Remittances can contribute to changing gender dynamics depending on whether women themselves migrate or stay behind. Studies have also shown that the effects of remittances differ based on the gender of the person administering the funds.
Earning salaries and remitting may benefit women financially and provide the basis of changing gender relationships. Women migrants often report that by becoming the main breadwinner in the family, their decision-making power and respect from their parents-in-law increased. A study on the impact of remittances from migrant women from Nepal even showed that violence against women decreased after women had migrated and earned their own income. The majority of women also reported that the migratory experience had improved their knowledge and self-esteem (Bhadra 2007).
The empowerment effect of remittances on women seems to be stronger than direct financial impacts. In purely financial terms, women seem to benefit less than men through migration. Studies have shown that women remit a higher proportion of their salaries, but the total amount is usually less in absolute terms due to lower salaries. A study on Bangladesh revealed that in 22 per cent of the households with migrating men, household income had increased after migration. The opposite held true in the case of female migrants, whose incomes even declined in 33 per cent of the cases, mainly due to the high cost of migration combined with low salaries that women typically receive. Similarly, a lower percentage of women than men were able to use their remittances to invest in land or housing (Afsar 2009).
When women migrate, their remittances are usually administered by their husbands or other family members. According to a study on women’s remittances in Nepal, 25 per cent of the remittances were used for education —a high percentage compared to the studies on Bangladesh and Pakistan with the samples consisting mainly of men. This shows that, women accord high priority to children’s education. The study also indicated that family members administrating remittances sent home by women seem to use it mainly in line with the priorities of the remittance-senders. Only in some cases, women had expressed dissatisfaction with the way their “hard-earned money” was spent by the family, who they felt perceived it as “easy money” (Bhadra 2007).
When men migrate, it is often assumed that remittances by married men would be administered by their wives, which could increase women’s decision-making power. However, a study from Pakistan showed that in reality, only about 20 per cent of the wives of men who had migrated hold the family’s bank account. Instead, the survey showed that 50 per cent of these households’ bank accounts were administered by the migrant’s father. Interestingly, wives are more likely to be the holder of the bank account in cases in which migrants have only a primary or no formal education, and are less likely to be the holder of the bank account when the migrant has a post-secondary education. The same applies in a rural-urban comparison. Women in rural areas are more likely to be the holders of bank accounts. Nevertheless, migration has increased the decision-making power of women in some areas, such as making decisions on the family’s daily needs, but has not appreciably changed their decision-making role in areas pertaining to the education or marriage of their children. Also of note, the survey found that the change in decision-making capacity was often temporary and reverted to the husband when he returned from working abroad (Arif 2010).
More research is needed on the differences in spending behaviour between women and men as recipients of remittances. It is often stated that women as recipients of remittances use the income to finance the needs of the family, such as school fees, while men are more likely to use the income for personal purposes (Niimi and Ozden 2006).
Various studies have indicated that remittances have some empowering effects on women, but that these effects are not automatic and in some cases only temporary. To enable women to reap more benefits from remittances, specific policy interventions targeting women, such as increasing women’s financial literacy, should be taken. Women migrants need to have access to more investment opportunities and channels that would ensure the proper use of their remittances. In some cases, this might also include the need to address legal barriers on women owning property.