Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Women on the move in Ghana: Gender, social change, and migration

By Dorte Thorsen

Thinking on gender and migration is often underpinned by assumptions that aren’t supported by empirical facts. Remote, rural communities are NOT always sites of stagnant traditions and social inertia! Young women’s migration is NOT always an escape from marriage!

A new working paper in the Migrating out of Poverty series analyses qualitative data from a study of intra-household dynamics and youth aspirations. It demonstrates that economic and environmental explanations of internal migration from northern to southern Ghana are insufficient on their own. Migration is prompted by, and prompts, deep seated social and cultural change - which this paper explores.

In a setting where women’s migration was frowned upon until recently, it is peculiar that young unmarried women have become the majority of southbound migrants. It begs the question of what has changed in rural communities to make this change possible.

Unpacking social change

Conceptually the paper situates itself with debates about culture, globalisation and modernity to untangle what social change involves. Imaginatively the authors combine Clifford’s work on culture and modernity to question what triggers change and Pieterse’s work on globalisation and culture to distinguish between different forms of change.

They look at surface elements of change such as food habits, fashion, art forms etc. and deep seated elements relating to norms and values. The analysis departs from Pieterse’s preoccupation with hybrid identities produced in migration to capitalise on Clifford’s deliberations on how outside influences trigger change in local places.

By pegging the analysis on this distinction between different types of change, and being inquisitive about the social changes reinforcing, or being reinforced by, economic and environmental factors, the paper sheds light on changing gender dynamics in northern Ghana.

Social change leading to migration

In northern Ghana men are increasingly unable to provide for their families. This is key to understanding changes in the social fabric of rural communities. That men in northern Ghana have difficulty in meeting their culturally mandated responsibilities is not a new phenomenon. It underpins the economic and environmental explanations of men’s migration.

However, these explanations fall short of explaining why more and more women and not men move in response to the grinding poverty.

Women are making up for men’s dwindling provisions by engaging in a wider range of farm and off-farm activities to help feed their families. Helped by the development of infrastructure and the greater availability of goods, women have expanded petty trade. The mobility that goes with acquiring goods and accessing markets has opened the door for a gradual acceptance of greater mobility among women.

Young women’s migration is tied into older women’s responsibilities and access to resources. Given the relations of production and reproduction in northern Ghana, young women have little access to resources and little control over their own labour: they work for their mothers. This dynamic supports migration in different ways. Mothers sponsor the migration of daughters (biological or social) to receive remittances which help cover household expenses. Daughters may migrate under their own steam to relieve themselves of unpaid work and gain control over their income.

Marriage and migration

Marriage has not disappeared from the migration equation. Senior men are increasingly unable to meet responsibilities related to marriage. As a result, young men are required to find the money for bride wealth (payments to the girl’s family). Because senior men are struggling these payments have grown. In the past the groom and the girl’s family provided the bride with a trousseau of things needed to run a household but this expense has increasingly been shifted over to young women before marriage or in the early days of their marriage.

The need to pay for continued education, to purchase the things they desire, and to enter marriage in a way that establishes their position in the marital household motivates young people to migrate. It motivates young women more than young men because they have the least access to resources. Senior men’s inability to provide these things has gradually eroded patriarchal authority in northern Ghana leading to a continuation of the flow of young female migrants towards the south.

Social change wrought by migration

Migration creates surface level changes as rural youths adopt new ways of being in the South. It is often thought that return migrants’ urban dress and hairstyles and their new eating habits entice rural youths to migrate. However, in northern Ghana surface level changes are dismissed by young and old alike. Migration, this paper argues, is fostered squarely by deep seated social change in rural communities.

Migration also creates deep seated changes. The ways in which migrants conduct themselves at the destination in relation to intimate relationships, having children, and marrying has provoked changes in the practices, norms and values surrounding marriage. Young migrants do not always adhere to the rules of endogamy but enter inter-faith and inter-ethnic relationships which are frowned upon in northern Ghana. They also break with the former sequence of marrying first, then co-habiting, and then having children and often end up relying on kin to perform the marriage rituals after having started a family.

Within rural households migration sparks changes in norms and values relating to decision-making and the division of work. Tasks in the household and on the farm are usually done in accordance with local notions of age- and gender-appropriateness. But the allocation of work becomes more flexible when no-one of the right age or gender is around. Nowadays boys do some of the work in the house that used to be considered girls’ work. Men and women, boys and girls all chip in doing farm work. This flexibility is not entirely new but it has become much more visible, if not normalised, due to the numbers of young women migrating.

By drawing attention to the different dynamics creating social change in northern communities the paper demonstrates that the relationship between migration and social change is not unidirectional. The power of senior men is gradually eroding and they can do little to preserve the norms that used to give them prerogative and power within the family and in the local community. Grinding poverty in northern Ghana contributes to broader social changes in multiple locations. This impacts on gender relations within households and across generations in ways that empower women by affording them room to make decisions and increasing their independent incomes. However, the changes may also make young women more vulnerable because parents and other senior relatives cannot, or will not, intervene in marital conflicts if they have not endorsed the marriage or the marriage rituals have not been completed.


Dorte Thorsen is Theme Leader on gender dynamics in the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium in the School of Global Studies. She is also Associate Tutor in Anthropology.

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