How does male absence due to migration change women’s lives?

This summer I have been working on tying up some loose ends on one of the empirical chapters from my dissertation. In this chapter I use a national level dataset and original qualitative interviews to establish how the effect of prolonged male absence due to migration on women’s political lives. Last summer I conducted over 20 interviews with residents and elites in Araria, Bihar. These interviews were conducted over the phone. I also used the Indian Human Development Study survey (2005-06 and 2011-12) to provide broad level trends on how women’s lives change when their husbands migrate in one wave and not the other.

Most broadly I find that male migration improves women’s substantive political empowerment. Women experience and increase in political participation in the absence of their migrant husbands. It is accompanied by rising mobility which improves their access to information and networks. The magnitude of the exposure effect is almost 50 times the increase due to other drivers like education. Contrary to existing theories, I also find evidence that women partake equally in decisions made within the household int he absence of their primary male gatekeeper. The effect is 9.5 times the size of the increase due to an additional year of education.

The effects remain stable even after controlling for her relative status that includes whether or not she is part of a joint family. These results show that male migration signicantly improves women’s substantive empowerment within and outside the household. Probing further into how the temporary nature of migration affects women’s empowerment I find that these gains are short-term and mirror the circular nature of their husband’s migration. In fact, the duration of exposure to migration has no effect on their empowerment levels once their husbands return.

With the qualitative interviews I expand on our understanding of women’s political participation by providing a descriptive account of the range of participation repertoires they engage in. I find that in the absence of their husbands, wives of male migrants see an increase in their visits to local institutions in lieu of having to access services which also increases their contact with local state actors. This is accompanied by an improvement in their knowledge of services which results in greater claim-making incidence. Finally, having to traverse local boundaries, women are more aware of development projects around the village over and above having more information on local politics. This enables them to partake more equally in political discussion with their husbands.

I rely on the qualitative to also describe the mechanisms driving women’s substantive political empowerment. I argue that mobility increases women’s interactions with the state and gives them access to heterogeneous networks. These interactions give them exposure to information which is crucial to their political participation. While men continue to have a greater say in political matters within the household, women are able to contribute with valuable inputs on local knowledge and candidate performance. Networks within and outside the household facilitate women’s political participation – interactions with the state and political knowledge. The relationship between local elected officials and women in migrant households is furthered because of the role they play in the electoral landscape in terms of bringing their husbands home to cast their ballot. In the absence of their husbands women must take on multiple responsibilities which also drives women’s empowerment through a host of internal and external forces.

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About Rithika Kumar