On the home front

  • Listen to the unheard voices of the suffering wives of migrant workers left behind
Support mechanisms such as access to information, justice, and other services that reduce negative psychosocial effects of migration on families left behind should be strengthened

Mar 7, 2017-Sunita (name changed), the wife of a migrant worker from Khotang district, said, “People in the village started gossiping that I had an extra-marital affair with a man I had hired to help me with farm work. I totally denied this many times, but no one believed me. The rumour even reached my husband who got so angry that he stopped contacting me, sending me money or receiving my calls. I felt very lonely, stressed out and isolated, and could not sleep. Whenever I saw people talking, it felt like they were talking about me. I cannot explain the trauma and mental stress I was going through. I stopped taking care of myself and the children. I even thought of committing suicide. A psychosocial counsellor heard about me and visited my home. When all my family members, relatives and neighbours were against me, the presence and support of the psychosocial counsellor was a big support to me. I had many sessions with her. I started thinking about how to deal with this problem and make my life better. Following the psychosocial counsellor’s advice and motivation, I talked to my husband and convinced him that there was no truth in the talk about me. I also told him how much the children and I were suffering. Now, I do not care about such gossip anymore. I have learnt to avoid them and have started investing my energy in my children, husband and managing the home. I need to be stronger to deal with this situation and take care of my family.” 

Separation problems

Foreign employment has brought a spectrum of benefits to migrants, their families and the countries that export and receive labour. However, it has also brought a wave of misfortune for women like Sunita who represent a section of society whose troubles are overlooked. Wives of migrant workers are often subject to humiliation and defamation. It is common to read about wives betraying their husbands and eloping with their lovers, squandering the husband’s hard-earned money and so forth. What no one talks about is the ordeals of the wives. The difficult lives they live in the absence of their husbands, the continuous speculation and interference from neighbours and relatives, and accusations about extramarital affairs are matters that don’t find space in any discussion. 

Separation for long periods and long distance relationships cause social and psychological problems among family members left behind, especially women. In addition, women as single parents find it difficult to deal with the children in the absence of their father. Similar problems are faced by men whose wives are working abroad. Children find it difficult to deal with the absence of either one of their parents or both. 

The Safer Migration Project encountered 1,302 such cases in nine districts between July 2014 and July 2016. Among them, 100 cases were about social blame, 98 related to women and two to men. Social blame has an adverse effect not only on the women who face it but also on their children and family members. Out of the 100 cases, 13 were categorised as suicidal risks, 34 as depressed, 48 as exhibiting anxiety symptoms and the evidence of five other types of psychosocial problems. A survey about second marriage trends conducted in 2016 among 8,933 migrant households in nine districts showed that 36 percent of the husbands whose wives were working abroad had remarried. Similarly, 2 percent of the wives of migrant workers had married a second time. Contrary to these findings, it is widely believed that women are the major cause of social cost. 

Social costs

Social cost is higher among families where a migrant worker has died or is missing. According to the Foreign Employment Promotion Board (FEPB), 4,322 Nepali migrant workers died in 24 destination countries between fiscal 2008-09 and 2014-15. Among them, 4,235 were men and 85 were women; the sex of two migrant workers was not specified. The families left behind, especially women members, have to find a way to move forward socially, emotionally and financially as they have lost a loved one and the breadwinner. The number of young widows has been growing rapidly. In Nepal’s patriarchal societies, widows are considered unlucky, and they have to follow many do’s and don’ts. In addition, they experience stigma and feel helpless. To top it all, these women are considered to be ‘easily available’ by some men. 

Similarly, family members of migrants who return to Nepal with a disability or have been cheated from pay feel worried and helpless. Very little attention is given to people who bear the burden of ‘social cost’. There is a lack of trained psychosocial counsellors who are required to work at the grassroots level. The culture of maligning the wives of migrant workers and portraying them as the guilty party for the wrongdoings of a few should be stopped. There is a lack of research and studies related to social cost. The generalisation of a few cases has had a tremendously adverse effect on society. 

Looking at all wives through one lens has to stop. Positive stories about women left behind and returnee women help acknowledge their role as ‘contributors’ to the family and country, and highlight that they are equally important to combat social stigma. Highlighting their achievements and contribution to society should be an area of interest for the government, NGOs, INGOs and media houses. It’s time to start talking about their contribution and silent suffering. Access to psychosocial support is as important as access to information, justice or other services. Support mechanisms that reduce negative psychosocial effects of migration on families left behind should also be strengthened.

- Pradhan is Senior Programme Officer at the Safer Migration Project of HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation

Published: 07-03-2017 08:11

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