ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, Octomber 15, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 20

Father as mother

A new study defines the role of husbands whose wives work abroad and calls on the Foreign Employment Bureau to guide migrant workers on how to spend their remittances

By Feizal Samath

A recent study on the crisis facing Sri Lankan families when a mother works abroad confirms many past findings but there is a new, important one - the need for fathers to also take responsibility for their children.

"Save the Children reiterates women's right to choice of employment and in no way sees child-rearing as the sole responsibility of these women. In fact, the research focuses on fathers and other family members as caregivers and investigates issues around it," the study said.

Up to a million Sri Lankan children are affected by their mothers migrating for work. The study, among other laudable recommendations, made a significant proposal - that the “Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) support families of migrant workers in the effective management of overseas remittances with a particular focus on addressing needs of children”.

Sri Lankan migrant workers awaiting their flight at the Colombo Airport.

Migrant workers say they don't have free access and guidance to proper investment and savings mechanisms from the government or related agencies, and then tend to fritter away their savings. Often the money is 'lavishly' spent at the Duty Free shops on non-essentials on their return and a few months later when debts rise, these items - washing machines, cookers, etc - are sold.

Commissioned by Save the Children, and titled “Left Behind, Left Out - The impact on children and families of mothers migrating for work abroad”, the study is the first complete dossier on a worrying social crisis.

Many studies and research have been undertaken in the past but not as comprehensive as this one which was done throughout 2005. It was conducted using a random sample of 1,200 households of migrant mothers and confined to the Colombo and Kurunegala districts which have the highest incidence of female migration. Interviews were conducted with 400 children.

Close to 1.5 million Sri Lankans are working abroad, mainly in West Asia. Some 600,000 of them are women, many of them married with children.

The report says that children and families left behind by migrant women are "left out" by an entire system that has yet to adequately and fully recognize and appreciate the considerable contribution to national income made by these women.

Structures and mechanisms to oversee the emotional, psychological and social impact on children and families of the long-term absence of the maternal figure are not in place, and where they are present they are extremely weak, the study found.

It said a clear negative impact of women migrating is the education of children.

But Save the Children stressed that “the absence of mothers and their impact on children's lives, should, in no way, promote restrictive migration policies for women”.

Instead, it noted, while acknowledging women's rights to choice of employment, and a right to migration, the impact on children left behind should be considered more deeply at a policy level. Reflecting the dilemmas of the government and society, it also noted that women often migrate to provide their children with a better future.

The report deals with the tremendous impact on children, the issue of caregivers and education problems among others.

Out of the survey sample, 82.8% were in the economically and sexually active age group of 21-40 indicating the likelihood of very young children being left behind. Most migrants (81.4%) were legally married while 12.8% were widowed with the remainder consisting of those who were separated (0.8%), not legally married but having a regular partner (1.5%) and single parents (3.6%).


Nearly half the children, at the time their mothers left, were below six years of age. Of this nearly a third were less than three years of age.

"This is a critically formative stage of development when adequate physical and emotional nurturance is essential for the future growth of the child. Furthermore, this is an age when most would not have been able to comprehend what was happening, and if they did, were probably unable to cope with the event," the study found.

Only 25.9% of primary caregivers (PCGs) were fathers while others were close relatives of the children with nearly three fourths being female, the majority of them grandmothers.

In around 17% of cases, children were being looked after by caregivers older than 60. The research indicated that these age differences between the child and the caregiver could lead to communication problems, and problems in education support, as many of them may not even be literate.

On income and spending patterns, the report said plans to use the remittances for various priorities (such as constructing a house, purchasing land, paying loans, educating children) were only realized by 15% of the respondents.

"Though the majority said they were sent regular remittances, many were trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty that included debt cycles, unplanned events or emergencies. Expenditure patterns emerged in the categories of house construction, purchase of land, health care, clothing, travel for pleasure, religious or other ceremonies, liquor and cigarettes, special occasion, food, education savings, and betel. Other than for the high expenditure elements of house construction and purchase of land, in daily expenditure trends, expenditure was highest for food and then, in descending order, for savings, education and liquor and cigarettes."

"Our stepmother is very harsh. She loves only her children. She hits me, scolds me. Her children are also like that," a five-year-old boy was quoted as saying.

The findings indicate that the love, attention and proximity of the mother were not replaced by even the best caregivers in the estimation of the children — with 77% of the children indicating that they felt lonely due to the absence of the mother.

"Father began to drink more with my mother's departure. He comes drunk and starts quarrelling with us when there is nothing to eat," a 16-year-old girl had said. However, according to a 15-year-old-boy, his father didn't allow them to feel the absence of their mother. He attempted to attend to their chores as much as he could.

A higher percentage of husbands of migrant women admitted to drinking than husbands of non-migrant women. Daily and weekly alcohol intake was clearly higher for men in families of migrant women.

The study didn't indicate high levels of violence by fathers against children, dislodging the negative perception of fathers as fundamentally abusive in the absence of the mother.

The educational performance of children of migrating mothers was clearly lower than that of others.

The study found that the perceived high levels of abuse of children by drunken fathers was not reflected in the interviews, with the reporting of abuse by only a fraction of the child respondents.

The study has recommended the adoption of policies to address the needs and concerns of the children of migrant workers, particularly those below six years.

It suggested the SLBFE should ensure that families are supported with programmes prior to the decision to migrate so they have a clear understanding of childcare support that needs to be in place.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.