Monday, 17 August 2015

Intimacy, love, freedom, heartbreak, separation and migration

By Kate Hawkins
A conference participant views the 'Queer Crossings' poster

Sitting in front of a South African poster on ‘queer crossings’ was one of my highlights from the recent Migrating Out Of Poverty conference in Singapore. It made me happy that one of my pet subjects – sexuality – was being addressed by such a stellar line-up of researchers studying gender, poverty and migration linkages.

I find it difficult to think about gender without a corresponding focus on sexuality as the two things so often intersect in interesting and important ways. It is particularly pertinent when we look at issues of women’s empowerment:

If for example, you look at women’s empowerment through a sexuality lens, you see a more complete and realistic picture of a woman: not a victim, nor an end-product ‘empowered’ woman, but a woman with a complex and changing life. You see a woman whose well-being depends, among other things, on making choices about her own body, about pleasure and about her own sexuality. You also see a woman who lives within or perhaps challenges the confines of social pressure and expectations about her behaviour. A woman’s sexuality and identity can affect many aspects of her life including her work and her means to earn a living, her family relations, her ability to move around in public, her opportunities to participate in formal and informal politics, and her access to education.

It is also a useful way of thinking about gender in terms of men and people who define themselves as something beyond/outside the binary of man and woman. (Even Facebook now has a list of over 58 gender options that people can choose from to describe themselves. Some of us scholars are lagging behind on this score!)

Sexuality came up in many of the sessions at the conference – even if it was rarely used as a frame of analysis.

Poverty, precarity and sexuality
Susie Jolly has written about the importance of housing to the realisation of sexual rights and desires and the constraining effects of poverty. This seemed relevant to some of the examples of migrant life spoken about at the conference. Trond Waage’s film, Les Mairuuwas, followed migrants from the Central African Republic in Northern Cameroon who were working as water carriers. One character didn’t see the point of a home, or felt that it was an unnecessary use of resources. But when he moved in to a room he realised that he had invested in the community and it also gave him the opportunity to have a sexual relationship. We heard from many presenters at the conference about the (inappropriate/inadequate) housing conditions of migrant workers. Some were living in their workplace with employers, particularly domestic workers. It would be interesting to better understand the effects of these living and working arrangements on migrants’ abilities to form intimate relationships and the wider effects on their lives.

‘Dangerous’ sexualities and the female migrant
There is a prevailing narrative about the sexual vulnerability of female migrants which was echoed in some of the discussions at the meeting and the presentation on employment brokers was particularly chilling in this regard. However speakers also pointed to the way that female migrants are often stigmatised on the grounds of their sexuality – which is imagined as undisciplined and unruly when far from home.

In a memorable talk about young women from Zimbabwe Stanford Mahati quoted one boy as saying ‘Good girls do not cross the border’. Mahati’s analysis of humanitarian workers’ formal and informal discourse around working migrant girls showed that they were often labelled as ‘promiscuous’, ‘lacking in morals’ and ‘far from innocent’. Meanwhile Ishred Binte Wahid spoke about notions of ‘purity’ in relation to Bangladeshi women migrants who travelled to work in the Gulf States. Female migrants found that religious piety (for example wearing the burkah) was a way of counteracting negative aspersions about what may have happened in their sexual lives whilst they were away from their families. She questioned the notion of female migration as inherently empowering and pointed to how it could sometimes reinforce patriarchal norms.

We heard from South African sex workers in the MOVE visual exhibition. Sex workers are arguably some of the most maligned ‘bad women’ in patriarchal societies’ bogus hierarchy of womanhood. Visual methods enabled them to take back control of the stories about their lives and express their humanity. Chantel, a participant from Johannesburg, wrote in her journal,

Telling my story is so powerful for me. Every day I look forward to writing or thinking about my story. I want to take images that show the way that sex workers are treated. That I am a person. This project let me do this. It helps me to take away stress and to know that I am not alone.

The conference was silent on the issue of the clients of sex workers, despite the fact that it is likely some of them are men characterised problematically in the HIV literature as 'mobile men with money'. Migration researchers may have some interesting insights for their counterparts in health on this issue.

The pain and the liberation of separation
Some presentations at the conference explored the ways that prolonged separation due to migration could lead to challenges in maintaining ‘family unity’. One study from Indonesia showed how 18% of married migrants ended up getting divorced which was contrasted with a divorce rate on 7% in non-migrant families. This had particular impacts on the income of divorced women who also faced negativity from the wider community on account of their divorcee-status.

Deirdre McKay’s presentation of the lives of Philippine women working without documents in the UK explained how long separations with little chance of being reunited due to cost and visa restrictions created stress and a strain on family life. However, she also argued that living in chronic poverty can cause family tensions. She pointed to the potentially liberating aspects of separation in some circumstances and highlighted how when men are ‘dud’ husbands (i.e. they gamble, drink, or can’t look after money) there is often migration in lieu of divorce.

Future sexuality-migration exploration
As a newcomer to the field of migration studies it was fantastic to attend the recent conference. I hope that as work on gender continues there is critical reflection on the topic of sexuality and some cross learning with other programmes working on the poverty-sexuality links. In particular it would have been interesting to hear more about same sex desire and the migrant experience and to have a more explicit focus on heteronormativity. Interesting research from (my friends at) Galang in the Philippines described how lesbian women and trans men migrated because of homophobia and gendered discrimination. For these people migration (and the money earned) sometimes created opportunities for sexual freedom and improved status within the family but it could also leave people vulnerable to homophobic abuse. These are interesting insights which are ripe for further investigation in other contexts.
Kate Hawkins is the Director of Pamoja Communications. She works on communications and research uptake for projects looking at health, gender, sexuality, and more. Kate was the communications consultant on the Gendered Dimensions of Migration conference for the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.

After the Migrant Leaves Home

By Kudakwashe Vanyoro

“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.  

*Acknowledgements: ‘After Ram Left Home’ by Dipesh Karel (University of Tokyo) was screened at the Gendered Dimensions of Migration Conference held at the Asia Research Institute at National University of Singapore as part of his presentation to the conference.

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.