Introduction Introduction Chapter 5 Chapter 5
Chapter 1 Chapter 1 Notes for Indicators Notes
Chapter 2 Chapter 2 Noties for quotations Notes for quotations
Chapter 3 Chapter 3 Notes for boxes Notes for boxes
Chapter 4 Chapter 4 Indicators Indicators
CHAPTER 2 Printer Friendly printer friendly version
Chapter 1 A Mighty but Silent River:
Women and Migration

Globalization and the Migration of Women

Millions of Faces, Many Experiences

The Socio-economic Implications of the Migration of Women

The Migration Experience: Seizing Opportunities, Overcoming Obstacles

The Socio-economic Implications of the Migration of Women


Despite a paucity of data, one thing is clear: The money that female migrants send back home can raise families and even entire communities out of poverty. Of the more than US$1 billion in remittances sent back to Sri Lanka in 1999, women contributed over 62 per cent of the total.(56) Of the roughly US$6 billion remitted annually to the Philippines in the late 1990s, migrant women transferred one third.(57) Because they typically receive less pay for equal work (or are employed in sectors that offer poor remuneration), the total women remit may be less in comparison to men. Available data, however, shows that women send a higher proportion of their earnings-regularly and consistently.(58)

A 2000 study by the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) shows that Bangladeshi women working in the Middle East send home 72 per cent of their earnings on average.(59) The same study reveals that 56 per cent of female remittances were used for daily needs, health care or education-a pattern which reflects the spending priorities of migrant women elsewhere.(60) This is largely because women are more inclined to invest in their children than men, and, in more traditional societies, they tend to lack control over financial decision-making, assets and property.(61)

Men, on the other hand, tend to spend remittance income on consumer items, such as cars and television sets, and for investments, such as property and livestock.(62) One study of Ghanaian migrant women in Toronto, however, revealed that many were planning to build homes in their country of origin (56 per cent had already begun the process).(63) In the Dominican Republic, another survey found that 100 per cent of the women returning from Spain established their own businesses.(64)

Remittances would have an even greater role in poverty reduction and development if women did not face wage, employment, credit and property discrimination and if they were not excluded from decision-making within the family and in hometown organizations. Another deterrent for poorer women is that traditional banks tend to charge hefty user fees. Some institutions are working to lower transfer costs and are enabling women to retain control over their remittances and further their uses for productive activities and development. These include Fonkoze, the Haitian alternative bank whose clientele is 96 per cent women;(65) ADOPEM in the Dominican Republic, an affiliate of the Women's World Banking Network;(66) the Inter American Development Bank (IADB);(67) and the Bangladeshi Ovhibashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA), established by returning migrant women.(68)

The international community has also been looking more closely at the issue of female migrant remittances in order to understand how best to maximize their contributions for socio-economic development. This includes recent efforts by INSTRAW and UNFPA to strengthen research and policy dialogue.(69)


Beyond financial remittances, the social remittances of migrant women (ideas, skills, attitudes, knowledge, etc.) can also boost socio-economic development and promote human rights and gender equality. Migrant women who send money transmit a new definition of what it means to be female. This can affect how families and communities view women.(70) Women abroad also play a role when it comes to promoting the rights of their counterparts back home. A good example of this is the vigorous lobbying undertaken by Afghan expatriate women to promote greater female participation in the new constitution of their home country.(71) In Belgium, Congolese expatriates supported their countrywomen in the struggle for increased National Assembly representation in the first-ever free elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.(72)

Women living abroad often acquire attitudes, opinions and knowledge that can lead to enhanced family health in the home country. A World Bank report attributes improved child health and lower mortality rates to the health education that female migrants receive while living abroad. This was found to hold true for families in Guatemala, Mexico and Morocco. Furthermore, these health benefits are more likely to result when mothers migrate as opposed to fathers.(73)

Collective remittances-those pooled by diaspora associations-are rarely aimed explicitly at improving the lives of women. One exception is the Netherlands Filipino Association Overseas. Members provide collective remittances to support poor women through micro-credit programmes and the development of small enterprises.(74) Another is an association of Mexican expatriates in the United States that sends funds to Michoacan State in Mexico. The local Government uses these donations to train women to produce school uniforms that are then sold to the Chamber of Commerce for distribution throughout the country.(75) In general, however, as research into Latin American migrant hometown associations in the United States demonstrates, migrant women are often excluded from decision-making both on the sending and receiving end. Men manage most of the associations in host and destination countries, while women take on secretarial, fundraising and event organizing roles.(76)

As more women migrate abroad, increasing numbers are establishing their own migrant networks that are transferring skills and resources and are sparking transformations in traditional notions of appropriate gender roles.(77) In Germany, self-organized immigrant women's groups have been instrumental in battling trafficking, fighting racism and advocating for the independent legal status of migrant spouses.(78) Women's groups also successfully lobbied authorities to make forced marriage illegal among the country's 2.5 million Turkish immigrants.(79) Through IOM's Migration for Development in Africa programme, Guinean women living overseas are assisting impoverished women back home to develop and establish micro-enterprises.(80) Since 1993, African women living in France have formed a network of migrant associations that aims to facilitate integration into host societies and improve the quality of life in countries of origin.(81)


Migration can transform the traditional private and public roles of men and women. The relationship between migration and gender equality is, however, complex. While experiences vary, women who migrate alone (rather than as part of a family), who enter the country legally and work outside the home, are more likely to report a positive experience-especially if the move is permanent.(82)

Where women migrate for family reunification, over-zealous relatives may restrict social relations in an attempt to preserve cultural identity and "honour". This is particularly difficult for women and girls who have left behind an extended network of female relatives and friends on whom they can rely for emotional support. This kind of cultural isolation is more likely to occur among immigrant families and communities who feel marginalized and believe their cultural identity is being challenged by the dominant host society.

For many other migrant women, however, the migration experience is so positive that they may be reluctant to return home for fear of having to relinquish their new-found autonomy. Male migrants, on the other hand, are sometimes more likely to express the desire to return.(83) Studies of migrants from the Dominican Republic(84) and Mexico(85) living in the United States illustrate the point. While work can hold the key to increased independence for women, their husbands may face downward mobility and wind up in lower-skill jobs. Women migrants were also found to be more likely to integrate faster, owing to contact with local institutions (such as schools and social services), and were more likely to become US citizens.(86)

When a male head of household migrates abroad, some women gain a greater say in how household funds are used even though they are still dependent on remittances.(87) In Kerala, India, for example, women who stayed behind reported that remittances from their husbands in the Gulf States raised their authority and status: 70 per cent had opened their own bank accounts, 40 per cent had their own income, and half held land or homes in their own names.(88)

However, when remittances are meagre or dry up altogether, women compensate for lost income-usually through paid work or the establishment of a small business. Despite additional stress and responsibility, this, too, can lead to greater autonomy and status. During the 1980s and 1990s, as destination country economies contracted and remittance income dried up, African women took control of farming and contributed more to family income.(89) However, when immigrant husbands abandon their wives altogether, the consequences can be dire-particularly where women are stigmatized for being alone, barred from owning property and land, or are unable to secure work.

Migration affects traditional male roles as well. A study of former Bangladeshi male migrants to Singapore revealed that, once home-and contrary to customary practice-many selected their own wives, and, in some cases, treated them in a more equitable manner based on overseas experience.(90) When men are left behind, they, too, can adjust to and accept new roles. One study of migrant Indonesian females found that many reported that their husbands were more respectful and took greater responsibility for childcare.(91) In the United States, husbands of Dominican migrants were more likely to help with household chores and spend more time at home rather than with friends.92 Nonetheless, for men who stay behind, the migration of their wives can also be an affront to traditional notions of male identity and authority.