Settled to Move: The Decision to Migrate and its Associated Risks

31 Dec 2007


This study aims at examining the needs and pattern of mobility and migration and its impact on women who stay at their place of origin or who move to the place of destination. The research also examines their levels of associated risks including socio-psychological problems, with such decisions.

Research studies on migration are often not gender neutral. They end up utilizing models of migration based on the experience of men. Women, even if considered, are treated as dependents and their contributions are ignored.1 A gender perspective on migration is pertinent because a sizeable number of migrants in India are women and even women who stay behind while their spouses migrate face immense challenges and changes in their lives.

It is commonly thought that migration is predominantly a male activity with women in a subservient role having no say in either migrating with their spouse or being left behind. Migration and mobility have been explained so far as a component of the familial strategies of survival and development. Understanding gender is critical in the migration context. Migration studies have traditionally emphasized the causes of migration over questions of who migrates; they have often failed to adequately address gender-specific migration experiences. The responsibilities of women as wives and mothers (and the role of men as breadwinners) were thought to influence the decisions of women. These gendered responsibilities were believed to explain why women were less likely than men to participate in migration decisions. The development of new economic concepts and theories that emphasized the importance of the family or the household as the primary site of decision making was also criticized for effectively substituting the rational, calculating individual with a rational, calculating household. Critics note that family/household decisions and actions do not represent unified and equally beneficial outcomes for all members. This is because families and households, as units where production and redistribution take place, represent centers of struggle where people with different activities and interests can come into conflict with one another. When placed within ongoing power relations that operate in families and households, such diverse interests and activities strongly suggest that the interests of men and women in families do not always coincide and may affect decisions about who manages to migrate, for how long, and to what destinations.

In developing countries like India, rural to urban migration is the most dominant form of internal migration. Rural–rural movements are mainly over short distances, while rural–urban migrants cover greater distances, often traveling to different states. Urban areas attract migrants from rural areas because urban labour market offers better paid jobs, opportunities to learn new skills and provide avenues to enhance lifestyles. This is not to say that migrants are always able to become upwardly mobile; many migrants live in appalling conditions and work in the informal sector which offers uncertain and underpaid work. Whatever may be the situations for migrants, migration definitely signifies change. It not only involves change in their usual place of origin/residence to the place of destination but also economic, social, cultural and psychological changes.

The concept of migration is now viewed with much wider dimension than what has been conceptualized conventionally. Early studies on migration showed that most migrants were young men. But migration streams have become highly diverse and there is no uniform pattern. In the Indian context, women in the migrant households do play an important role in family survival but unfortunately they remain invisible in the official data. The national level large scale surveys are unable to capture the reality due to certain shortcomings. The respondents are required to give only one reason for migration and in the case of women invariably the reason for migration is identified with marriage. Due largely to unclear data, no policy measures are directed to alleviate the sufferings of these migrant women who lack even basic amenities in the destination area.

Women who are left at home as their husbands migrate also experience changes in their role. The stay-at-home spouses may now have greater household and economic responsibilities. Hugo2 states that in the absence of husbands overall status of women improves as they have greater access to money which they can spend as they wish; they have the freedom of movement; they can take independent decisions regarding the education of their children and type of treatment to be given to them if they fall sick.

Although they may be financially dependent on remittances from their husbands, the women may have substantial autonomy over decisions about how the funds will be used. Should their husbands not return home, or stop sending remittances, the women may have to assume even greater responsibility for themselves and their children. Nevertheless, absence of husband makes the life of a wife difficult. Her workload increases as she has to take care of several other things, which culturally are done by men. Apart from doing the regular household chores and taking care of children, she has to work in agricultural fields, look after the livestock, and manage all the outdoor work. In other respects, migration can serve to reinstate traditional gender roles.

Some studies (Carlier, 1999; Azarcon, 2000; Mishra, 2002; Luire, 2003) have also found that migrants who are settled with their families often have less risky sexual behaviour than those migrants who migrate without their families. The more people move the faster AIDS and other STDs can spread because migrants become carriers of such infections and they expose their wives to such infections whenever they visit home. AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) spread faster in a population when it becomes more mobile and women may be silent victims of it. Studies on sexual and reproductive health of the migrant population also need a gender perspective.

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