Geographies of migration, gender and agrarian change in the Global South

IWMI Nepal researchers Fraser Sugden and Stephanie Leder chaired a WLE-IWMI session at RGS-IGB conference

On August 31, 2016, IWMI Nepal researchers Fraser Sugden and Stephanie Leder chaired a WLE-IWMI panel discussion titled “Geographies of migration, gender and agrarian change in the Global South” at the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) Conference in London. This panel discussion came just a few days after Fraser presented on migration’s impact on water resources at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm.

Fraser opened the session by emphasizing the severity and wide-ranging effects of migration across the Global South. With nearly one billion migrants, both national and international, in the world today, agriculture faces unprecedented shifts in social roles and dramatic increases in inequality and vulnerability. Fraser explained that migration and agriculture are inextricably linked, forming a migration-agriculture nexus that should be the basis for how we understand trends and shifts in either field.

In the first session, researchers Chandni Singh from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) presented her comparative life history research between families with migrant members and families without migrant members. She concluded that it is incomplete to refer to migration as simply an adaptation strategy, because the effects can be so varied both across and within families. Elok Ponco Mulyoutami from ICRAF presented on the migration networks of the Bugis ethnic group in Indonesia. She identified patterns of networking in each historical migratory wave, the most common being kinship connections and the least common being pioneer movement.

Stephanie opened the second session, describing her WLE gender research on the linkages between migration and gender norms in Far West Nepal. While much attention has been given to the shifting division of labor in rural communities as men out-migrate, Stephanie’s research delved deeper, analyzing the changes in gender norms and relations that underlie the new distributions of work in these communities. Her findings made it clear that power structures still exist that make women farmers less able to adapt to changing conditions. In order to address this additional vulnerability, future interventions will need to take into account not only how farming practices have changed, but also how that is linked to reciprocal changes in gender dynamics.

Elok from ICRAF focused on small-scale timber farmers in Indonesia, comparing non-migrant families and partially migrated families, splitting the latter group into migrants that left for non-farm jobs and migrants that left to farm elsewhere. Only the last group- families where males had left for other farms- demonstrated a greater role of females in farming. Lastly, Peter Dirksmeier from Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany, described the interesting case of Mauritius as an island in the Global South with a colonial past that can be used to compare similarities in sexism between the Global South and North. He argued that the geography community needs to pay more attention to sexism, and that the unique combination of paternalism, urbanization, and post-colonialism made Mauritius a worthwhile case study with which to begin.

During the discussions, researchers across various regions found that women perceive harassment not only from men, but from other women as well. Researchers also observed different forms of sexism, noting the presence of “benevolent” sexism. This prejudice involved being overly protective of women, leading to their exclusion from public spaces and certain power structures. Additionally, the group discussed the trouble with treating women as a monolith, with one set of views and opportunities. Doing so disregards the intersectionality of gender with a whole slew of cultural categories, such as age, caste, family situation, and landownership, which can muddy research results if not properly accounted for. A mother-in-law, for example, may hold real power in the very same household where the daughter-in-law is entirely powerless.

Many questions and suggestions arose in terms of how to conduct future studies. Making sure to interview a heterogeneous group, avoiding westernized narratives that suggest that women need “saving”, and engaging early on with men to avoid possible sabotage were all highlighted as important considerations. Panelists also felt that further research into both the fate and impact of returned migrants, particularly those without any farming experience, would be valuable. The research discussed represented only a small snapshot of the real conditions in these diverse societies. Social roles can change drastically across seasons as well as years, and the ability to capture these shifts with longitudinal studies could produce unexpected findings. Policy recommendations centered around the formation of collectives, which can increase bargaining power and decrease harassment, as a step towards creating communities with less inequality and vulnerability post-migration. In addition to suggesting policy changes, there was agreement across the panelists that more had to be done to funnel their research to those within government that have the power to implement such improvements.

Read more about the panel discussions on the conference website, here and here


  1. Pingback: Geographies of migration, gender and agrarian change in the Global South :: IWMI

  2. Pingback: Asia Outmigration Dialogue Linking Gender, Water and Agriculture :: IWMI

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