Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Gender and generation: understanding the dynamics of migrant households

Conversation initiated by project coordinator Dorte Thorsen, University of Sussex

Last year Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium invited four teams to design a piece of research with us with the purpose of exploring how migration, gender and generation intersect at the household level. Now we are in the beginning of producing empirical evidence in Ethiopia, Ghana, Senegal and Zimbabwe. We have designed a project to unpack complex and multi-layered household dynamics within the family who remain back home. In addition to understanding household complexities better, we also aim to discern whether there are marked differences between migration to places that are accessible, low-cost and often linked with low financial return (internal/cross-border migration) and migration to places with higher entry barriers, high costs and expectations of high financial returns (international migration). In this blog the four lead researchers explain what they find particularly interesting and what they think will provide new insight to migration scholarship in their respective countries.

The most exciting aspects of the study

Benoît Tine: Migration is in the news constantly and yet there are so many myths surrounding the departure, the journey and the experience of living in another place that the diversity of experiences, norms, reasonings, barriers and opportunities disappear out of view. This is why the comparative aspect of this study really enthuses me.

Vupenyu Dzingirai: To me, the linking of migration and remittances to reciprocity across gender and generation within households and across generations is a beautiful proposition. In Zimbabwean scholarship we have looked at migration as driven by external factors since the 1970s, ignoring the fact that household dynamics could be at play as well. The idea that migrants migrate and send remittances because they are required to do so by custom is so simple but it had got hidden behind structuralist ideas. I look forward to bring it back in play.

Akosua Darkwah: One of the aspects that I find particularly interesting is the interrogation of the generational/gender attitudes towards migration. Much is made in Ghana of age hierarchies and the importance of respect for elders but we are finding that increasingly young people, and particularly young women from Northern Ghana, are undermining the status quo and choosing to move with or without the permission of the patriarch. In some cases, young women receive approval and financial support from mothers to embark on their journeys. Now we want to examine this trend further and explore siblings’ attitudes towards migration. When fathers are disapproving of the migration intentions of their daughters for example, can that also be said of brothers?  And what is the role of sisters?

Adamnesh Bogale: Yes, likewise I’m really excited about exploring intergenerational relationships in much more detail. This is a new angle on migration in Ethiopia. Until now migration research has mostly concentrated on push and pull factors motivating migration and on the plight of migrants. By understanding the situation of young people and children within their household, and in light of intergenerational dynamics, I hope we get more insights into how young people can be empowered.

Akosua Darkwah: There is also the exponential increase in cell phone usage in Africa. This communication tool has fundamentally reshaped communication within and across the continent. Unlike letter writing or its more contemporary alternative, email, which requires literacy often in one of the major languages of the world, cell phones are more accessible. What cell phones have meant for love and sexual intimacies in transnational social fields has been under-explored and the evidence available so far offers conflicting perspectives on what information and communication technologies have meant for long-distance intimate relationships. This project in different countries across the continent allows for a more nuanced investigation of the ways in which information and communication tools can be at once liberating and oppressive.

The impact of migration on young women and men, as migrants and as stayers

Adamnesh Bogale: In Ethiopia, women are deprived of many opportunities because of social structures that make them inferior to men and define them through the domestic and reproductive roles they gradually assume. For some, migration is a route of escape from restraining norms that reduce young women’s safety and success. In my view, migration has a significant impact on women’s empowerment. For stayers, on the other hand, migration of a family member that is dear to the young person can fuel a sense of loss and grief. Practically, they may also be burdened with additional work or responsibility that before was untaken by the migrant.

Benoît Tine: This sense of loss is not just the experience of stayers. When migrants leave their rural homes in search of a future, they leave behind a whole history, a whole part of themselves. But, of course, it is double-sided. The fact that young and dynamic people with the ability to understand development issues disappear from the rural landscape leaves behind a weakened community.

Vupenyu Dzingirai: Well, I don’t think we can fully appreciate what migration is doing until we understand the current position of women. Similar to the situation Adamnesh described in Ethiopia, women in Zimbabwe do not enjoy the same rights as male siblings. In some instances, daughters are considered a waste because they move away from their family upon marriage, so no investment is made in their education and they are not considered deserving of the right of settlement, only sons are. In my view, it is very clear that migration provides opportunities for young people and women to work and raise resources for multiple purposes, most importantly to make a stake in their lineage; to receive the respect of elders and parents; and thus, to negotiate a social position imbued with stronger rights and status.

Akosua Darkwah: The importance of exploring gender differences cannot be underestimated but I think we need to take an intersectional approach and incorporate a class dimension to this discussion. If we compare young migrants from middle and upper middle-income homes and from low-income homes, the outcome of migration is very different. The former group often migrate to further their education in areas of specialization that may or may not necessarily exist in their home countries. Increasingly, such migrants either become transmigrants or return migrants. The impact of their migration on both themselves and those left behind is fundamentally different, in my opinion, from the situation of low-income migrants. They might be better able to improve their circumstances when migrating than would have been the case if they had stayed at home. However, it is unclear just how much of a positive impact their migrant status makes, especially if we think about the social costs of migration in terms of the social remittances that stayers have to send to migrants.

The research project is coordinated by Dorte Thorsen, Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium, University of Sussex. 

The lead researchers are:
Adamnesh Bogale, School of Social Work / OSSREA, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia
Akosua Darkwah, Department of Sociology / CMS, University of Ghana
Benoît Tine, Département de Sociologie de l’Université Assane Seck de Ziguinchor, Senegal
Vupenyu Dzingirai, Centre for Applied Social Sciences / ACMS, University of Zimbabwe

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