By Julie Litchfield
“I have observed that the sending patterns of men and women are influenced by the social obligations that society places on them. Women are more organised and send food and clothes regularly. My son does not remit any goods during the year; he sends us money and groceries during the Christmas holiday as he argues that life is also difficult for him. I have interpreted this behaviour as rather being irresponsible and forgetting his African roots”
Fieldwork participant, Zimbabwe, 2013
This provocative statement was made by one of our fieldwork participants during research led by our partners at CASS in 2013. The sentiment was echoed in similar statements that suggested that “women are the saviours of the family”, less likely to forget their families at home, and more likely to send a range of cash and goods, food, clothes, books and medicine, than male migrants. These observations run contrary to a widely held view that migrant women tend to remit less than men – that is fewer of them remit and when they do, they send less than men.
In a paper that explores remittances of international migrants from eighteen low- and middle-income countries, Orozco et al find that women remit lower amounts than men and they argue on this basis that this reflects the broader global pattern of remittances by women. This is usually explained by the poorer economic opportunities facing women migrants, that women earn less at destination than men and therefore have less money left over after covering essential expenditure. In a more recent study, Niimi and Reilly find little evidence that gender differences in remittances are attributable to behavioural differences between men and women in Vietnam. Instead, they argue that gender differences in labour market earnings are more important in explaining the overall gender gap in the remittance levels.
This apparent paradox between what our research participants are telling us and what the academic and policy community believe led us to take a closer look at remittances received by households from their migrant members.
Firstly, it’s important to consider what we mean by remittances. Remittances are usually defined as the small monetary transfers that international migrants send home. But of course, migrants send more than money home, as the quote from our Zimbabwean household shows. And as this entertaining video by Mikey Bustos shows about the Filipino “Balikbayan Box”. The African Migration Surveys collected by the World Bank widen the remittance definition to include goods sent or taken home by the migrant and ask households to value good received as well as report of the value of cash received.
Our analysis of this data reveals that not only is the value of goods sent home substantial but that women migrants appear to have a stronger preference for sending goods rather than cash compared to men. What appears as a gender gap in remittances when only monetary transfers are measured, diminishes or even disappears in some countries when in-kind remittances are measured.
These two graphs below illustrate the case of Kenya (Burkina Faso shows a very similar pattern). We can see that women are less likely to send cash than men, and send smaller amounts of cash. But when we take into account the value of in-kind remittances the gap all but disappears.
The gender remittance gap, Kenya 2009
Kenyan Shillings in 2009 values
While this more inclusive definition of remittances adopted in the African Migration Surveys reveals that perhaps women do not after all send less home than men; it may still yet underestimate remittance flows because of what is included in the list of goods that might be sent home. Rather than food and clothing, highlighted in our fieldwork, the surveys focus on relatively large and costly goods, covering household appliances, business equipment and transport. Another survey, of remittances sent home from the Netherlands by migrants from Surinam, shows that the most frequent items sent home were food and clothing, and that large items were relatively rare.
Our Migrating out of Poverty household surveys provide rich detail on the remittance sending behaviour of migrants and for Zimbabwe we have data on over a thousand migrants. Our definition of remittances includes not just cash but a wide range of goods, from food and clothing, medicine and school supplies, to larger consumer goods, farm inputs and business equipment, received by the household over the twelve months prior to the survey in 2015.
Almost 75% of goods sent home are food, with clothing representing around 15% of the type of items migrants are sending home. When we compare the value of cash and goods sent home by gender we see that the initial gap in cash remittances is reduced when we include goods. In fact, it appears that women migrants from Zimbabwe send almost as much in goods as they do in cash while men have a stronger preference for cash.
The gender remittance gap, Zimbabwe 2015
US Dollars in 2015 values
Our econometric modelling of remittances suggests that once we control for characteristics of migrants such as their age and education, women remit home with the same probability as men and that the total amount they send home is the same as for men. That means, once we control for factors that might determine economic opportunities at destination, then there is no behavioural difference between men and women. Moreover, our analysis shows that this stronger preference by women for sending goods compared to men is significant: women send a greater share of their remittances in the form of goods than do men.
How might we explain this? One possible explanation is cost. Women in our sample are slightly more likely to be outside of Zimbabwe than men, and transactions costs in sending cash across borders are high. The World Bank estimates that remittances costs along many African corridors are above 10 percent, due to a combination of low volumes and slow uptake of technology in fairly under-developed financial markets. But the difference in migrant destinations is too small to provide a complete explanation. More likely we believe is that there are gendered norms and customs which govern remittance behaviour and that women seek to navigate these norms by sending home goods as a form of controlling how remittances are used and by whom. In a relatively patriarchal society such as Zimbabwe, where land ownership and inheritance practices generally favour sons over daughters, incentives to send cash for investing in the family asset base may be weaker for women, while exerting strong pressures on men to send cash.
We will continue to investigate these questions with a re-survey of our Zimbabwean households in 2018 along with more qualitative work to tease out the nuances of why migrants remit and the decision-making processes involved in how remittances are used.
This research was conducted in collaboration with Farai Jena and Pierfrancesco Rolla at the University of Sussex and Vupenyu Dzingirai, Patience Mutopo, and Kefasi Nyikahadzoi at CASS.