Left-behind women, left-behind wives

by Georgia Prati

The gendered impact of migration in the Mahanadi delta

Woman preparing food

Woman preparing food

Bina lives in a remote village situated on a spit of land at the crossing of the rivers Brahamani, Hansua and Kharasrota. Her husband is working in Delhi while she is looking after their two children, one boy and one girl. They live in a mud house, on the edge of the Brahamani. It is their third house, the first was lost in the river 15 years ago and the second house had to be evacuated three years ago for the same reason.

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She stares at the water flow determined to show me the exact location of their previous house when she suddenly says “It’s there! Our second house was right there. There was also some agricultural land next to it but now is all lost” her finger points towards the downriver, her tone is powerful, almost excited. I couldn’t help myself from thinking that I would have been devastated if I was talking about my house submerged by the river but, as she will explain later, environmental challenges are the norm in this area. Something you get used to since you are a child, something you learn to cope with and eventually accept as part of your everyday life. Yet, she admits to fear that the river will also take the house where she is currently living and to get nervous sometimes during flood events especially because she is alone with two children. Soon after the birth of their first child, Bina’s husband migrated to Delhi to work as plumber, a common employment for migrants from Kendrapara whose plumbing skills are notorious. He was previously working in agriculture but when they lost the last of their 4 acres land in the river, and he realised that there was no job in the locality, he decided to migrate. At the beginning Bina was living with her in laws in an extended family “I was the youngest sister in law, thus I was the primary carer and I had to ask for permission to leave the house to my mother and sister in law but it was nice to share things, prepare food and eat together”. Odisha3Few years and several economic disputes later, her husband decided to separate. Therefore, she is now living alone with her children in a one room mud house made of a tiny little entrance, a thatched roof made of rice straws, one bed and a small shrine for God’s worship. She receives around 4,000 rupees in remittances every month that she uses for the family primary needs and medical expenses, just enough for living without resorting to loans to make ends meet. Joining her husband in Delhi is not an option, it is too expensive for the whole family to live there. He only returns home once a year for 15 days. “What does it mean to be left-behind?” I ask. She looks at me and takes a deep breath “It means to depend on others and to bear the whole brunt of the responsibilities. If my children want something or they are sick I have to ask my brother to accompany me to the market or to the hospital. I often feel overburden. I can’t give my children the time and attentions they deserve”. Social norms impede women from leaving the village unaccompanied, in some cases they cannot even leave the house. For this reason, men usually take care of any activity that takes place outside the village such as shopping for groceries, going to the bank or accompany family members to the doctor. When men migrate women depend on relatives or neighbours to address these needs. I ask Bina if there is any positive in having a more active role in decision-making, especially concerning financial decisions as she manages the remittances. “The positive aspects are outnumbered by the negatives. I have to think about everything by myself, I don’t feel comfortable and I often feel very emotional. Being alone makes you foolish!” she adds “When my husband is here I feel free”.

OdishaI left Bina with many questions still floating around in my head but it was almost lunch time and she had to start cooking. She made me think about the socio-psychological impact of migration, especially when it is so gender biased. In Kendrapara, a coastal district of the Mahanadi delta, sociocultural norms restrict women’s mobility and access to paid work resulting in larger numbers of women left behind by migrating husbands, brothers and sons. Trapped in challenging environments and disadvantaged by unequal gender and power relations they brave life alone in patriarchal societies where most activities are dominated by men. This often implies having low or no access to assets and services (i.e. credit, capital, livelihoods) and a very low bargaining power. Their strength and ability to thrive and take care of the household despite the difficulties is astonishing but I was also taken aback by the psychological bearing. Although there are differences in terms of exhaustion, mobility and power, depending on factors such as their kinship, age or the household composition, an almost common trait is a sentiment of unhappiness, resignation and loneliness. Migration is accepted for the sake of the family wellbeing or, in most cases, survival but it is very rarely reported by women as an optimal choice. As I was leaving Bina’s house she took my hands and said “Even if I want my husband to return, I know that we don’t have any other choice. I want my children to study and have a better life. What can I do? I hold on and when I’m desperate I cry. I don’t share these feelings with my husband, he is there to work I don’t want to upset him”. She then went to collect the rice straw for cooking, there are still so many things to do until dusk that there is almost no time for her to think about the future.

*Bina is a fantasy name used to protect the privacy and anonymity of the respondent.

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