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
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
"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
PROFILES OF MIGRANTS, CHILDREN
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
"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
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
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.