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Those left behind: Impacts of migration on Guatemalan women

Christine Hughes

Migration brings unexpected change in home communities.

In the spring of each year, as the farming communities in the highlands of Guatemala welcome the arrival of life-giving rains, many also experience the departure al norte of migrants bound for temporary agricultural work in Canada. Since 2003, mostly male Guatemalans have filled over 15,000 positions in Canada’s labour-hungry agricultural industry. This labour migration has garnered increasing attention, but critical and supportive commentaries alike have largely overlooked the experiences of actors who are integral to these migration processes: the women that migrant men leave behind.

Research conducted in 2010 with migrant-sending households in Guatemala found that the daily lives of the women who stay behind change in ways that pose considerable burdens and have the potential to disrupt, but mostly reinforce patriarchal gender relations.  

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, over 4,000 Guatemalan men worked in low-skill agricultural operations in Canada in 2010. They participate in Canada’s Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (NOC C and D), part of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and private producer agencies in Canada help to facilitate the migration of Guatemalans, whose contracts range from four months to two years.

Work in Canada is lucrative for most Guatemalan labour migrants. However, gendered analyses of migration direct us to ask about the impacts felt by women left behind, whose social reproductive labour enables men’s migration. What hardships do they face? Aside from sharing in economic benefits from their partners’ migration, might the absence of their husbands result in empowerment and greater independence for them in patriarchal contexts?    

A 2006 IOM evaluation of this labour migration project suggests that it “contributes to improving the situation of women,” in part because non-migrating female partners take up new roles and responsibilities that result in increased household power vis-a-vis their husbands. However, interviews conducted with some of these women in an indigenous farming village revealed a more complex situation in which male control in gender relations has largely continued.

Interviews revealed a more complex situation in which male control in gender relations has largely continued.

Three trends emerged in women’s experiences in their husbands’ absence. First, new or intensified roles and responsibilities were added to women’s already full days. These included assuming some of the departed men’s farm work or managing day-labourers, handling finances and making purchases that usually would fall under men’s purview, on top of single-handedly caring for their children.  

Other research has asserted that such increases in household management tasks are empowering or desirable for women. However, women in this particular village gave the impression that they felt at best ambivalent. More often, they felt burdened by their partners’ migration, citing stress and fatigue. One woman said, “I have a bit more control over everything, and I have more to take care of as well… I have to think about how to do everything.” Instead of being empowering, women described these periods without their husbands as times that they “got through” or “resigned themselves to.” Another woman encapsulated her feelings by saying: “He suffers there and I suffer here.” Women tended to be content with roles and responsibilities reverting to “normal” when their husbands returned.

The second issue that arose was continued or increased control and surveillance of women by migrant men and in-laws that curbed their independence and authority over household affairs. For instance, during telephone communication migrant men would often instruct women on such matters as how to handle remittance monies, and women would inform men on household-related actions they had taken. Some women’s in-laws would manage remittances or direct them on certain decisions. Representatives at the municipal women’s office suggested matter-of-factly but critically that these actions are aimed at preventing women from usurping too much of men’s power over household affairs during the migration period.

The third trend in the research, restrictions on women’s mobility, relates to increased control over their lives. Some women said they hardly left the house while their partners were away, citing not only increased childcare responsibilities, but also the community’s tendency to gossip and question women’s faithfulness. One woman said, “people here don’t think about the fact that they [the men] are suffering there, but rather about what they [the women] are doing here.” Judith Adler Hellman, in her 2008 book The World of Mexican Migrants, describes this context as a shame culture “in which people —for better or for worse— mind each other’s business.”

These overall patterns in non-migrating women’s experiences neither account for exceptions and nuances nor do they show how some women resisted controlling circumstances. For instance, a few women strategized to keep certain activities secret from their husbands. This is not to say that migration disrupted gender ideologies to any significant extent, however. Rather, it tended to reinforce forms of male privilege.

These findings suggest research should be more attentive to the experiences and perspectives of non-migrating female partners, to counter the migrant-centric accounts in labour migration literature. At the policy level, the Guatemalan government could consider providing support to women left behind. Leith Dunn and Heather Gibb provide illustrative examples of social work supports in the Jamaican context in the Canadian Development Report 2010. Finally, community women’s groups in Guatemala, perhaps with funding from Canadian sources, could be more attentive to the needs of non-migrating women by offering discussion groups or childcare opportunities.

There is no end in sight to the desire among Guatemalan families to improve their condition through labour migration to Canada. Policy-makers and researchers cannot overlook the burdens that non-migrating women bear in providing vital support to men’s migration, and by extension, to the Canadian economy. Nor can analysts assume that men’s migration is a universally positive or empowering experience for female partners. Needs assessments could be done and supports put in place to ensure that the benefits from labour migration to Canada do not accrue at the expense of Guatemalan women’s quality of life.

Christine Hughes is a PhD candidate in sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa. Issues raised in this analysis are further explored in her forthcoming dissertation and a chapter authored in the forthcoming book, Legislated Inequality: Temporary Migrant Workers in Canada, edited by Patti Lenard and Christine Straehle, to be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2012. She can be reached at: chughes@connect.carleton.ca.

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