Monday, 5 June 2017

Remittances and the gendered dynamics of resource distribution in multi-local households

By Dorte Thorsen

The idea that women are more altruistic than men is common across migration and development studies, particularly when the focus is on migrants’ inclination to support the family back home or on the allocation of resources within households. What produces this difference in women’s and men’s disposition has rarely been explored by migration scholars. A new working paperin the Migrating out of Poverty series unpacks some of the ways in which gender, migration and remittances intersect with norms shaping conjugal and inter-generational relationships.

In contrast to most studies of remittances and their impact on communities of origin which relate to international migration and by implication less poor households, this study focuses on internal migration from northern Ghana to greater Accra. It captures the migration practices of poorer households and examines links between resource allocation, social standing and empowerment.

For a long time men from northern Ghana have engaged in circular migration to work temporarily in southern Ghana when rain-fed farming was insufficient to meet all their needs or they wanted to open their eyes to other ways of living. Over time migration patterns have become more diverse with some migrants settling and other categories of people beginning to migrate. Thus, it has become pertinent to explore gendered and generational dimensions of the sending and receiving of remittances.

Male responsibilities in the family

In Ghana men are constructed as heads of households and breadwinners responsible for providing the staple food needed to feed the family. This bread winning role has been a significant driver of male migration from rural communities, not least because of the persistent poverty experienced in northern Ghana.

The findings presented in the paper show that married migrant men generally meet their responsibilities to their wife/wives and children. A husband either sends remittances for consumption to his spouse if she and the children remain in northern Ghana or prioritises their needs over those of his parents if they live with him in Accra. Unmarried migrant men tend to give precedence to saving up money for larger projects such as constructing a house and marrying over sending remittances for consumption back home. Nonetheless, plenty of migrant men – married or not – show their parents gratitude and respect through the sending of remittances. Due to the transfer of cash remittances fathers of migrants are able to sustain some of their responsibilities as providers.

While it is clear from this research that remittances impact positively on men’s social standing, the analytical gaze could be extended over time and to include a broader set of productive and reproductive resources. An abundance of ethnographic studies from northern Ghana have demonstrated that men are not only responsible for the household but also for the reproduction of the lineage. As the rights in children follows the father’s lineage, household heads have a stake in their sons’ marriages. If they are unable to furnish the required bridewealth and material conditions to ensure a successful marriage for their sons, they may forego controlling their sons’ labour and what follows from it, for example remittances. In this scenario, fathers accept that the social reproduction of the lineage takes precedence over the day-to-day reproduction of the household.

Female responsibilities in multiple families

Married women are constructed as carers responsible for the day-to-day reproduction of the family, including the provision of sauce ingredients and extra staples to make the meals tasty, nutritious, and sufficient. Though women and men maintain separate economic spheres, norms about conjugality ensure that women contribute significantly to household consumption.

The findings presented in the paper reveal that when married women migrate leaving behind the husband, they often do so to make up for his shortcomings as a breadwinner. Migrant women almost never challenge the husband’s role as breadwinner by sending remittances to him. Instead they redistribute their earnings to their parents, especially if their children have been sent to live with their maternal grandparents. Unmarried migrant women regularly send goods and cash to their parents to support household subsistence and siblings’ education. Most remittances for consumption are send directly to the mother, so despite losing the labour of their daughters that would otherwise free mature women to do more farm or income generating work, mothers of migrants can expect regular but small contributions towards household consumption which might be exceed what they could earn in northern Ghana.

The paper points out that migrant women’s preference for sending remittances to their natal family is embedded in norms about pooling resources to meet consumption needs and fears that the husband will use remittances to court another woman. But it is also true that residence patterns upon marriage in northern Ghana means the young wife moves to her husband’s household, which may be part of an extended household headed by his father. Once she is there, she contributes her labour and food resources to the common good of her marital household. However, this link breaks once she migrates and while her mother may gain resources from her migration, her mother-in-law misses out.

Negotiating social statuses through remittances

The analysis explains how migrant women gain social standing and increasingly are included in decision-making processes within their natal household as a result of their contributions to the household’s well being. 

This raises interesting questions such as, would migrant women gain social standing equally in the husband’s household if they redistributed their earnings to the husband, his father or mother? The answer is, probably not. On the one hand they might be seen as mounting a critique of the husband and his family’s ability to provide, and on the other hand, their contribution might be perceived as nothing more than any wife’s responsibility. Affectionate ties may also lead migrant women to choose to consolidate their social standing in their natal household and lineage regardless of whether they are married or not. Yet, equally important, in my view, is the fact that women depend on their parents and brothers in case of marital problems or if they need assistance that the husband or in-laws do not provide. Moreover children cherish special relations with their mother’s brothers which may be of value for accessing different resources later in life. The redistribution of resources to a woman’s own kin may thus provide her and her children with more security.

Men also negotiate status and social standing through the sending, receiving or waiving of remittances. While young men ensure their transition to adulthood through marrying, they can only save up the necessary money if their father waives control over their labour. Possibly this change has repercussions on the age hierarchy because the younger generation of men become materially responsible for their own marriage from the very beginning and thus channel more resources to their own conjugal unit. As a consequence, the reproduction of the lineage may gradually undermine elderly men’s control over resources. 

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