Labor migration has become a major issue for many developing countries as migrant remittances increasingly form a major portion of both family and national budgets. In the Yemen-Arab Republic in 1978-1979, perhaps a million male migrants remitted an estimated US $1.3 billion, lessening the tremendous import-export deficit. Yemeni women's lives are changing as a result of the massive flow of remittances and the absence of men.
Labor migration in Yemen has a long history. For centuries, young Yemeni men of merchant families were sent to various parts of the world to establish trading houses. Other young men would sometimes leave for a few years to travel and work. In this century, however, the country's conservative religious rulers feared the subversive effects of outside contact and followed isolationist policies.
Only after a revolution in 1962 and a civil war from 1962 to 1970 did the newly-established Yemen Arab Republic actively seek ties with the outside world. At roughly the same time, the Middle East oil boom encouraged modernization in neighboring countries of the Arabian peninsula which had more than enough money for development activities but insufficient manpower for the actual work. North Yemen had very little money and few exploitable mineral resources, but it did have a large rural population with few employment alternatives. The result was the establishment, in the early 1970s, of a pattern of short-term migration, wherein unskilled young men left the Yemeni countryside for work in nearby oil-rich states.
Family ties are strong in North Yemen, so few migrants wished to leave for unknown areas without their relatives. When they did migrate, they went for short periods - six to 11 months - and only a few times. They usually went to earn money for a major, one-time purchase - a house, farmland, a car or truck, a wife, a tubewell for irrigation. At the end of several years, after having saved enough money for such purchases, a young man returned home permanently. Short-term migration for young men, in addition to being a way to earn money for a major expense, also allowed them to see a bit of the world and get away from parental authority. One grandfather said, "It gets the restless, unemployed youths out of our hair."
By the early 1980s labor migration patterns had changed; rather than a trickle of migrants, there is now a flood. Current estimates place the number of yearly migrants between 1 and 1.5 million men, about one-fifth of the country's entire population. In some rural areas, one-third to one-half of adult males are away for 10 to 11 months of the year; virtually every household has at least one migrant member. External migration is viewed increasingly as a regular employment possibility. Some men have been working as yearly, unskilled migrants since the end of the civil war, using their earnings to support their families rather than as a means to a specified end. For them and the million or so who have joined them, migration is a way of life.
Very few women migrate; when they do, it is as a member of a family, not for personal employment. The countries to which Yemeni migrants go do not usually allow a migrant to bring his family. They want to restrict the potential number of settlers who might later claim citizenship. In addition, a migrant who brings his family can save very little money. Rather than sharing housing and living costs with a number of migrants, he must provide separate housing and additional food for a wife and children. For the most part, Yemeni women stay in North Yemen, at their husbands' homes, looked after by their husbands' relatives.
The migration trend has had several effects on both rural and urban women. On the one hand, life has become easier for many wives, due to the increase in family income. On the other hand, the absence of so many men and the inflation caused by the massive flow of remittances has increased family pressures and the divorce rate.
Remittances are now used more for general family support than for major purchases. Less food is produced on family farms, and more imported foods are purchased, bringing changes in diet. Families now consume more fruits and a wider range of vegetables as well as more meat, but they also consume items containing sugar, e.g. sodas and candy. Other imported consumer goods are also common; it is a truly remote and poor family that does not have at least a radio/cassette player and, increasingly, a television run on batteries.
The additional income has lightened the workload for rural women. Butane gas burners are common in the countryside, eliminating the need for women to collect firewood or dung as fuels. While women used to fetch water, often from springs or wells several hours away or down a mountainside, migrant remittances now support potable water projects which bring water to the village if not to each household. Women in some rural areas now spend less than an hour a day doing chores that not a decade ago took six or more hours each day.
In some places women are doing less agricultural labor as well. It is a sign of prestige for families to keep their women indoors, instead of working in the fields. Thus, if a family sufficiently increases its wealth through remittances, it withdraws its women from the labor force and hires day laborers instead.
Most rural women seem to be enjoying their leisure while it lasts. They watch Egyptian soap operas and Adeni musical programs on television, listen to Yemeni musical programs on the radio, and visit each other frequently.
Women are seldom, if ever, left in charge of a family. For a man to leave his wife in a situation in which she must deal with merchants, tax collectors, or other strangers would be shaming to both him and her. Generally, the decision to migrate is a family matter, balancing financial need and the need to provide for the care, support and supervision of the women left behind. Thus women are not taking a more public role in the management of their families and their lives. Nor do they do work that is traditionally considered masculine, such as heavy agricultural labor. The usual pattern is for an appointed male guardian - father, brother, father-in-law, or brother-in-law - to hire day laborers.
The absence of men has not substantially changed Yemeni women's public roles. However, the long and frequent absences of migrants have increased the pressures on new marriages. A young bride traditionally arrives at her husband's home knowing only her husband, and him just slightly. As she adjusts to the new household, the husband mediates between his mother and his new wife, explaining one to the other and trying to reconcile their sometimes opposed interests. The birth of a child usually gives the bride acceptance with her mother-in-law. If the husband is regularly away for perhaps 11 months of a year, however, the new bride has no one to act as mediator during the first years of adjustment. In addition, she may not conceive at first, thereby delaying the birth of a child that would bind her to her husband's family. A stranger without support in the family, she may feel isolated, confused, and maltreated; often she runs away and returns to her own family. She is caught between opposing pressures - lack of support within her husband's household and her own parents' concern over paying back a substantial bridewealth. Usually the bride is told to return to her husband's family, but if she runs away several times, the husband's family may feel she is no longer worth keeping. The woman may be divorced, and her family required to pay back the bridewealth. To avoid this, the bride's family may claim that the husband deserted his wife, in which case she and they are entitled to keep the marriage payments. Eventually a compromise is reached, though sometimes only after litigation.
Occasionally the husband will try to avoid this conflict between his mother and his new wife by arranging for the bride to stay with her own family. He must also arrange regular payments for her support and supervision, since she is technically no longer the responsibility of her parents. Should the migrant husband miss payments, his in-laws may sue for divorce. In addition, if he remains away too long, the woman may refuse to live with him upon his return and insist on a divorce.
In urban areas, while lower and middle class women are increasingly withdrawn from the labor market, upper class women are getting an education and seeking employment. An education increases a family's prestige as well as the daughters' value as potential wives. Between education and marriage, some young women are allowed to work at jobs, as secretaries for example, where they are segregated from unknown men and properly supervised. However, most women are forced to abandon even this slight independence when they marry, a loss which further exacerbates tension between newlyweds.
The effects of labor migration on women are many and varied. For most, the enormous increase in cash income has meant a substantial rise in the standard of living. However, the absence of men has not brought, as it apparently has elsewhere, women to public position or to greater personal control of their lives. Instead, the social system has worked to maintain the traditional roles of men and women, to prevent women moving into the "public sphere". In addition, the absence of nearly one-fifth of the population has increased the pressures on marriages, since brides cannot form stable attachments which might counteract normal tensions. Whether the higher divorce rate is a temporary consequence or indicative of other changes to come remains to be seen. For the foreseeable future, though, any additional effects of migration on the lives of Yemeni women will be both the results and effects, as they have been so far, of their roles in the family.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.