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The gender exodus


A study on female migrants in India throws up some interesting questions. Why, for instance, are more women migrating for marriage?

In official India, women migrants just barely exist. Yet, millions of women migrate every year, for a wide range of reasons, and this number is only rising. In 2008-2011, the Delhi-based Centre for Women's Development Studies (CWDS) conducted a study on female migrants, covering 20 states, 5, 000 individual migrants and 5, 500 households. But while the study illustrates the life of a female migrant like few before have, it also throws up some critical questions.

The CWDS study investigates the lives of women who migrate for work, a category of women under-represented in official data and policy planning. It finds that for women labour migrants, as for men, while long-term migration is the single biggest category, temporary migration is also an important component. While 16 per cent of women are medium-term migrants (up to a few years), 15 per cent are circulatory migrants for more than four months each time, 5 per cent are circulatory migrants for less than four months, 11 per cent are shortterm migrants and 6 per cent daily commuters.

Women migrate mostly with family members (43 per cent), but a surprising 24 per cent have gone in mixed male and female groups, 23 per cent alone and 7 per cent in all-female groups. A quarter of women migrants are mobilised by a contractor. Household savings fund most trips, while for men almost a third of migration is funded through loans and borrowings.

The investigation of what women do before and after migration shows that in rural India, while seasonal agricultural work is the primary occupation both before and after migration, brick-making becomes the next most popular occupation post migration. "[ This] has several negative implications, particularly in relation to gender. . . although some survival may be ensured from this form of labour migration, it offers virtually no opportunity for social advance or economic independence for women, " say the authors.
Among urban migrants, paid domestic work and construction work together account for the occupations of almost half of all women. Most of the work of female migrants is unskilled and skilled manual work. While casual labour for a private entity is the most common type of work for rural migrants, regular work for a private entity is most common for urban migrants, reflecting the concentration of paid domestic work.

The rate of female migration has risen in both rural and urban India, even as the rate of male migration has fallen in rural India and is stagnant in urban India, as data from the National Sample Surveys (NSS) over 1993, 2004-5 and 2007-8 shows. Women now constitute 80 per cent of all migrants. Nearly one in every two women in both rural and urban India will migrate, the numbers being slightly higher for rural women. On the other hand, just one in 20 rural men migrate, and one in four urban men.

Much of this is explained by customs, particularly in rural India, where women traditionally marry out of their village (exogamy). The NSS data shows that 44 per cent of rural women migrate for marriage (28 per cent for urban). Interestingly, the proportion of women migrating for marriage is increasing. Why this is happening is not clear. The CWDS study says that the notion of "village exogamy" is spreading to other communities. In its household survey, CWDS found that village exogamy was more prevalent among younger women.

"Another reason is that in the new economy, local knowledge, which would be used for example by women collecting forest produce, is increasingly becoming devalued, " says Indrani Mazumdar, one of the authors of the CWDS study.

A third reason could be that with the agrarian crisis, the value of women's agricultural labour is getting devalued, particularly significant because of the concentration of female rural labour in the agricultural sector. A connected issue is the spread of the practice of dowry, which the groom's family might feel more comfortable asking for from a family from another village than its own.

Amitabh Kundu, Professor of Economics at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development and Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says that official data often underenumerates women, or uses "marriage migration" as a catch-all phrase for various types of migration.

"In addition, the recent census has shown a spurt in the number of census towns, which are essentially large villages. It is possible that large villages have greater economic opportunity, encouraging women of small villages to marry out of the village, " Kundu adds.

However, the participation of women in the workforce has declined, according to NSS data. Researchers and academics are divided about what this means. "It points to an acute crisis of employment. Women moving out of agriculture are finding that there just aren't jobs for them, " says Mazumdar. However, some experts, like bureaucrat and gender trends expert Satish Agnihotri believe that rising prosperity may be leading to families pulling their women out of the workforce.

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