Women with migrant husbands leave farming, or do they?

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WASHINGTON—Our first day in Guatemala presented us with a researcher’s nightmare.
 
We were ready to probe the effect of male out-migration from rural areas in Guatemala on women’s role in farming. But when we approached surveyors, experts, policymakers, and municipal officials, they were, quite simply, puzzled.
 
They warned us we would have difficulty finding women farmers with migrant husbands—the population we hoped to study— saying rural households exit agriculture when they receive remittances. Our population of interest, they believed, was at best small and of marginal interest, if it even existed.
    
But a field visit to southeastern Guatemala before implementing the quantitative survey had brought out a different picture altogether.
 
First, we had no trouble finding enough women in agricultural households and with migrant husbands to participate in our focus groups.
 
Second, we learned through this qualitative work that most women with a partner abroad have in fact no choice but to remain in farming to meet basic subsistence needs. One explanation women provided was that farming and remittances are actually complementary, not substitutes.

 
Many focus group participants said they knew little about farming
before their migrant partners left them, often with little or no support.
(Photos: Barbara Coello for The World Bank)
Many of their migrant partners work in the United States in construction and agriculture, which are highly seasonal, and in the winter, when these kinds of jobs become scarce, remittances decrease. Since the timing of winter in the United States corresponds with harvest season in Guatemala, families with a crop to harvest are more food secure in a precarious time. 
 
Third, the common belief that women left behind tend to leave agriculture as a result of migration is more evidence of the invisibility of women in rural areas in Guatemala. As immigration becomes riskier and costlier and migrant men spend longer periods away from their families, rural women take on more decision-making roles in the household’s farming activities, in what has been labeled "the feminization of agriculture." But this increase in responsibility, coupled with other constraints, creates significant challenges for women as solo farm operators and household managers.
 
For instance, women in our focus groups often said they knew little about farming before their husbands left and had to learn from their fathers or male relatives, with little or no support from extension services or other agencies. In fact, some complained of persistent exclusion even after they established themselves in farming, such as being passed over as suppliers because of their gender or because they had a migrant spouse.
 
Female farmers may not receive fumigant pesticides for example, since carrying heavy packs is physically demanding and seen as men’s work. This discrimination was corroborated by a government official who told us that some households with migrants are given lower priority, if not excluded altogether, in local government transfers since, as is the common misconception, they are wealthier than other households.
 
Labor shortages resulting from high male out-migration exacerbate the disadvantages faced by female farmers. Women find it difficult to hire laborers to compensate for the absence of a male adult household member. As a result, women tend to scale back agricultural production and discontinue the sale of any surplus crops.
 
Local Initiatives
 
In the midst of this worrying picture, however, we encountered some local initiatives targeting and supporting rural women.
 
In one community, two groups of women have set up shared horticultural gardens. Headed by female leaders with the support of a local association (AMCO, or Asociación de Mujeres Campesinas del Oriente), the aims of the groups are to help women diversify their families’ diets.
 
In a region where agricultural production is largely homogeneous (milpa; 94 percent of households in our sample grow corn and 77 percent grow beans), female members have grown new products, including onions, lettuce, cabbage, chard, and cilantro in the two years of the gardens’ existence. Some women we met told us that they had never seen some of these vegetables before and had to learn how to prepare them from an AMCO extension agent (promotora).
 
Most members of these gardens are women with migrant husbands, joining not only because they produce less corn and beans and may need the nutrition from the gardens to sustain their families, but also because, as they said themselves, they feel more free to participate in these and other organizations when their husbands are away.

 
A local women's group planted this communal vegetable garden in
Chiquimula, Guatemala. Most group members have migrant husbands.
And in this, we see one effect of male out-migration on women’s empowerment. As some women explained, while their husbands may disapprove of their participation—including as they rise to leadership positions—they are unable to prohibit any actions to the extent that they could if they were home.
 
The ease and low price of long-distance communications on cell phones has also altered interactions between migrants and their spouses, enabling the migrant partner to continue weighing in on household decisions—and wield greater power because of remittances sent home.

We found that, on average, women speak to their partners once a week and make many household decisions, especially related to investments, following the migrant husband’s indications. Frequent communication between migrants and their families may also preserve certain social norms, and women reported that their partners keep close tabs on them even from a distance.
 
The complexity of the effect of male-out migration on traditional roles—uprooting them through the “feminization of agriculture,” but reinforcing them through communication and provision of remittances—may extend into future generations. Not only is the desire to invest in education often cited as a factor in the decision to migrate, but Guatemalan children with migrant fathers grow up on one hand not seeing their father for many years while on the other watching their mothers manage a household alone. This may have an impact on children, possibly differentiated across gender lines, as girls perceive their mothers as models of female independence; at the same time, women in the focus groups expressed facing greater challenges raising boys in the absence of male role models. 
 
Some Conclusions
 
The quantitative survey that followed this qualitative fieldwork was conducted in two departments in southeastern Guatemala to further explore the role of male out-migration and the feminization of agriculture in the region. We expect to release our results in the next few months, sharing evidence to these trends and analyzing them.
 
Right now we can draw several conclusions:  There are women in agriculture in Guatemala; rural women do stay or enter agriculture when their spouses migrate; and they suffer from a huge gap in support for agricultural women.
 
Policies for rural areas must take these facts into account, acknowledging the interplay between traditional roles and the increase in female responsibilities in agriculture as men migrate.
 
A handful of small-scale programs supports women in agriculture, but broad policies must address the “feminization of agriculture” and ensure women are included in extension services and transfers of inputs—and that their labor and needs are acknowledged in the agricultural system.
 
This work is being conducted with support from the Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality.
 

Authors

Maira Reimao

Consultant, Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice, World Bank

Join the Conversation

sarah royce
February 07, 2015

congrats on this important work describing the complexity of the feminization of ag

linda spangler
February 10, 2015

Congratulations on this important work. I will start asking my migrant patients in Oakland more about who is maintaining their farms at home.

James
June 17, 2015

Farming require people to dwell in certain regions for certain duration of time for him/her to understand the environment/climate of that place and the crop that does well.This makes Nomads not to participate effectively on farming activities.