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A gender perspective

An important dynamic of the link between emigration and labour supply is played out at the gender level. Women left behind may be obliged to take on roles traditionally held by men, and if there are children in the household, they will be required to tend to their well-being as well as household management - quite apart from working to earn a living.

Using data on agricultural households in Burkina Faso, Wouterse (2008) argues that changes in the gender ratio (and consequently on gender roles) affect the productive efficiency of the household. For instance, if surplus male labour is shifted from agricultural work (in this study, South-South migration to Cote d'Ivoire), efficiency increases; in contrast, if the most productive men leave (in this study, South-North migration to Europe), efficiency decreases because women are moved from roles in which they were complementary to ones that are substitutes for men because of the internal shortage of labour.

Men are not the only ones who emigrate. The emigration of any spouse, male or female, usually leads to the other half of the partnership working less (see Airola, 2008; Amuedo-Dorantes and Pozo, 2006a; Hanson, 2007a and 2007b for Mexico, Acosta, 2006 and 2007 for El Salvador). But in general, women decrease their labour supply more than men when the household receives remittances. This is linked with an increase in their reservation wage, leading women to spend more time on household management and child-rearing rather than working and generating income. While women may diminish the amount of time they spend working in officially reported activities, they do increase the time spent in unreported household activities. Evidence of this phenomenon is found in Albania (Carletto and Mendola, 2009) and Moldova (Gorlich et al., 2007).

When their spouses leave, women may tend to take on many activities - including formal and informal work. Remittances simply allow them to give some of them up, offering a more flexible work schedule and enabling them to focus only on necessary work. Many household activities fall on women who move their time from working in the waged labour market to tending to children and also home care. Studies, for instance, have documented the fact that remittances to households with children keep women at home and induce their transition from paid work to self-employment (Cabegin, 2006 in Albania; Glinskaya and Lokshin, 2009 in Nepal). Cabegin (2006) gives the presence of young children in the household as an explanation; high household dependency ratios means the outflow of adults to emigration increases unreported work in the household in tending to childcare.

The decrease in labour supply, together with the fact that women usually become heads of households while husbands are away, often leads to a gain of relative intra-household power in favour of women as they now control household finances. A different set of social circumstances occurs however when women leave (see Box 4.2).

Box 4.2. Care drain and family disintegration

In what is being termed the "care drain", many women from developing countries are leaving their household behind to care for children or the elderly in richer countries (Ehrenreich and Hochschild, 2003). Several socio-economic and political factors explain this (D'Cunha, 2005; Fudge, 2010; Oishi, 2005):

  • - Demographic factors push more middle-class women to enter the labour market and increase the need for care-givers in both developed countries and also emerging countries in Asia and Latin America;
  • - Growing business competition has increased the pressure of working, making balancing work and family responsibilities difficult, as well as inducing change in family structures;
  • - The increasing marketisation of care in developed countries combined with the segmentation of the labour market has created a demand for migrant care workers;
  • - The global economy is generating a class of "new rich", in both developed and emerging countries, with the means to afford migrant domestic workers.

The growing demand for domestic helper and child care services is met through international migration of women from developing countries. Care work seems to be "women-specific": "Women are perceived as naturally imbued with the nurturing and domestic abilities needed for care-giving and domestic work" (D'Cunha, 2005). On the supply side, women, like male workers, migrate to support their families but also to realise their own aspirations.

In many cases, the impact of parental absence is negative, affecting the critical areas of health, education, social relations and family cohesion (GFMD, 2010). In particular, parental migration has a social and emotional cost on children left behind, who are likely to experience a destructured family, without a clear source of the authority, guidance and care indispensable for their emotional stability. The long-term absence of parents can also lower the educational opportunities of children left behind (Jampaklay, 2006). It is usually the poorest who are most affected by family disintegration as they do not have the financial means to move the entire household together (Ratha et al., 2011).

Parental migration affects not only the family but also the community at large. First, it can engender juvenile delinquency. Children left behind seem more susceptible to risky behaviour (consumption of drugs and alcohol), teenage pregnancy and violent behaviour. Juvenile delinquency affects the entire society and weakens its social cohesion. Second, the community can be affected by social changes brought about by migration. Third, teachers and community leaders have to carry the burden of caring for the children. The aggregate impact of the care drain in countries with high rates of emigration adds to this burden: there is a lack of competent people to supervise children and the care workers who remain in the community are overloaded.

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