Gendered Impact of Male Out-migration in Rural Households: A short review of literature  

Abstract Category: Other Categories
Course / Degree: Rural Gender Studies
Institution / University: Department of Social Sciences, Wageningen University, Netherlands
Published in: 2007

Long Essay Abstract / Summary:


This paper tries to examine some literatures in relation to the male out-migration and its subsequent impact on gender relation at household and the community level in the migrants’ place of origin. It is obvious that male out-migration has a significant impact on rural households particularly where agriculture is the mainstay of living. The influences may be either positive or negative. The important changes because of male out-migration can be considered as the remittances sent by the migrants, the potential labour crisis in agricultural activities, changing gender relationships and ambiguous power position of women within the household and wider community. However, only limited research has been carried out so far in this respect.

International migration is one of the most important factors affecting economic relations between developed and developing countries in the recent years (Adams and Page, 2003). It has been witnessed as one of the main livelihood strategies of rural people and thereby transformation of rural areas. Thieme and Wyss (2005) report that “international labour migration has been an integral part of the livelihoods strategies of the majority of people for many generations” (2005: 66). The remittances – money and goods – sent back home by these migrant workers have a profound impact on the living standards of people in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East (Adams and Page, 2003). For example, in Nepal, migration contributes about 25 percent to the national gross domestic product (Seddon et al, 2002). However, international migration does not bring only the economic and technological changes. There are more than economic aspects of labour migration like socio-political and cultural changes. Within this domain, gender relation in terms of division of labour and decision making process in the migrant’s household and the community of origin is the primary focus of this paper.

Most of the research on remittances (migration) has focused on the purely economic aspects of remittances, ignoring any social considerations such as gender dimensions that underlie all economic, political and social realities (Ramirez, 2005). There is a clear link exists between foreign labour migration and rural livelihoods. The paper focuses the linkage between foreign labour migration and the changing gender roles and responsibilities in the rural households.

One of the greatest changes caused by male out-migration from rural areas is the feminization of agriculture. In this context, the main objective of this paper is to identify the gender specific issues in relation to male out-migration and its consequent impact on household as well as community decision making in the place of origin. With the help of literature review the paper will try to answer the following research questions at the end. 1. What are the issues of gender in labour migration? 2. What is the relationship between gender and rural household? 3. How does the male out-migration affect on household labour division? 4. How does the male out-migration affect on household and community decision making?

Theoretical Orientation:

The theoretical orientation of this paper is initiated with the concept of household (or family) and its internal and external linkages for household labour division and decision making both at household and community level. This is because changes happen when one among the household members leaves the family in search of employment abroad and establish a new structure of the household. Such structure changes from co-residential unit to the transnational disintegrated unit, still with a lot of connections as an active member of household.

Traditionally, the household is generally considered as “a co-residential unit, usually family-based in some way, which takes care of the resource management and primary needs of its members” (Rudie, 1995: 228, in Niehof and Price, 2001: 19). However, because of temporary labour migration there seems to be a contestation to the concept of co-residential unit of household. The migrant’s presence in the form of remittances sent to home is an important element of the household’s resource management and needs fulfilment. “The constant circulation of people, goods and information throughout the globe has given rise to new ‘transnational social spaces’ in which migrants and their families left behind are able to interact frequently with one another and at the same time establish familiar occupational and residential bases in multiple places across national borders” (Yamanaka, 2005: 339).

In addition, gender perspective poses challenges to consider household as a homogenous unit of analysis. Agarwal (1997) argues that the existing household models either miss out altogether, or do not adequately address with respect to the gender. She points out other household models (not a unitary one) that could better analyse the intra- and inter- household dynamics, based on bargaining approach. She articulates the bargaining approach is very useful “for capturing the complexity and historic variability of gender relations in intra- and extra-household dynamics” (Agarwal, 1997: 2-3). Recognizing the complexities of households and a need of alternative approach to address them she explains, “A range of alternative household models use the game – theoretic approach to incorporate a more complex understanding of how family decision-making occurs, variously allowing for individual differences in preferences, in budget constraints and in control over resources” (Agarwal, 1997: 2).

She claims that bargaining approach has particular usefulness in examining gender relations. The bargaining approach seeks the factors that determine intra-household bargaining power; relative importance of such factors that determine the fall-back position; role of social norms in determining bargaining power among the household members; effect of individual perceptions on the bargaining process and the linkage between intra- and extra- household bargaining (Agarwal, 1997). In this short article, it would not be possible to examine the all her analytical specifications in all contexts but I will try to relate the women bargaining position within and outside the household in the context of male out-migration.

Following the approach, the paper tries to analyze the dynamics of gender relation within and outside the households, in the context of male out-migration. The issue of gender relation in decision making within and outside the household at the pre-, during and post migration period is very crucial. “…Gender relations (like all social relations) embody both the material and the ideological. They are revealed not only in the division of labour and resources between women and men, but also in ideas and representations – the ascribing to women and men of different abilities, attitudes, desires, personality traits, behaviour patterns, and so on. Gender relations are both constituted by and help constitute these practices and ideologies, in interaction with other structures of social hierarchy such as class, caste and race” (Agarwal, 1997: 1-2).

It is apparent that including others changes in household composition, division of labour and its consequent changes in gender roles and responsibilities are also the primary changes caused by male out-migration. Labour migration not only affects at household level but also the community level as a whole. In this respect, in her classic work, Palmer (1985) perpetuates the two general theories of labour migration: theory of pure gain and theories of private gain and social loss. She articulates that there is either a ‘pure gain’ for migrants and their families or a ‘private gain’ to the migrants but a total social loss to the community.

The pure gain theorists’ belief is that there is a net benefit for both the out-migrant and his family as he steadily sends remittances from his work, and the family gains by having one member less to feed. The pure gain theory is based on the Neoclassical Approach, which states that the marginal product value of labour is less than the wage that can be earned from migration. Palmer also relates this theory with the Traditional Kinship Approach, as she articulates, “kinship relations exchange labour provides adequate support” (Palmer, 1985: 3). In contrast, supporters of the private gain and social loss theory argue that the migrant gets a net benefit from his earnings whereas the community experiences a great social loss as it loses productive manpower. “Loss of national production and greater inequality of income distribution are described as social loss” (Palmer, 1985: 3).

The gendered dimension of male labour migration can be explained with the help of the compensation or the filling the gap of labour force at home when male member migrates. Once male member leaves home the farm household faces labour shortage particularly for male-typed jobs or shared tasks. For example, ploughing the land, look after the irrigation system, tilling and digging the land and so on. “Ploughing and other land preparation- commonly men’s tasks- have to be done. Where there is relatively little landless labour available for this intensive job, which has to be done within a short time period, the cost of hiring labour will bear no relation to any abstract notion of marginal product value” (Palmer, 1985: 4). It means, the gendered division of labour faces some difficulties if there is severe shortage of male labour force in the village because of migration.

Theoretically, in this paper I will look at the process of male out-migration in two distinguished approaches i.e. through migration theories (Palmer, 1985) and bargaining approach of looking at the gender relation (Agarwal, 1997). However, the above mentioned migration theories seem to be old but they are classic and I find them appropriate to relate the migration process with the gender relation in broader sense. This is because it directly relates the situation where there is intra- and extra- household labour dynamics happens, which I will try to fit with the notion of gender relation.

The impact: what the literature says

It has been realized that the male labour migration is a gendered process, which affects the gendered division of labour and household and community decision making. In the absence of husbands, in general, the female headed households have to bear the responsibilities on managing household budget, children’s welfare, small stock, crop storage, fuel and water needs, participation on the community meetings, and marketing, while their workloads evidently get heavier. She has to maintain a regular contact with her husband through different means of communication and probably seeks his endorsement in the decisions to be taken for their households, during their talks. However, in the case of joint family as wife remains with her in-laws and the households are also managed accordingly with other regular household head, predominantly the father in-law.

Myers et al (1996) reports male out-migration to have almost negative impact for the female members left behind. “….. the feeling, especially among women, is that neither is to be encouraged: male out-migration is seen as a necessary evil, a fairly recent strategy adopted in the face of low rainfall, rising prices and environmental degradation” (1996: 15). Moreover, migration is viewed as contributing to the disintegration of village life, felt to reduce village cohesion, declining the interaction among villages for managing natural resources, and people’s orientation towards more money and contributing to the breakdown of traditional communal values (Myers et al, 1996). This poses its affirmation closer to the Palmer’s second theory of private gain but social loss.

In this paper, I have grouped the impacts of male out-migration in two broad categories. First, the gendered impact in the division of labour and subsequent changes in workloads of the women household members remained behind. Second, the changing gender roles in household and the community decision making process.

1. Impact in the division of labour: household and agricultural activities

The researchers claim that there is a huge shift in gender roles takes place because of male out-migration (Myers et al, 1996; Kaspar, 2005, 2006; Song, 1998). This sometimes results a negative consequence if alternative arrangements could not be made. For example, in case of agricultural activities, if extra labour can not be hired particularly during the peak season of labour requirement the production could not be compensated from the extra income remitted by the migrant. However, if there sufficient labour force available within the household the migrant’s tasks would be easily replaced by the similar manpower like his brother. During out-migration, the workload of women increases as they partially replace their husbands’ labour force. A part of the workload is taken by other household members and/or hired people (Kaspar, 2005).

Adra (1983) reports because of male out-migration there is a shortage of labour in the agricultural activities. This particularly happens in the situation of nuclear family where the added tasks could not be shared with other family members and the agricultural and domestic workload of individual women increases (Adra, 1983). In his study in Yemen, he further writes that usually the migrant household head allocates a paid male representative, in his absence, to oversee some male jobs like ploughing, irrigating or marketing, “a woman’s daily agricultural tasks increase. Chores that were shared by her husband become her responsibility entirely” (1983: 30).

In her work in China, Song (1998) concludes that male out-migration virtually causes the feminization of agriculture. It signifies that the women have to bear an additional burden of household work as well as farm work in the absence of men. She further argues, “It is the women who are playing key roles in sustaining the small-scale subsistence farming and food security at both farmers’ household level and national level” (1998: 169). Moreover, one of the important gender related impacts is the possible adverse effect on girls’ education because of extra burden of workload to their mothers and support need from daughters to them. In a study carried out in Sudan, Myers et al (1996) noted that “children, particularly girls, are missing out on schooling because they are required to help shoulder their mothers’ extra work burdens in the farm and household” (1996: 17).

However, the impact of male out-migration on agriculture is more contexts specific. McDowell and de Haan (1997) report that it varies from place to place and from time to time and depends to some extent on an ability to maintain labour inputs and to invest remittances productively. By taking a side of positive impacts of male out-migration they come to agree on labour shortage especially for the agricultural intensification; however they are convinced that the labour shortage is compensated by hiring labourers with the help of remittances sent by the migrants. Agricultural intensification generally requires increased labour and that may cause a restriction on the intensification (McDowell and de Haan, 1997). They argue, “Remittance may stimulate agricultural intensification where practices allow the head of household to employ labour, and remitted earnings can be and are invested productively on physical inputs such as equipment, seeds, fertilizers or drought animals” (1997: 20).

2. Impact in the decision making

In her studies in Nepal, Kaspar (2005, 2006) analyzed the impact of male out-migration on women in two types of situation as the shifting of competencies during migration: women in joint families and women in nuclear families. She articulates, “in nuclear households, operational decisions are handed over to women, who manage the household and field work and thus become de facto household heads”. However, “… the strategic decisions are not taken without the formal household head” (2006: 293). She illustrates this fact based on her field observation with a diagram (Table 1). The table shows the involvement of male and female on the household as well as community decision making particularly from the nuclear households.

Table 1 Gendered participation in decision-making


Migration stage

Fields of Decision-making



Home leave


Household level

Household head


F1 M



Money management

F1 M




Children’s marriage





Children’s education










Community level

Presence at meetings

F1 M




Active participation at meetings











M= husband decides

F = wife decides

F1 = wife is involved in decision making


- = no decisions made

F&M = wife and husband decide together

F M = wife or husband decides

Adopted from: Kaspar, 2005, 2006

With respect to women’s involvement in the community meetings and their stake on the decisions during the period of male out-migration, it is obvious that the women’s involvement is increased to represent the households. However, this does not necessarily increase the women’s stake in decision making. “Women who attend community meetings to represent their household rarely raise their voices in discussions. Therefore, despite increasing participation in community meetings, their interests are not better represented, although they are at least better informed” (Kaspar, 2006: 291). Myers et al (1996) had a similar finding in the issues of household as well as community decision making, “…. Women claimed to be making decisions on important social issues such as children’s circumcision and marriage, but on the whole, social decisions are postponed until men’s return. In the public life women are not replacing the sheikhs and their older male relatives in village matters” (1996: 17).

In decision making, as illustrated above, in the patriarchal social structure, the strategic decisions are mostly taken by the male members of households, which are mostly not taken during the migration. During migration, the operational decisions without which the households could not be operated are in the hands of female members.

It is also revealed that female household heads clearly have a greater decision making powers than do women who are not the household heads. “At least, in some ways, emigration has served to enhance women’s decision making powers” (Adra, 1983: 39). However, there is a tendency still remains that because of limited mobility of women due to overburden of household and agricultural tasks their decision-making capabilities may go decline (Adra, 1983).

In the similar vein, McDowell and de Haan (1997) also do not agree on that there is no significant change takes place in the decision making position of women. They argue that there is emergence of new institutions that allow for women to pursue male based jobs to perform in case of male out-migration and women become household head.


Palmer’s analysis of pure gain and private gain with social loss theories of migration can be described with the help of above cases, in great extent. If we relate the findings presented above with respect to gender relation the second theory of private gain and social loss seems to be more relevant. For male migrant himself it could be a profitable venture due to his exposure to outside world and making money from employment. Nevertheless, other issues like women’s overburden of tasks in the household as well as farm activities, their de-facto appearance as household head and participate in the community meetings, and their un-influential participation within the households are still not being improved.

Agarwal’s notion of the contributing factors of women’s bargaining power within and outside the household, we now relate it with male out-migration. As mentioned earlier, the male out-migration basically brings three important changes in the household: a) remittance mostly the economic remittance sent by the migrant, b) changes in the division of labour or changes in gender roles and responsibilities, and c) changes in women power position. Each of these changes is dealt below in line with Agarwal defined factors of changing women’s bargaining.

The issue of remittance depends upon who receives it. The fund mobilisers are basically the father-in-laws or other male or to some extent the elder female members in the family. In this situation, the fall back position of daughter-in-laws could not be improved and so to their bargaining power. However, fall-back position could not be measured only with the economic incentives (for details see Agarwal, 1997) mobilization of remittances can be of an indicator of fall-back position. Song (1998) perpetuates a similar opinion of women’s inferior power of decision making because of their lesser or none own income even if there is supply of remittances from migrants.

“Compared to men, women are still in inferior positions both within family and in society in social and economic transformation. In division of labour, women are always ranked in the inferior positions in terms of grade of work and amount of income. That is why agriculture, which is considered an inferior and less profitable profession, has become women’s domain in the social transition” (Song, 1998: 169). The situation can be further exacerbated by male out-migration. As indicated in the literatures above (Adra, 1983; Palmer, 1985; Myers et al, 1996; Song, 1998; Kaspar, 2005, 2006) the duties and responsibilities of women are increased during migration. They have to perform males’ duties on top of their already heavy socially allocated jobs. They have to accomplish both domestic (which are presupposed to be of women’s tasks) and public spheres (which are supposedly to be men’s tasks) .

Despite of the importance of male out-migration, this is not the only determinant of women’s power position in household as well as community decision making. The institutions of patriarchy, virilocality and patrilinearity are very important in the gender relation and determining its hierarchies (Kaspar, 2006). Shrestha and Conway (2001: 163) report that in Nepal, “a women’s identity or status is directly affiliated with that of her closest male figure: to her farther as a daughter, to her husband as a wife, and to her son as a mother” (in Kaspar, 2006: 288). As a daughter-in-law, a woman usually has little participation in decision-making and must work hard in subsistence agriculture and the household. The status of daughter-in-law is improved when she gives birth to a son, an offspring for the lineage of her husband’s family (Kaspar, 2006). In the patriarchal society, the land and other family assets are usually transferred to the male members of the family. It has a significant importance in gender relation because since women normally do not possess any land- as a major source of livelihood in the rural area- she has to depend on the males in one way or another. This dependence also diminishes her bargaining power when her interests are at stake (Kaspar, 2006). This affirms the Agarwal’s analysis of the better the fall back position higher the bargaining power (Agarwal, 1997).

Furthermore, Kaspar (2005) adds that the effects on women’s workload and participation in decision making depend on the factors such as, “financial situation of the household; quantity and quality of land property; type of household (extended or nuclear); age and number of children; relevance of decisions (strategic or operational) and individual – mostly tacit – arrangements between spouses” (2005: VIII).

The above discussion signifies that looking at the women power position is far more than male out-migration. The social structure, social norms, and women’s own fall back position are the crucial factors to determine the extent to which women in a particular society or in particular household is influential in the decision making. In general, we can also extrapolate that because of male out-migration the women inside household make covert actions to practice their power positions like bargaining separately with her husband by telephone or other communication means for additional monetary support a part from a common share she gets from the family, or if her parental families are economically well off she can also have a better power position. In community level, women’s increased involvement in community meetings like in women group, water group and other farmer group ultimately increases their overt actions.


It is revealed that there are two views regarding the gendered impact of male out-migration on rural households. One view shows a positive impact to women while others claim that this is just an illusion. Being household head or take some operational decisions for the time being does not necessarily overcome the subordination of women particularly in patriarchal society.

Based on above short review of literature, it is hard to be convinced that male out-migration results an increase in women’s fall-back position and thereby increased bargaining power and increased stake in decision making. Keeping in mind that the review is not an exhaustive one it needs more elaborative study to come up with the final conclusion. However, a preliminary conclusion can be drawn that uunless she has her own strong position within and outside the household, some operational undertakings would not be adequate enough to improve her status.


Adams, R.H.J. and J. Page (2003). International Migration, Remittances and Poverty in Developing Countries. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3179, December 2003, The World Bank

Adra, N. (1983). The Impact of male migration on women’s role in agriculture in the Yemen Arab Republic. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations

Agarwal, B. (1997). “Bargaining” and Gender Relations: within and beyond the household. Feminist Economist 3 (1): 1-51

Kaspar, H. (2005). “I am the Household Head now”: Gender Aspects of Out-migration for labour in Nepal. Kathmandu: Nepal Institute of Development Studies

Kaspar, H. (2006). “I am the head of the household now”: The Impacts of Outmigration for Labour on Gender Hierarchies in Nepal. In: Premchander S, Müller C, editors. Gender and Sustainable Development: Case Studies from NCCR North-South. Bern: NCCR North South, pp. 285-303

McDowell, C. and A. de Haan (1997). Migration and Sustainable Livelihoods: A critical review of the literature, IDS Working Paper # 65, Sussex: Institute of Development Studies

Moore, H. (1989). Feminism and Anthropology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Myers, M., David, R., Akrat and A.A. Hamid (1996). The effects of male out-migration on women’s management of natural resources in the Sudan, Issue Paper, Dryland Programme, United Kingdom: SOS Sahel

Niehof, A. and L. Price (2001). Rural Livelihood Systems: A Conceptual Framework. Series on Rural Livelihood No.1, the Netherlands: Wageningen-UPWARD

Palmer, I. (1985). The impact of Male Out-migration on Women in Farming. West Hartford: Kumarian Press

Ramirez, C., Dominguez, M. G. and J. M. Morais (2005). “Crossing Borders: Remittances, Gender and Development”. INSTRAW Working Paper. Santo Domingo, Republica Dominicana: United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women

Seddon, D., Adhikari, J. and G. Gurung. (2002). Foreign Labor Migration and the Remittance Economy of Nepal. Critical Asian Studies 34 (1): 019-040

Song, Y. (1998). “New” Seed in “Old” China: Impact of CIMMYT Collaborative Programme on Maize Breeding in South-Western China. PhD Thesis, Department of Social Sciences, Wageningen, the Netherlands: Wageningen University and Research Centre

Thieme, S. and S. Wyss (2005). Migration Patterns and Remittance Transfer in Nepal: A Case Study of Sainik Basti in Western Nepal. International Migration 43 (5): 59-98

Yamanaka, K. (2005). Changing family structures of Nepalese transmigrants

Long Essay Keywords/Search Tags:
Gender, Male out-migration, Household

This Long Essay Abstract may be cited as follows:
Gartaula, H.N. (2007). Gendered Impact of Male Out-migration in Rural Households: A short review of literature. Submitted to Sociology of Consumers and Households, Department of Social Sciences, Wageningen University, The Netherlands

Submission Details: Long Essay Abstract submitted by Hom Nath Gartaula from Nepal on 27-Oct-2010 21:56.
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