The Unsung Heroes of Remittance – How does gender affect remittance flows?

Nov. 12, 2015

There’s a growing realisation that there are some unsung heroes in the game of remittance. And it’s not just us that’s noticed it. The UN have. The World Bank have. Sociologists across the world have. Want to take a guess who we mean?

Well maybe that should be unsung heroines…

It turns out that women across the world make a far bigger remittance contribution that we commonly realise to both households in their host countries and back home. In fact, when we measure them up against men, we get quite an intriguing gender race.

But sure, “women” is a big group. Let’s break it down.

To start, the gender split for migrants tends to come up about 50-50.

You’d expect that right? Sounds like an even contest: 50-50. But does that mean we have a clear leader between the two?

Unfortunately it’s not so simple.

Actually, in more and more cases we’re finding that female migrants actually tend to earn lower incomes and have a lower rate of labour market participation.

     Ok, so you’d expect them to remit less than men do.

Obviously there’s less to give!

But that’s not the whole story…

Lets just switch what we’re looking at for a second. We actually get some really interesting results. What if we ignore the amount people are sending home for a second. Instead let’s look at the share of their income that they’re sending home.

There’s only one winner.


(Women. The winner is women)

But big claims are easy right, can we back it up?

Well, lets go back to 1999 for a second.

Back in the 90’s Keiko Osaki was interviewing Thai migrants and she made an intriguing discovery. She found that female migrants were remitting a relatively higher proportion of their income than male migrants. Even with less pay, less legal protection and less recognition, for remittance as a proportion of income women were out-performing male Thai migrants. And that’s not all.

(For the record she also concluded that not only was remittance a huge factor in their lives, but that migration actually worked as a “survival strategy” for many Thai families. These are some big stakes)

Fast forward 10 years and we find Leisy Abrego saying something very similar about Salvadorian migrants. She points out that although Salvadorian men earned more and were often more legally protected in their host country, they were still remitting less frequently and smaller amounts than their female counterparts.

And it doesn’t take long for a pattern to start forming…

Md Mizanur Rahman and Lian Kwen Fee say something very similar in their report on Indonesians migrating to Hong Kong in 2009. They also found that female domestic workers were remitting a greater share of their earnings than Indonesian male migrants.

Interesting right?

But the story doesn’t end there.

It turns out that Abrego not only interviewed the adult Salvadorian migrants, she also interviewed their children. And she found something even more startling. When she continued to study the effects of remittance on households back in El Salvador it all started to fall into place – she found that mother-away households were actually doing significantly better than similar households with the father working abroad. 

Do we know why? Well Rahman and Fee can offer a clue. They observed that in many Indonesian migrant groups female recipients were using that remittance money to invest in what we call human capital (Health, Nutrition, Education). And the mother-away families were feeling the benefit. 

So what were the men doing? Particularly with their higher wages! Well they tended to invest far more in physical capital (machinery and buildings).

(That’s certainly no bad thing, but the UN take the study a step further, and note that many men spend the money on cars and TV!) 

But that’s just Indonesia right? Does it hold up elsewhere?

Well how about the Philippines?

It has long been known that the Philippines are a huge source of migrants across the world, over 8.5 million worked abroad as recently as 2009, and in 2010 Filipino migrants remitted over 18,762 million US dollars.

But in 2011 two more sociologists, Philip Gresham and Marieke Smit, carried out a study of Filipino migrants and they looked very closely into gender and remittance. They discovered that while men tended to send money home to one person (often their wife) who dispersed the money, women were making case-dependent decisions and sending money individually to different family members.

Incredibly, women were remitting not only to their spouses but also to their parents, their children and even their siblings. All separately.

And what did it go towards? According to the recipients that Smit interviewed a lot of that money was earmarked for tuition, with the rest of the family regularly living hand to mouth to get by in the meantime. 

Like we said, these aren’t small stakes.

And we’re not the only ones trying to talk about this. The UN have also weighed in several times in the past. Did they find anything different?

Let me save you some time. They concur. (In fact they concur so much that one of their key strategies for fighting rising inequality is reducing the costs of remittance corridors, but that’s for another time).

The UN actually put the number of female migrants (aged between 20 and 64) from developing countries at an even lower rate than we do. They make them 43% of the total.

Yet they still note exactly the same phenomenon. 

Their own studies repeatedly suggest that the sex of the sender is a key determinant of remittance volume, remittance frequency and remittance sustainability! 

Which way? Have a guess.

The executive director of UNFPA has even spoken about this at length. In 2011 he noted that “migrant women are in many cases the only contributor to family income…and they contribute to make improvements in the quality of life in both countries of origin and destination”. He lists the effects of this female remittance pattern as contributing to:

– Feeding their families

– Taking care of their children – clothing and education

– Taking care of the elderly

– Providing health care

Looks like my nephews might have a point when they moan about only socks for Christmas!

But the UN have also picked up on something else very important.

They note an increasing amount of women moving autonomously to work and live abroad as primary income earners. No longer moving as dependants of husbands or with their families, these women are leaving their home countries specifically in order to earn enough money to support their families back home. This is a relatively new migration pattern, but the role they’re playing in global remittance flows is already fascinating.

It’s not just their families either! Community organisations, religious organisations, NGOs, care for orphans, education for the under-privileged. They’re busy people!

But it is especially important to get beyond the narrow idea that this is purely poorly paid women trapped by family commitments.

There is a lot of concern, justifiably, about women forced to send money home by social pressure. But there is another side to the remittance story. If we turn to Shobha Hamal Gurung and Bandana Purkayastha we begin to see a very different picture. In their report on Nepali women in Boston and New York they provide an intriguing clue into just why many women are taking part in these remittance flows.

They actually note that many of the Nepali women they spoke to do it as a means of growing their influence in their communities. They often face downward mobility and unstable employment in their host countries, but by building transnational groups and supporting their indigenous communities through remittance flows they can create a political space for themselves. Suddenly these Nepali women are emerging as important agents in their communities, and they’re using their money to further causes they’ve always supported: educational aid, peace efforts and women’s groups. Many of them even describe a huge increase in self-respect, as well as the respect of their communities, and one Nepali migrant sums up the attitude perfectly: “If women gather their courage and act accordingly, they can do anything”.

The Elephant in the Room…

That last quote was good wasn’t it? Lets try another one. How about a UN women’s organisation report:

“A key to survival for millions of poor households worldwide; remittances allow them to afford not only the basic necessities that are otherwise lacking or inaccessible, but also a degree of economic empowerment.”

Pretty important!

Wait wait I’ve got another one.

“Incredibly, women were remitting not only to their spouses but also to their parents, their children and even their siblings. All separately. “


That’s from this blog. Spotted the elephant in the room yet?

Lets look again.

“All separately”.

After all we’ve described surely this is a group that need all the help they can get. Are they getting it?

The key is in that “all separately”.

You see, when people are sending smaller amounts, and more often, they are getting charged more for their remittance flows overall. Which means, after all that, that women tend to spend more on transfer fees!

We would say that though wouldn’t we? Fair enough. Let’s avoid the spin.

Is it better if I let the UN say it?

“By sending smaller sums more often, women tend to spend more on transfer fees”.

Maybe we can help.

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