Empowered by Absence: Does male out-migration empower female household heads left behind?
Women from households with male migrants are more likely to own assets than women from non-immigrant households; however, there is no improvement in their decision-making over productive use of resources.
Although there is a large body of literature that has studied the effects of migration on the family left behind, only a small fraction has focused on the effects of male emigration on women’s empowerment.
What happens when a man out-migrates – that is, moves away from his home (domestically or internationally), often in search of economic opportunity – and a woman becomes the head of the household? In what way does it change family dynamics? Does it improve conditions for women? This study’s authors aimed to answer these questions in Bangladesh, one of the world’s leading exporters of labor and a nation that is experiencing increasing rural-urban migration.
Specifically, this paper evaluates whether the absence of a male head of household empowers the women left behind in rural Bangladesh. For this study, empowerment was measured using eight indicators: ownership over major and minor assets, control over minor household expenses, decision-making power regarding agricultural and non-agricultural activities, family planning, maintaining contacts, freedom of mobility, and emancipation from domestic violence. The paper utilizes data from the 2011-2012 Bangladesh Integrated Household Survey, which is a nationally representative instrument that includes a Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI).
Although women left behind enjoyed greater ownership of assets, there was no improvement in their decision-making authority over the utilization of those resources.
- Women in households with primary male migrants had 18.6% more ownership of assets compared to non-migrant households.
- Women left behind were found to have 17.6% greater autonomy over their physical mobility.
- Compared to women in non-migrant households, women in households with primary male migrants also saw a 15.1% increase in control over minor household expenditures; a 13.1% increase in ownership of minor assets; and an 8.5% reduction in domestic violence.
The paper indicates that women from households with primary male migrants are more likely to own major and minor assets than women from non-migrant households, but the lack of decision power over the productivity of such resources raises questions over the long-term effects. Thus, while women enjoyed greater ownership of resources, this did not necessarily translate to greater decision-making authority over the use of those resources.
Overall, migration of the primary male did, on average, empower the women left behind in rural Bangladesh by providing them with opportunities to manage assets and finances, and the right to exercise greater physical autonomy. Previous studies in other countries have produced mixed findings of female empowerment due to male out-migration, which remains context and country-specific.
The authors analyzed a dataset from the 2011–2012 Bangladesh Integrated Household Survey (BIHS) published by the International Food Policy Research Institute. It is a comprehensive and nationally representative survey of rural Bangladeshis containing a Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture (WEAI) module. The indicators selected for the study were: (i) ownership of major assets, (ii) ownership of minor assets, (iii) control over minor household expenditures, (iv) productive empowerment indicative of decision-making power regarding agricultural and non-agricultural activities, (v) family planning to limit or space out births, (vi) maintaining contacts, (vii) freedom of mobility, and (viii) emancipation from domestic violence by a spouse and other household members.
The sample consisted of 6,500 households, of which 5,503 were nationally representative, from 325 primary sampling units. Five hundred and fifty-eight households with primary male migrants, where the majority of migrant husbands contributed to household income and where women identified themselves as the household head in the absence of the primary male, were used in the final analysis. The primary independent variable studied was a binary indicator for domestic or international migration of the primary male household member.