Tuesday, 8 March 2011
March 8, International Women's Day
On the celebration of the 100th year of International Women's Day,
I am posting here a special feature on Filipinas in diaspora.
The article appeared today, March 8, 2011 in International Herald
Tribune, The Global Edition of the New York Times.
From Afar, Moneymaker and Mother
By KATRIN BENNHOLD
PARIS — When Maridel Sagum left her twin daughters in the Philippines to work as a nanny in France, they were 8 years old, two bubbly girls who climbed into bed in the mornings to snuggle up to her.
Twelve years and some €100,000, or $140,000, in bite-sized monthly payments later, the twins are young women with college degrees and Ms. Sagum, 47, whose French residency permit is at last being issued this month, will soon see them again for the first time since 1998.
“I’ve looked after other people’s children to give my own children a better future,” she said, pondering a portrait of her daughters that dominates her 14 square-meter, or 150 square-foot, rental room in Paris. “It was the hardest thing I ever did. But it was the right thing.”
Across the world, millions of mothers have made this sacrifice for their children — forgoing a life with them in hope of ensuring a better life for them. These women venture far, often into the uncertain world of undocumented domestic work that in effect keeps them hostage in their host countries. Often, they toil six-day weeks, send home much of their meager earnings and — now, in the digital age — say goodnight to the children on Skype or by instant messenger.
It is a tale of emotional hardship, but also of female empowerment. Just as women in rich countries now often outnumber men in the work force and in education, women from poor countries are the majority of migrant workers in developed countries and send a greater share of their income home in remittances. In all, the World Bank says, remittances totaled $325 billion last year, or three times official development aid. Women, who formerly migrated mainly as dependents of male migrants, now increasingly move on their own and are the main breadwinners in their families, challenging traditional roles.
Strikingly little remittance data is broken down by gender, but to those who have studied the issue this much seems clear: Eleven years into the 21st century, women migrants have become a formidable force for development — and for the rise of women in developed countries whose careers depend on affordable child care.
“It is one of the biggest untold stories of this century,” said Purnima Mane, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund. “These women make a huge contribution but their contribution doesn’t show up in an official database and so too often we ignore it.”
More than money
Edna Pena left her son Mark Jaycee in the Philippines when he was just one. Unlike the two children she looks after in Paris — 6-year-old Oscar and 8-year-old Olivia — she never saw him take his first steps, say his first words or have his first day at school. When she went back for the first time in almost 14 years after getting her papers in 2008, he was about to graduate from high school.
But by sending home about €700 every month, she put him through the best private schools near her hometown and recently bought a condominium for him near the campus where he now studies industrial communications engineering. She pays a maid to do for him what she does in Paris.
And after 16-plus years in France, this staunch Catholic, who serves on the pastoral council of her church in Paris, has no qualms about telling her son and his girlfriend to use birth control. “I told him, ‘Do you think people in France have babies at 18? Get your diploma first,”’ she said.
On their travels, migrant mothers also acquire attitude. In Germany, a coalition of immigrant women groups lobbied the government to make forced marriage illegal among the country’s 2.5 million Turkish immigrants. In France, African women have organized a network of migrant associations that help new arrivals learn about French society and pools aid to home countries.
Mary Lou Hardillo-Werning runs the German chapter of the Babaylan Philippine Women’s Network in Europe. The Babaylan, she explains, were wise women of the Philippines, healers and priestesses who were demonized and often killed as witches by Spanish invaders after 1521. Based in Germany, Ms. Hardillo-Werning travels across Europe teaching their story to Filipino migrants.
“We’re trying to keep the spirit of these strong women alive,” said Ms. Hardillo-Werning, who is of Filipino ancestry herself and is married to a prominent German expert on the Philippines. “The Filipina immigrants I meet are just as strong. They are the purse-holders, and their work is giving them self-confidence.”
“They are feminists,” she added. “They just don’t call themselves that.”
Remittances and Development
One reason the impact of migrant women is not much on the development agenda is that remittances themselves are a relatively recent discovery.
When Dilip Ratha wrote a now well-known chapter on remittances in a World Bank report in 2003, the link between migration and its potential impact on development was little studied. Governments, which had underwritten the Millennium Development Goals only three years earlier, were shamed that the sum of micro transfers from migrants was greater than their combined development aid.
Mr. Ratha discovered two more aspects: By cutting out institutions and (often corrupt) governments, remittances more nimbly addressed needs like raising birthweight or lowering number of school drop-outs. They were also a powerful cushion in times of conflict or natural disaster, when remittances tended to increase, driven by an empathetic diaspora. While not available to the very poorest who cannot afford to send family members abroad — Ms. Sagum paid a “recruiter” $3,600 in 1998 to get a one-month tourist visa to France — remittances save many households from collapse, Mr. Ratha said.
“It was an eye-opener,” he said. “The development community suddenly woke up to the fact that remittances provide a lifeline.”
The Philippines is the fourth-largest recipient of remittances in the world, after India, China and Mexico, receiving $21 billion last year, World Bank estimates show, or more than half its national budget. In some countries, remittances are a significant share of G.D.P.: In Tajikistan, for example, they account for 35 percent of the whole economy.
But if the power of remittances is now established, women’s role is not: The 2011 World Bank fact book on remittances has no mention of gender patterns because government data are not broken down by sex.
“Women as earners, movers and remitters are largely invisible,” Jean D’Cunha, global migration adviser at U.N. Women, said at a U.N. conference on remittances in Geneva last month.
And yet, in developed countries, female migrant workers account for 51 percent of the total. Smaller U.N. case studies and surveys of female migrants from countries including the Philippines, Indonesia and Lesotho, consistently hint at some important differences between female and male remitters. Women tend to earn less than men and thus send less money back on average, the studies suggest, but they tend to send a higher share of their income. Their remittances also appear to be more frequent, regular and reliable even in times of crisis.
“There has always been this assumption that it’s the men who send the money home, but in many cases it’s actually the women,” said Leon Isaacs, managing director of the International Association of Money Transfer Networks, whose members include Western Union and several banks. “What I’m hearing from our members is pretty unanimous: Women ultimately contribute equally and perhaps more than the men.”
Spending priorities also appear to differ: While men are on average more likely to invest in land or a satellite dish, women seem to focus more on needs like food, healthcare and education.
Mr. Ratha at the World Bank warns that much of this evidence is anecdotal, given the limited scope of surveys. But there is no shortage of anecdotes.
Migrant women tell of frequent disagreements with their husbands about money. In dozens of interviews in France and Germany, mothers eager to give their children the best education said their husbands often lobby to buy land or property. Many complained about their husbands wasting precious earnings on drink and “other girls.”
Natasa Bucanovic, a Serbian cleaner-turned-entrepreneur in Frankfurt, recalled how angry her husband was when she spent €500 a month on phone calls with their daughter Danijela, whom she left when she was seven and is now putting through medical school back in Serbia. “‘You are throwing a brand new TV set out of the window every month’ he used to tell me, and I said: ‘I have to check on our daughter, this is the only way I can be a mother,”’ Ms. Bucanovic said.
When you are thousands of kilometers away from home, are you still a mother? “Many of these children don’t really know their mothers, they only know them as money angels,” Ms. Hardillo-Werning said.
Before Skype, Ms. Sagum could afford to call home once a month. She worried so much that her daughters would forget her voice that she sent voice recordings by mail. Ms. Peña sought to ease the pain by cutting out a picture of herself and gluing it onto a photograph of her husband and son.
Ms. Bucanovic, who has been able to see her daughter twice a year, still worries that she was never quite as happy as other children. “It was like there was a weight on her soul,” she said. “She told me: ‘Mama, behind the other children are always their parents, behind me are always my grandparents.”’
“Sometimes I fear that I’ve lost my chance with my child,” she said. “I can give her money, but I can’t give her love.”
If the benefits of female migration are underdocumented, so are its hidden costs. In the Philippines, migration is known as the “Filipino divorce.” And some studies have linked youth crime and drug abuse to children growing up without their mothers.
Migrant mothers know this. “I was very lucky that my children were good,” said Ms. Sagum, who in addition to the twins has three older children.
Her family still paid a steep price for the five degrees she funded for her children and the rice paddies and fish pond she bought her husband. In her 12 years gone, Ms. Sagum has missed her father’s funeral and the birth of three grandchildren. Recently, her arthritis started flaring up, the result of too many hours of hard work.
Most worrying is that while all five children excelled and got professional degrees, only three have jobs. One of her twins, who has a management diploma but no work, recently asked if she could join her mother in Paris. “I told her, ‘Why do you want to come to Paris? To work like a maid?”’ Ms. Sagum said. “I said no.”
All too often that happens, said Arlie Hochschild, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-editor of “Global Women,” a book that looks at the costs of female migration.
“Remittances alone are not a solution to third-world development. If they were, the Philippines would look like South Korea today,” she said. “These women do educate their children, but there are no jobs for them and often, they end up becoming domestic workers who themselves leave their children to work abroad. It’s become a system.”
Governments could help minimize the costs of female migration, she said. Wealthy nations which rely on migrant women to meet their care deficit should introduce legal and social protections for domestic workers, loosen entry and exit rules and make it easier to obtain work permits, thus allowing migrant mothers to bring children along or to see them regularly. And lowering the fees on money transfers — currently an average 8.7 percent of the amount sent, the World Bank says — would bolster female remittances, which are more vulnerable because more frequent.
“We have to stop looking at these women as victims, start recognizing their contribution and help them maximize it,” said Ms. Mane of the U.N. Population Fund. “These women have done much to empower themselves. We should do our bit to help them get more empowered.”
I would like to thank Ms. Katrin Bennhold for the feature.
The link to the article: Motherhood in Migration