Most of the time, to write about migration means telling the stories of people who move: those forced from their homes by natural disasters, conflict, violence, or the effects of climate change, or so fed up with limited economic opportunities, corruption, and bad governance that the faint glint of possibility on the horizon is enough to pull them away.
Movement is dramatic, so it attracts attention. But there is a flip side to the story of migration that is often overlooked: For almost every person who moves, there are others who remain behind. Often, these people are women whose mobility is limited by social norms and narrowly defined gender roles.
Over the past six years, we have interviewed more than 60 women in India, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Senegal whose lives have been directly and significantly shaped by migration, even though they were not on-the-move. The project we created – Women Who Stay – aims to tell their stories and present a more complete picture of what migration means. Here is what we’ve learned:
The economic impact of migration on women is complex
When men migrate, their families frequently end up better off financially compared to others in the same community. But remittances from abroad don’t necessarily cover all of a family’s needs, and they are often divided among multiple family members.
As a result, women who remain behind frequently find it necessary to earn money. This can come as a burden on top of their existing domestic workload, but it can also gain them a degree of economic independence they otherwise may not have had.
In 2018, for example, we met Magat in Ndiébène Gandiole, a coastal village in northern Senegal. Magat, a Wolof woman in her thirties, was married to Diop, a fisherman. Like many others, he struggled to make a living as fishing vessels from China, Russia, and the European Union increasingly plied Senegalese waters.
In 2006, Diop left for Spain, where he worked as a fisherman, sending remittances home. Magat, meanwhile, shouldered the responsibilities of motherhood while also working to earn more money.
As we spoke one morning, Magat led her four-year-old daughter, Jasin, to a cage of turkeys in their yard. In addition to taking care of the animals, “every morning, after I clean and cook, I go to my [food] shop by the road. I open it at seven o’clock,” Magat said. “If there are any celebrations in our village, I also go to braid women’s hair.”
Despite the challenges, having two incomes has given the family a degree of financial stability: When we met Magat, she was overseeing the construction of their new home.
Migration is a gamble that can leave women on their own; Sometime it brings an end to violence
For people who cannot get visas, crossing borders irregularly often involves employing smugglers who charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for their services. Many families cannot afford these fees up front and have to go into debt to send someone abroad.
In the long-term, families are hoping the economic benefits of migration will be worth it. But in the short-term, women often have to work to support their children and relatives while the debt is being paid off.
This was the case for Raquel Cruz, whom we met in 2017 in the humid, hilly region of La Huasteca in Mexico’s San Luis Potosí state. Her husband, Leo, was in the United States. He had migrated and returned multiple times. "Leo is still paying off the loan that we got from the bank when he decided to go back to the US," Raquel said.
Raquel cooked meals for teachers at a local school and collected honey to sell with the help of a local NGO.
Flor Mateo, from San Marcos Tlapazola in Oaxaca, Mexico, also found herself having to work, but for different reasons: Her husband abandoned her and their daughter after he migrated to the United States. "If I did not want to be a burden for my parents, I had to start working, and my daughter went to childcare,” Flor said when we met her in 2017.
Flor’s husband had been abusive, she said. So, his leaving came as a relief. "He was aggressive. He was beating me... even when I was pregnant and after our daughter was born. But we stayed together, since we thought that it would be best for her,” Flor said. “The moment when he decided to go to the US was the best thing that could happen to me.”
Other women who are abandoned or whose husbands or sons are among the thousands of people who die or disappear every year while migrating often struggle psychologically and have a hard time coming to terms with the loss.
"I would rather die than continue living like this," said Mama Lethay Kahsai, a woman in her fifties whom we met in the village of Dega in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in 2018, before the war broke out. Her son died after migrating to Saudi Arabia – a popular destination for Ethiopians. Mama Lethay found out from a neighbour, and she is now completely dependent on support from the community and NGOs.
Migration can impact who women marry and their ability to get an education
In several of the countries we reported from – including among Adivasi Indigenous communities in southern Rajasthan, India – parents often viewed men who have migrated as favourable matches for their daughters.
Many Adivasi men go to work in the Indian state of Gujarat. "My father met my husband working in a factory,” Pushpa Devi told us in the village of Salkal. “He knew he was going to pay for the wedding from his own savings and that indicated that he was hardworking."
Pushpa got married when she was 15, which is not unusual among the Adivasi. Early marriage often means that parents do not invest in their daughters’ education, which has life-long consequences. "I cannot help my oldest son with his homework anymore since I do not speak English, I do not know mathematics," Pushpa said.
In San Luis Potosí, Mexico, however, anthropologist Nelly López said migration has contributed to a trend of women marrying later in life and continuing their education. "Families themselves tell [women] to wait to marry and study first," López explained.
When they do marry, women in San Luis Potosí often choose partners who have migrated. "It is not only because of the economic situation,” López said. “If you marry somebody who was already in the US, it means he is able to cook, wash his clothes, and yes, he might have his own house too.”
Migration impacts children, and women left behind have to deal with it
One of the main reasons why the fathers we have spoken to during our reporting migrate is to secure a better future for their children. But women who remain behind say that taking on the responsibilities of parenthood alone is one of the most significant challenges they face.
Having to fulfil the roles of two parents has an impact on their relationship with their children, who also often struggle to adjust to their fathers being away.
In 2017, we met five-year-old Keyssy, for example, from the Istmo region in Oaxaca, Mexico. She was born when her father was already in the United States. He didn’t come back until she was three years old. In the meantime, Keyssy called her uncle “father”. When her actual father returned, it took Keyssy time to get used to him being home.
For Flor, when she put her daughter in childcare after her husband left, she started noticing a change in her behaviour. "Teachers told me she was more aggressive," said Flor, who eventually decided to take her to a psychologist.
Women who remain behind often have to grapple with the effects of a changing climate
Many of the places we’ve reported from have extreme climates that are becoming harsher because of the effects of the climate crisis. Some of the women we met chose to try to adapt, often with help from local or international organisations. Others decided to migrate.
In Dega, in Tigray, we also met Tsega, a 45-year-old mother of four children. Like other women from the village, Tsega would walk four kilometres every day to collect water from the closest well. "Before my husband left, we had no land, no means to earn money," Tsega said.
Since the 1980s, Dega has been hit by a worsening cycle of droughts that have upended people’s livelihoods. Like many other Ethiopians, Tsega’s husband migrated to Saudi Arabia in search of work around 2008. After not receiving money from her husband for a few months, and afraid that he had abandoned her, Tsega decided to go to Saudi Arabia to search for him and to earn money to support their children.
Leaving the children in the care of relatives, Tsega followed a well-beaten path of Ethiopian women who go to countries in the Gulf and the Middle East to find employment as domestic workers. She found her husband and was able to earn money to send to her children. But like other domestic workers in the region, she also faced exploitation and abuse.
In 2013, Tsega and her husband were deported back to Ethiopia and returned to Dega, where they continued to struggle to scrape together a subsistence amid the worsening effects of the climate crisis.
In the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca, Mexico, where much of the local Mixe Indigenous population depends on coffee production for their livelihood, climate change brought a disease called coffee rust that destroyed the plants around the village of San Isidro Huayapám in 2015. As a result, many men from the region migrated in search of work.
"My eight sons were growing coffee, but after the rust they had to go," 69-year-old Irene Jimenéz Almaraz recalled when we spoke in her living room in 2019.
Instead of giving up on coffee cultivation, however, Irene was working to mitigate the effects of climate change. With the help of an NGO, she established a nursery and has been planting different varieties of coffee to test which ones can resist the rust. “Coffee needs a lot of care; the plots need to be cleared every two months. But I work, step by step, since coffee is all I have,” Irene said.
When men migrate, it can give women the opportunity become more politically active and involved
We saw this among the Adivasi in India, where women organised solidarity groups with the help of NGOs to fight back against corrupt officials syphoning off government rations meant for vulnerable families. We also witnessed it among Indigenous communities in Mexico where women whose husbands had migrated represented their families at community general assemblies – a role that had traditionally been reserved for men.
"We have to participate... Men are starting to take women into account. Before, they did not. But now women will even pick up the microphone and say something,” Juliana López, from El Fortín Alto in Oaxaca, told us. “We are realising that we are equal."
Stories were collected by Magdalena and Noel Rojo within their documentary project Women Who Stay. In the past five years, they documented the lives of more than 70 women who stayed in India, Mexico, Ethiopia, Senegal, Romania, and Slovakia while their male counterparts migrated.
Edited by Eric Reidy.