Women's Empowerment during Men's Absence due to Labor Migration in Nepal
by Ande Reisman - Doctoral Candidate in Sociology at the University of Washington
Labor migration is a common household survival strategy in developing regions1 and, as a result, it is increasingly common to have families of migrants that remain behind in their home countries while the migrant is abroad. Often it is men who migrate and it is their wives, children, and parents who remain behind.2 Research shows that female partners of male migrants assume new roles and responsibilities in their households and communities, an increase in labor that be burden some and creates pressure to demonstrate competence.3 Increased responsibilities can allow women access to new tasks, opportunities, earning, and community participation, which can reorder the logics and approach to household economics.4 New social orders may undermine traditional sources of household authority, create opportunity, and help empower women. My research explores how migration creates social opportunities that may empower women, but also strengthens social institutions that constrain them.
As women take on new tasks, including ones traditionally associated with power and control, it may not always translate into empowerment. Power is the ability or influence of an individual to make others help accomplish his or her own goals or aims.5 Control is the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims, even if others try to prevent that from happening. Control is like having power over oneself, or the ability to resist power against oneself, which is one way to define empowerment. How does empowerment emerge and how can it be measured? Is it best measured and understood as a specific interactional style, such as boldness? Is it structural and therefore associated with access or opportunities to social goods? Is it a belief-set that is internal to individuals? Various social science scholarship suggests that it is one, two, or all of these and their specific relationship, which varies by time and place.
My perspective is that interactions are structured such that available or acceptable ways a person can interact are related to the social structures they occupy. Like interactions, structures are structured because institutions are nested inside of one another such that a household exists within a community, region, and state (and a culture, religion, and so on). All of which are generally male-dominated. Meaning women’s gains in one arena do not usually foment broad changes to the other structures that the arena they control is nested within.6 These structures and interactions shape an individual’s reality, and, in turn, shape what people believe about themselves and others. All of this is context-dependence so specific forms of empowerment vary and change as larger structures do, such as during economic development, migration, conflict, political upheaval, or other macro-level shifts. Changes are not uniform; they vary across different social structures (such as ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, ability, or class).
My research examines how male absence due to migration affects women’s empowerment and gender equity. I conducted a 10-month research project in different regions of rural Nepal* in 2016-17 to understand what happens in a context characterized by high gender inequality when men leave for work? Does women handling customarily ‘male tasks’ impel changes towards gender equity? My ethnographic data draws from in-depth interviews with 85 people, focus group discussions with 80 people, and five home stays in multiple regions of Central Nepal, both in its low-lying agricultural flatlands and the terrace-agricultural
Nepal is a tropical mountainous country that is one of the poorest countries in Asia, ranking low (144th) on the UN’s Gender Empowerment Index.7 Migration is an increasingly common method of earning, between 2001 and 2011 the number of Nepalis abroad nearly doubled.8 Migrants primarily work in low-skilled or semi-skilled jobs to compensate for absent or low wages domestically.9 Traditionally, families have patriarchal arrangements, which shift when men migrate, because migrants are generally male, young, married, often with children, and from rural areas.10
Despite changes, women’s access to power and control are constrained by household and gender expectations. Women perform more numerous and varied tasks throughout the day. While men, when present, have more flexibility; their household tasks are often fewer in number but take longer, allowing them schedules dictated by periods of labor and leisure. Women had far fewer and shorter spells of leisure day-to-day. The uneven household division of labor is a social structure that persists and magnifies in men’s absence. The sheer volume of household labor leaves over half the women in my study feeling “work pressure” that is more acute when men migrate. Work burdens are a two-fold structure comprised of volume of tasks and the pressure to perform them well.
Men’s absence creates opportunities, including access to handling money and making decisions about spending.11 Many women step ably into the role of decision-makers, often with implicit or explicit support from their husbands, yet they downplayed their household power and decisions when asked. Such interactional forms are impression management, meaning a way of presenting oneself or one’s family to control perceptions by others as favorable and above all, normal.12
Some women spoke honestly about the marital dynamics that could accompany money decisions, despite the presence of structural constraints and interactional norms that foster impression management. Kali*, a 39-year old woman from the Tharu ethnic group shows empowered self-perceptions when explaining her husband’s control over her decisions. While Kali does not ask her husband, who was away for 15 years, about decisions like what to cook, she needed to ask about spending. “It comes to money; it’s all a matter of money. For instance, I bought my own Whisper [sanitary napkin], and when he found out he asked ‘how much did you spend?’Sometimes I feel a little uneasy when I don’t ask [his permission]. But I don’t think that we always should depend on our husbands, sometimes we should do what we want, too. I want to earn for myself so that I don’t need to depend on his money all the time.” Kali ’s empowered inner-self allows her to state a wish and meet a physical need, despite opposition and her husband’s power over her, interactionally and structurally through earning.
Kali’s experience reveals how the family structures women are embedded in constrain them. Yet, every woman in my study said women can only succeed with supportive families. Households maybe necessary to empower women, but increasingly reliance on women’s unpaid labor intensifies the association of women with the household in a constraining way. Nepali people support women’s empowerment, but often depict it as occurring beyond the household through additional labor or earning. Few imagine redistributing labor to foster gender equity inside the household. Migration promotes some forms of empowerment, often self-perceptual or interactional, but does not restructuring male-dominated characteristics of intuitions that disempower women. Migration is part of a development process and helps Nepali households economically, but it also sharpens the edges between constraint and opportunity, leaving women a narrow pathway within which to leverage control inside and beyond the household.
Ande Reisman is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology at the University of Washington and will defend her PhD in August 2018. Her dissertation is on the effects of male labor migration on women’s household decision-making and perspectives on gender equality and empowerment in Nepal. Her fieldwork in Nepal took place over 10 months with a Fulbright US Student grant in 2016-17. Broadly, her research interests lie in better understanding how individuals react to and understand social changes and their beliefs in instances where large-scalesocial changes alter patterns of action and everyday life. She is particularly interested in how social change relates to empowerment of women and those facing social oppression and to better tease out the forms empowerment and structural constraint takes.As an undergraduate Ande graduated Magna Cum Laude from Colgate University with a Bachelor of Arts in Peace and Conflict Studies and a minor in Middle Eastern Studies and Islamic Civilization.
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* Thanks to the US Department of State Fulbright Research Fellowship
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* A pseudonym
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