Monday, 27 February 2017

Motility and gendered capital in household decisions about migration

By Dorte Thorsen
The consequences of global politics of migration for poverty reduction can only be understood if we consider the capacity of individuals - and of entire households - to capitalise on migration, argues a new working paper inthe Migrating out of Poverty series. The paper disputes simplistic dichotomies of being mobile and able to migrate or immobile and stuck at home as parameters of how households contend with poverty.

Households that engage in labour migration do not necessarily choose between costly transnational migration with potential for higher incomes and inexpensive internal migration with low financial potential. Individuals may travel to transnational destinations at one or more points in their life time and to national locations offering good employment prospects at other times. Different household members may become migrants in a succession or at the same time.

Livelihood strategies involving migration have consequences that go beyond economic benefits. Research in the Ponorogo District in East Java, Indonesia demonstrates how the politics of migration globally and locally filter into household relations and gradually begin to unsettle inequalities in conjugal relations.

Motility and the politics of migration
An increasing body of literature addresses the effect of migration regimes on migration flows, global employment, temporalities in labour migration, documented and undocumented migration. This working paper presents a timely contrast to the focus in most studies on law-making, the industry that has developed to facilitate or deter migration, and individual migrants’ trajectories. Using Kaufmann, Bergman and Joye’s notion of motility the authors analyse how social structures at different scales intersect and, in turn, shape intra-household decisions about migration.

Motility captures the intricate ways in which spatial and social mobility is shaped by access to migration and to the means that bestow social mobility upon the migrating individual, migrant households, communities or networks. The notion of motility also takes into account differences in the competency to capitalise on access and in the assessment of which options are the most suitable for meeting the aspirations motivating migration.

All components of motility are gendered, so to move beyond stereotypes of the male migrant or more recent concerns about the feminisation of migration, it is crucial to understand how gendered capital influence household decisions about migration.

Gendered capital
The Indonesian case study illustrates the myriad of ways that gendered capital is established and feeds into motility. Local norms and national legislation give men prerogative in decisions and identify them as breadwinners. As a result, men often choose to be the ones going abroad to meet their responsibilities within the family. Yet, gender differentiated access to transnational migration changes over time. Men’s access to migration is circumscribed by age limits imposed by destination countries and the upfront costs of migration, obliging many male migrants to opt for destinations considered less desirable.

Married women are constructed as housekeepers, wives and mothers. Their migration is contingent on their husband’s approval by law, just as it was contingent on their parents’ approval before marriage. This institutionalisation of the subordinate role of women would curtail their access to migration if the global labour market did not privilege the migration of Indonesian women into care work. Thus, women’s access to transnational migration has increased in recent decades because they move within a system of debt financed migration with little upfront payment, if any.

Age also affect women’s access to migration but as a contrast to male migrants it is not tied to restrictions in the global labour market but to reproductive concerns. It is not having children that shrinks their access to migration, though giving birth and nursing infants may do so temporarily, it is the time when grandmothers grow too old and fragile to take care of the children. At this point, internalised ways of thinking about appropriate behaviour for women affect the assessment of suitable options and tacitly shrink their access to migration.

Intra-household decisions about migration
An individual’s motility often has repercussions for the motility of other household members. The spouse of a migrant, for example, may be immobilised to the extent of staying at home to take care of children or elderly parents. Immobility is not the inevitable outcome however; a spouse of a transnational migrant may migrate internally or to another transnational location. Thus one individual’s motility can shrink other household members’ access to migration fully or partially. However, an individual’s motility can also increase the access to migration through financing the journey or facilitating employment and the necessary papers. Enabling undertakings may be across generations, as when parents’ migration facilitate access for a son or a daughter, or across conjugal units, as when young migrants furnish access for a sister- or brother-in-law married into the same household.

Decisions about whose migration to support reflect households’ capacity to capitalise on migration for mutual benefit. Husbands and wives may discuss what will be best for the household and what is possible given the politics of migration, the ability to meet recruitment costs and the needs for different types of labour within the household. While the economics of migration may be assessed explicitly, the long-term effect of a household’s motilities on intra-household dynamics is very subtle.
Female return migrants find it difficult to readjust to the institutionalised and lived subordination prior to migration. Even when they conform publicly to the established positions that privilege men’s prerogative in decision-making, in private they do not accept being completely dependent on the husband again.

It is clear from this research that women’s gendered capital is growing due to the demands in the global labour market and that this growth has granted young women a much more prominent role in enabling other household members, including their spouse, to access transnational migration. The active facilitation of access and the multiple periods of working abroad will inevitably impact on household dynamics in the future in ways that empower Indonesian women and change their social position. 

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