The Feminization of Poverty: The Impact on Migrant Mothers in the U.S. by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Freyhauf, Durham, United Nations, Feminism and Religion, John Carroll, UrsulineI had the honor of speaking at the United Nations during the Commission for the Status of Women this past March about the Feminization of Poverty and the Impact on Migrant Mothers.  Below is the text of my speech delivered.  By posting my speech, it is my hope to use social media to help draw attention to this problem and use our resources to find solutions.

Over the last thirty years, rich countries have grown much richer, and poor countries have become, in absolute and relative terms, poorer. Global inequality in wages are striking and poor countries are turning to the IMF or World Bank for loans, which require “so-called” structural adjustments of devaluing currency, cuts in support for “noncompetitive industries,” and the reduction of public services such as healthcare and food subsidies, which has provided disastrous results for the poor, especially women and children.

The feminization of poverty not only means that more of the world’s poverty is born by women, thanks in large part to globalization of the world economy, but includes a denial of access to fundamental human rights, including health, education, nutritious food, property, representation, etc. Feminized poverty encompasses more than matters of individual suffering – it ensnares a vicious cycle of poverty that impacts their entire family.

Feminization of poverty has no singular cause. The United Nations Development Fund for Women identified 4 key dimensions that indicated a heightened rate of poverty for women:

First is called “the temporal dimension,” which means that women are often the primary caretakers of children and household duties. Women who live in developing nations may also have agricultural or physical responsibilities. With these demands, less time is available to devote to paid employment causing them to earn a smaller income even though they effectively do more work than their male counterparts.

Second is “the valuation dimension” which is defined as unpaid labor that women perform to take care of family members and other household chores. Work that is considered “less than” because formal education or training is not required.

Third, is “The employment segmentation dimension.” Women are natural caretakers and thus corralled into “women’s work”, such as teaching, working with textiles, or domestic servitude that includes caring for children or the elderly.

Finally, “the spatial dimension.” When employment is non-existent or difficult to find, women may have to migrate to other areas to find work temporarily. If a woman has children, she may refuse to take the job and stay to care her family. However, Some opt to leave their families behind, to secure what they consider a better life – a means of support – but this choice often comes a great cost.

The last category, “spatial dimension,” as it pertains to women, who migrate to developed countries to become maids or nannies is the focus of my discussion. First, let me review some statistics. According to the International Labour Organisation, between the mid-1990s and 2010, there was an increase of more than 19 million domestic workers worldwide. In Sri Lanka, labor export has been the main source of foreign exchange earnings since the late 1970s. Over 250,000 people migrate annually and there is an estimated 1.8 million labor migrants from Sri Lanka alone – approximately 84% are women. In Romania, there is an estimated 3 million people that migrated over the last 5 years, of which remittances totaling nearly 7.2 billion dollars was sent back to Romania last year. In 2010, 12% of the Filipino Gross Domestic Product or 21 billion dollars came from money sent home from migrant workers. In fact, about half of the world’s 120 million legal and illegal migrants are women and over half of these migrants come from Mexico, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, Cyprus, and Swaziland.

Migrant mothers leave their homeland with the goal of making money so that their children will have a better life. They are often single parents or in a situation where they are the main source of income. Thus, they are forced with the decision to raise children without any means of support or leave their children to take a position in another country in order to support her children. A choice that has the mother choosing between raising her family or feeding her family. With the latter, the care of her children are entrusted to an elderly grandparent, aunt, or, in some cases, to the eldest daughter who is taken out of school to care for her siblings.

Ironically migrant mothers are put in a position where they provide love, compassion, and support to their employer’s children instead of their own children – missing out on children’s birthday and holiday celebrations, the first day of school, the first lost tooth, and all the firsts that mothers in developed countries get to witness and celebrate.

Some mothers leave their children with the thought and promise that the separation is temporary, but due to low pay or other Freyhauf, Stopera, Durham, Ursuline, John Carroll, United Nations, Gendered Violence, Feminization of Poverty, CSWrestrictions by the employer never return to see their children. For example, Gloria Garcia, a mother of three, migrated to the United States from Mexico leaving her children in the care of their grandparents. She came to the U.S. to make enough money to feed her children. Jobs were simply not available. Thinking this arrangement was temporary; 10 years have now passed since she left.   In that time, she has not been able to see her children. However, she continues to send half of her pay to Mexico and lives on the remaining half, which is below the poverty level. Garcia is filled with regret, stating that her absence left emotional scars on her son that are harder to erase than hunger.

Unfortunately, the scarring of Garcia’s son is not an isolated incident. With a mother’s absence, children lose the affection of their mother and lose whatever gifts she brought to the family – whether it is nurturing and affection or an attention to details that impact their level of education and protection. Many children of migrant mothers have emotional scars. Still, others are physically, psychologically, emotionally, and sexually abused. Most are neglected by caretakers.

Statistics show that Romanian children of migrant mothers have a higher risk of depression, are more likely to abuse tobacco and/or alcohol, underperform in school, and have problems with the police.

In Sri Lanka children of migrant mothers have a higher rate of poor academic performance, decreased participation in extra curricular activities due to poor moral support, and/or show a wide range of behavioral problems such as aggression, cruelty, stealing, hyperactivity, and disruptiveness. Many have difficulty establishing relationships and sustaining existing ones with family.

In addition, in Sri Lanka, the Women and Children’s Bureau of the Police Department show an increase of over 50% in two years in grave offences reported against children. Grave offences is a report of an imminent threat of being raped or sexually abused by either a father or other relative or being harassed and having no protection due to living with a disabled grandparent or the father being away for long hours at work.

As you can tell developed countries get the benefit of the migrant mother’s work, while her own family as well as her country suffers a deficit. The consequences this has on the mothers and their children are vast. On the national level, short-term gains are seen with the influx of income sent home, but the long-term economic outlook is bleak. Simply put, if migrant workers return to their homeland, what kinds of jobs are available to sustain them or their families?

There are ways to help. NGOs and nonprofits can follow the example of Caritas – who provide migrant mothers with alternatives to migration. In Sri Lanka, Caritas trains women to start small home-based businesses that range from gardening, soap-making, poultry-raising, baking, and more.

I will conclude with one of Caritas success stories – Daya, a 41-year-old mother from Sri Lanka. Daya received a Caritas loan and started an incense making business that is sustained thanks in large part to the Buddhist Temple in her community. She employs 75 neighborhood women on a part-time to make incense from their homes. Daya earns more than she did as a maid and women in her neighborhood are employed earning money for their family. This model helps the mother and her family as well as provides a long-term economic solution for the country. It is my hope that other non-profits and NGOs can find solutions to help the approximately 60 million women who have left or are considering leaving their countries and families behind to provide financial support to their children.

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Adjunct Professor in Religious Studies at Ursuline College and the University of Mount Union. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University,  and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality.  She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS).   Michele’s research interests involve feminism, gender, and sexuality influenced by religion with special emphasis on the Biblical text, religious syncretism, literary analysis, politics, and law.  She is also interested in gendered violence, historical theology, and ecclesiology.  Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia”  and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013 and 2014). Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf  and @biblicalfem.  Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+

Categories: Children, Feminism, General, Human Rights, Justice, parenting, Poverty, Power relations, Relationships, Slavery, Social Justice, Violence, Violence Against Women, Women's Agency, Women's Suffering

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7 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Fakhra's Musings and commented:
    What feminization of poverty means.


  2. Thank you for this excellent analysis of the wrenching untenable choices so many women face and are forced to make. Thank you also for presenting alternative solutions. I am so glad you were invited to speak to the United Nations and trust your good work and words will continue to bear fruit. I am sharing your message on social media and will look for ways to support organizations like Caritas.


  3. Brava! Both for your work and your blog. And to the brave women who try so hard to find a way out of poverty. I’m also thinking about poor black women in the southern states, especially before the civil rights movement, who went to work for rich white folks and gave those children all the care they needed. But they had children at home who had almost nothing. Including not enough to eat a lot of the time. Hooray for Caritas and other organizations that are trying to defeminize and dechildize poverty.


  4. Thanks, Michelle, for speaking up about and describing the “feminization of poverty.” I support Finca and the Grameen Bank, both microfinance organizations that fund people (mostly women) to support themselves and their families. Until the structural issues you mention in your first paragraph are dealt with, these institutions seem the best way to help women help themselves.


  5. Would it be possible to have some kind of immigration law that would allow immigrant nannies to bring their children with them to their country of employment? Could we legislate the employers to provide visas, shelter and education for the children of the nannies?


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