huddled around a table outside a small restaurant in Little India, surrounded by a crowd of men, each eager to tell a story that she would diligently document and process, the way she has been doing for many years now. Isthana Restaurant serves free meals to migrant workers who are awaiting decisions on various claims related to their salaries and/or injuries in their precarious work. Since its beginning in March 2008, the Cuff Roads project has served more than 660,000 meals to migrant workers. Varying degrees of injustice connect the men who go there with their makan cards (meal cards).

Her presence around the block is evident from the way every passerby nods with a smile when we walk down the street to have breakfast together. This is a lady who hosted migrant workers in her own home for more than six years. She seems to be motivated by something special, not satisfied with just doing things from a comfortable distance. In a previous interview she had spoken about being invited back to the villages of those she had helped. But the story she shares over freshly made roti blurs the narrative of a moralist whose world is black and white.

She recalled an occasion when she had gone to great lengths to assist a migrant worker. She had accepted an invitation to visit his family and his community. On arrival, she received a warm welcome from everyone, but at some point later, a different attitude emerged. For him, the fact that she had been able to travel there to meet with him sent a message to him, his relatives, and his neighbours. This must mean that she is a very important person whose resources and connections would then be able to benefit him in a transformative manner. “But now you’re not giving me anything more”, he pleaded.

On hearing Debbie tell this story, the first word that surfaced in my mind was betrayal. I voice this to her. But Debbie insists that she does not see it as such. Her response is, simply: “How can you blame them?” There is depth behind these words. It reveals genuine empathy honed through experience. Since that encounter, she merely allows herself more room to discern which friendships are worth continuing.

And friendship is a word that Debbie emphasises several times. It’s what sustains her work despite her pessimism about the current migrant situation in Singapore. She believes that the exploitation of migrant workers under the modern labour migration regime is going to worsen in the coming decades. And while there are those amongst us who would crusade for structural change, Debbie takes a different approach.

Debbie tells me: “There’s nothing I can do to really address the disparity of wealth within a community except as an individual, and if you have a close friend who’s really in need, you’ll do what you can.”

Be kinder than you need to be, expand your circle
Debbie sees the migrant workers who come to Cuff Road as potential friends. It would be hypocritical, she says, not to try her best to help when she has the voice and the means to improve the situation for someone who is sitting across the table from her. And suddenly, her exceptional actions make sense: this spirit of seeing every individual at eye level is what allows her to go that extra length. She sees each migrant worker for the totality of his circumstances. Opening up to interpersonal relationships can mean enriching insights, albeit not all of these will be straightforward affirmations for “doing good”. Through it all she has harnessed a remarkable capacity for compassion, which makes her daily work all the more valuable and impactful. For others who want to get involved and help out, she just tells them this:

“Be kinder than you need to be. Be kind to people outside your own circle. Be assertive, even aggressive when necessary. And reach out to people and understand things from their point of view, not your point of view.”

That circle can be defined by socioeconomic status, skin colour, or nationality, and these are hurdles that we all have to learn to go beyond. This can mean seeing the construction workers lifting concrete blocks as sons, brothers, and husbands who are shouldering the livelihoods of entire families back home. This can also mean seeing “expats” for their actions and messages rather than their accent or appearance. Differentiating the ‘other’ may be a biological impulse. But finding the familiar in the foreign and embracing the humanity in another are virtues. It is quietly remarkable how Debbie, and others like her, allow others to breathe easier, one by one, one at a time.

What Debbie taught me is that seeing the same view from one street every morning can impart immense wisdom. During our interview, she adds that we need to be less attached to outcomes. We shouldn’t refrain from doing something just because we may not succeed.

The ultimate irony may be that she doesn’t quite believe in advocating for universal human rights. Perhaps this calls for another blog post and another visit to Little India to ask her why.


Debbie is a long-time volunteer with a local NGO called Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), working under the banner of the Cuff Road Project (TCRP) which she began. Born in the US, she has been living in Singapore since the 1970s and is a familiar face to many locals for her advocacy work. Her story was featured in an Al Jazeera special, and she has helped to edit a book titled A Thousand and One Days: Stories of hardship from South Asian Migrant Workers in Singapore.