The International Labor Organization estimates there are over 150 million migrant workers in the world today (ILO). In the United States alone, approximately 27 million migrant workers participate in the labor force (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). The United States receives the majority of migrant workers from countries in the global south, predominantly Mexico, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam (Migration Policy Institute). In the past 20 years, male out-migration to the United States has become increasingly prominent. Male out-migration refers to men who move to another country and leave their families behind, often with the intention of sending money back home (McEvoy). Male out-migration is thought to benefit left-behind family members, who receive economic support through remittances. However, male out-migration creates harmful effects on the education, health, and social status of left-behind family members, specifically left-behind women (DéMurger). Overall, male out-migration to the United States significantly disadvantages those left behind, who endure financial strife, disrupted family life, and increased burdens (DéMurger).
When job opportunities are unavailable, families often turn to jobs in other countries as a source of income (Muniz, Li, Schleicher). Historically, labor migration has been a common strategy for families to increase wealth and achieve social mobility (McEvoy). In the Philippines, approximately 10 million native-born citizens, 10 percent of the country’s population, have moved to work in other countries (Hays). This group of workers are referred to as Overseas Filipino Workers, or OFWs (Hays). Besides Mexico, the Philippines sends more workers abroad than any other country, largely due to the Filipino government’s inability to provide enough jobs with fair wages (Hays). When male labor migrants move to the United States, they often leave behind their wives, children, and parents due to a variety of impeding factors (DéMurger). Strict migration policies, the high cost of travel, and general uncertainty surrounding the situation in the United States often gives labor migrants no choice but to leave their families behind (DéMurger). The impact on these left-behind family members varies between individual families and countries. Nonetheless, many case studies have revealed trends showing the grave social costs of male out-migration on left-behind family members, specifically left-behind women (DéMurger).
The primary, and arguably only, advantage to male out-migration is the additional source of income from remittances. This extra cash, sent by the migrant worker abroad to his family at home, can provide immediate relief to struggling families. In Mexico, remittances are one of the top sources of foreign income (Gillespie). According the the Central Bank of Mexico, Mexicans sent home $26.1 billion in 2017, with the majority of cash coming from family members working in the United States (Gillespie). When remittances are substancial and consistent, they have been linked to reducing child labor and increasing the likelihood that children will attend school (DéMurger). This is especially significant for young girls in third world countries, who are disproportionately kept out of school compared to boys (UNESCO). Additionally, remittances can improve the general well-being of families with increased health care, sanitation, and nutrition (DéMurger). Despite these benefits from remittances, there are severe social consequences to male out-migration that are often overlooked. The remainder of this paper will focus on the ways in which male out-migration disadvantages left-behind family members and specifically disadvantages left-behind women.
Although remittances can be beneficial, they do not significantly improve the financial situation of most left-behind women. A case study conducted in Southeastern Mexico found that for the majority of left-behind women, their financial situation worsened or remained the same after their husband migrated (McEvoy). More specifically, for the majority of households with at least one migrant worker, families found it difficult to meet their financial goals (McEvoy). A separate case study of a village in Western Sudan found that 37% of women whose husbands had migrated struggled to meet basic needs (Grawert). These poor financial situations are partially due to the irregularity of remittances. While some select women received large and consistent remittances that allowed them to improve their economic status, the majority of left-behind women received only small and sporadic remittances (McEvoy). The combination of the high cost of living in the United States coupled with the desire of male migrants to save money often causes remittances to be small and irregular (Grawert). Additionally, remittances are typically used to pay for immediate household needs including food and medical bills, rather than long-term savings (Grawert). Overall, several case studies have shown that for the majority of women, remittances are not a reliable nor adequate source of income.
Additionally, male out-migration causes significant disruptions to family life. First, the prolonged absence of a father figure in the household increases the likelihood that children will drop out of school (DéMurger). Second, a disrupted family life can lead to health problems including increased psychological problems and poor dieting (DéMurger). More significantly however, are the feelings of separation and abandonment many left-behind women experience while their husbands are abroad (McEvoy). These feelings can lead both spouses to commit infidelity, further disrupting their family lives. The study of the small farming community in Southeastern Mexico found that male-out migration increased the tendency of both men and women to cheat on their spouses (McEvoy). This trend may be explained by the patriarchal society in which women are forced to depend on women. In many societies where male-out migration occurs, women of all classes are considered inferior to men (Grawert). It can then be argued that when their husbands are away, women commit infidelity as a means of survival (McEvoy). Additionally, a study conducted in South Africa found a higher prevalence of HIV and other STDs in migrant families compared to non-migrant families (Sevoyan, Agadjanian). This study suggests that migrant workers and their spouses are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior than non-migrant workers and their spouses (Sevoyan, Agadjanian). This study produced a fear that women with migrant husbands would be unfaithful to their husbands. Consequently, the behavior of left-behind women came to be highly policed and scrutinized in small communities (McEvoy).
Moreover, within migrant families there is an increased responsibility on wives to both fulfill their traditional household responsibilities and work outside of the home to make up for lost income (DéMurger). When male out-migration occurs, women bear the entire responsibility for household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for left-behind children and parents (Ullah). In addition to these household responsibilities, left-behind women are burdened with making up for the lost income of the migrant husband (McEvoy). Because remittances can be small and sporadic, women are forced to seek additional income while their husbands are away (DéMurger). However, trying to find work outside of the home proves exceptionally difficult for many women, who live in patriarchal societies where they are expected to remain in the home, with no pay (McEvoy). Overall, left-behind women experience lowered income and prestige in society (Grawert).
In addition to individual disadvantages, male out-migration creates broader disadvantages for entire communities. In communities with high rates of male out-migration, a “culture of migration” develops (McEvoy). This culture perpetuates the idea that success is not attainable within one’s local community. Rather, the only path to success is migration to first world countries such as the United States (McEvoy). This perpetuates a trapped state of hopelessness for many residents of rural, third world communities. Additionally, when migration is the only perceived form of success, it reduces the incentives for young people to complete their education (McEvoy). Because the future returns on a local education are so low, many youth decide to drop out of school and instead, begin earning an income. While this is not necessarily a negative effect, it can prohibit social mobility in the future. With each additional year of education, a person’s projected income increases by an average of 10% in developing, low-income countries (UNICEF). This statistic proves that completing an education is the more economically advantageous choice in the long run. However, when youth are discouraged from completing their education by a culture of migration, entire communities are stunted and cannot achieve social mobility.
Male out-migration causes severe negative effects on left-behind family members, specifically women. This paper illuminates only some of the struggles these women face when their husbands migrate, including economic strife, disrupted family life, and increased burdens. Although male out-migration to the United States may seem advantageous, it is important to realize the negative effects this trend has on marginalized groups of people, specifically women.
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