The big answer is perhaps “not as much as people think.”
Women have always migrated, and migrated over long distances, they’ve never been sedentary. So many of our assumptions about contemporary female migration leading to astonishing or threatening change is based on the false assumption that female migration is somehow new or unprecedented. It is not.
Nevertheless, female migration has changed in some ways. One important change is that in today’s world women are more likely to migrate independently or as wage earners than in the past. These women are called labour migrants, and they pursue all kinds of economic opportunities. We tend to focus on just two kinds of female labour migrants: those in the so-called care industries – anything from nursing in hospitals to domestic servants – and those in the so-called sex industries. These are important arenas of female employment but it’s important to remember that migrant women are also engineers, doctors, clerical workers, librarians, fast food workers and operators of small and large businesses.
Women have always migrated, and migrated over long distances
What’s important to understand, too, is that pursuing economic opportunities has not been the primary mover of feminisation over the last century of migration. The primary mover is actually the movement of families together, or the reunification of families, including movements of refugees. Both these types of migration tend to be gender balanced, and both have become more important in the 20th Century than they were in the 19th. So 100 years ago women were about a third of migrants, and today they make up about 50% of migrants. Most of the change occurred before 1960.
When women migrate independently, as wage earners, their migration has effects in both the developing world and the developed world. Of course when women migrate independently, some of them are mothers, and this means children are affected. Male labour migrants also leave children behind, but males are not seen as caregivers in many societies. So concerns about the impact of men’s migration on their families have always been limited.
When mothers migrate they tend to leave children behind, sometimes with their husbands, the children’s father, but often the primary caretakers are grandmothers or aunts. In some societies that’s a huge change, because mothers of the children have lived apart from the grandmothers or other female kin and have been responsible for raising children alone, or with their husbands. But in some societies, especially in central America and the Caribbean, grandmothers are often already the primary caretakers of children in multigenerational, largely-female headed households. Here, changes with women’s migration may be less noticeable. But there is a scholarly literature on the emotional and psychic costs on mothers, and the children who are left behind. Mothers miss their children. They often don’t see them for years at a time, and that has an emotional cost for the children too. On the other hand, those mothers are usually providing a better education or higher standard of living for their children by migrating.
Many women who migrate are single women, and here the impact on the local society is different. Migration removes unmarried women from the local labour force, which may have some impact on wages. But those type of impacts are not as dramatic. It’s really quite surprising how much flow in and out of a country can occur without having much of a demographic impact, especially when you’re talking about young and unmarried people who have historically been the most common migrants. Single people are always more detachable from their families and their communities; that’s why they’ve loomed so large in labour migrations, past and present.
There’s very interesting anthropological work on how moving itself is perceived, understood and experienced by very low waged female domestic workers. Most of them perceive mobility as empowering – often in ways that you or I might regard as very small changes. They see migration as enhancing their ability to make decisions about their own destinies, and they continue to make those decisions even if they’re working in hyper exploitative or very low waged positions.
The cases of domestic servants in oil rich countries have been studied from this perspective, and show how women exercise autonomy in very small ways. Often that’s by establishing relationships – personal relationships to their employers, to the children of their employers, by establishing love and sexual relationships outside the households where they work. They can control their own money and spend it as they please. They can change jobs, too, although that may result in illegality.
Women still seek autonomy. They will seek to make decisions about their love lives, their work lives, their bodies, their children.
That can lead to great trouble and stigmatisation too. But women still seek autonomy. They will seek to make decisions about their love lives, their work lives, their bodies, their children. They will change positions, and will experience that as a positive change even though the consequences and the risks are quite high. This is not what feminists in developed societies may think of as “raised consciousness” but poor women often appreciate mobility as a way of enhancing their ability to make decisions as individuals.
Because they so often see migration as a chance to acquire greater autonomy, many women suffer when their home countries cut off their ability to work abroad. Countries such as Bangladesh have taken such actions in response to deaths of highly exploited domestic workers, for example. And that’s often what female migrant workers most detest, because it means that small opportunity for exercising their own autonomy disappears.