“I came here with the hope of a better future, nothing more than that. I couldn’t study because of poverty”. These are the exact words of Ram, a young male Nepalese migrant working in Japan, in the short film ‘After Ram Left Home’, which was screened at Migrating out of poverty’s gender conference in Singapore, 30 June – 2 July.
The film managed to capture some of the most powerful dynamics at play in the process of the migration of young males in Asia. These included the sacrifice of borrowing money - up to US$20,000 - to pay recruitment fees required to secure work in a restaurant; the tribulations of the left-behind wife and parents; and the promising yet lonely and uncertain life of the migrant seeking a better life elsewhere. The migration of Ram was undoubtedly informed by gender roles and expectations based on what I perceived to be the instinct to provide for his family and himself in order to make the statement “I am a man”. In many ways, Ram’s migration symbolised a rite of passage, of a sort.
Yet that social statement was underpinned by certain presumptions about how Ram was behaving in his host country, particularly on the part of his wife. She was very suspicious and convinced that he may be cheating on her with a more beautiful and younger girl (because that is ‘how man roll’). In as much as Ram felt that his manhood could be qualified and asserted through economic prowess, the migration that this entailed produced certain household challenges that were not easy to deal with.
Ram’s dad, on the other hand, felt that if only he had been a better man financially, his son would not have had to go through the process of migration that brings with it insurmountable debt and uncertainty. He must have thought that his son’s migration was a challenge to his own gender ascribed role: providing for his own kin and maintaining his nuclear family intact. In the film, he lamented over this and his sentiments, which many sons growing up in nuclear families would also get from their dads, resonate with me. Ram’s wife, besides being continuously insecure about her husband’s degree of faithfulness, also had to grapple with adjusting to her new role of heading the house and supporting her in-laws which was not an easy task as it had previously been Ram’s role.
In as much as migration yields benefits as seen in Ram remitting money here and there, it is clear that it challenges the concept of family life as we are raised to understand it. Migration questions norms, brings us out of our comfort zones, and presents us with potentially newer ways of understanding and negotiating gender roles and the family. This is not limited to male migration as in Ram’s case. It is also a similar challenge in female migration.
In Zimbabwe for example, female domestic and cross-border labour migration were traditionally associated with prostitution. I’m certain that this is not unique to that context alone. Predominantly, women on the move are seen as deviant and are often ostracised and labelled as incorrect. However, I have seen many instances where female ‘cross-border’ migrants lift families from poverty and increase the family’s upward social mobility. During Zimbabwe’s economic crisis from 2000 to 2008, it was the women that dared to pick themselves up, challenging the status quo by migrating to sell baskets in South Africa. Leaving their children behind in the care of their grannies and fathers, through their agency these female migrants both challenged societal, cultural and economic structures, and facilitated household subsistence and development. Nonetheless, this migration presented challenges to the nuclear family as some men ended up taking up female-ascribed roles of caregiving and cooking.
Evidently, both male and female migration is equally problematic. So the end question is; given the challenges that migration presents to the domestic setup is migration necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think so.
Through migration, individuals are able to shape their own lives beyond the scope of the conventional. We begin to understand gender and family in nuanced ways, if we allow ourselves to, that is. Poverty is one of the greatest challenges facing mankind today. It incapacitates families to an extent where there is ultimately no gender or family to talk about. So if migration can help with this, what should take precedence: the order of things or livelihood? I would argue that livelihood should come first. I think that the evidence speaks for itself.
So, what are the key lessons from all this? Migration is not without its challenges. But what does it challenge predominantly? It challenges how we do things, what we tell ourselves is the domestic order of things. But interestingly, it questions our gender ascriptions about who should be cooking and caregiving against who should be working outside the home; who should be making decisions in the household and who (if anyone) should be subservient. More importantly however, by challenging the status quo, it illuminates. It does so by showing us that daddy is actually a good cook after he cooks the food that mummy sent from her income using the cross-border bus (and that that food still tastes the same). It shows us that women are equally good decision makers in the family when daddy is working in another country. Most of all, migration is key to development in contexts where there is not enough on the table. If we adequately harness it and allow ourselves to see the family beyond traditional gender roles, norms and expectations, there are more victories in store for us in the fight against poverty.
Kudakwashe Vanyoro is a Research Assistant at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He was an intern under the Migrating out of Poverty RPC Research Internship Scheme from April to November 2014. His internship involved supporting all ACMS communications work, preparing and packaging policy briefs, research data capturing, undertaking desktop research and blogging on contemporary issues related to migration and poverty in Southern Africa.