Altynai Myrzabekova, MA in Peace and Conflict Studies, University of St. Andrews.
This paper was submitted as part of the Gender Studies course at the American University of Central Asia.
There is an increasing discussion and interest in the rise of female migration in Central Asian countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, and its immediate consequences on families. While women have to migrate to more developed countries, such as the Russian Federation or Kazakhstan, in order to financially support their families, in most of the cases children have to stay with the elderly – their grandparents. In their turn, women’s parents or parents-in-law often take the load and responsibility to raise their grandchildren. This type of migration affects the changes of the “family care relationship” (Thieme 2008, p. 336). Present paper is crucial in gaining a better understanding of the aftereffects of female migration on the families left behind in Kyrgyzstan. The aim of this work is to demonstrate how migration of women adversely influences family ties. The paper analyzes three main consequences of female migration: female migrants have weakened connection with their children over time; migrants’ children left home with grandparents have poorer academic performance and do not have a decent access to health care; and the migrants’ parents are the ones who take much burden of migration and separation of the family.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused large changes in the economics, politics and social change in Kyrgyzstan. Because of the drastic transformation, the economic crisis and bankruptcy of many companies and following mass unemployment, many had to flee to neighboring Russia or Kazakhstan for work (Thieme 2008). According to Thieme, women were the first ones to travel back and forth between those countries and Kyrgyzstan to start a petty trade (“chelnoks”) purchasing and selling shoes, apparel, accessories and crockery to make living of their families (Thieme 2008). Today, approximately one of 5 million people of Kyrgyzstan work in Russia and Kazakhstan (Ablezova et al. 2008).
While the number of female migrants is increasing every year, now they comprise almost half of the world’s migrants. According to Morrison, Schiff, and Sjöblom (2008, p. 2), the largest number of women migrants belongs to the former Soviet Union countries – 58 % – and the number is increasing. Particularly, in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, the number of female migrants is growing, with estimated 58.2 percent of the total (International Organization for Migration 2010).
There are various reasons why unskilled women migrate to more developed countries, like Russian Federation. Among the main reasons, Aida Bektasheva (2012) emphasizes the high level of unemployment in the remote regions and larger cities of Kyrgyzstan, a low level of social welfare, the absence of infrastructure as well as the demand for unskilled laborers in more developed neighboring Kazakhstan and Russia. However, it is also important to notice that migration can be a reason to break off traditions and extend the age when they have to get married. According to the survey conducted by Ablezova, Nasritdinov and Rahimov (2008), it is the main reason for 27% of female migrants. We have to also take into consideration that girls in Kyrgyzstan are expected to get married early (Thieme 2008, p. 334).
Abovementioned types of economical and social transformations affect more women to migrate which later on have aftereffects on the society processes as well as on the spiritual and moral connections between generations within families.
Lost connection between migrant mothers and their children
Children left behind lose or have weakened connection with their mothers, who migrate to more developed states. Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila (1997, p.312) published a paper in which they introduced the “transnational motherhood” theory – a new definition for those mothers who have to leave their children back home and seek for employment in another country. The outcomes of such transnational motherhood can be various. One of the main aftereffects is that the long detachment in terms of time and distance result in breaking from both sides of the “class spectrum of mother and a child” (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 1997, p. 312). Similar to Latina women as it has been demonstrated in a case study of Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila, Kyrgyz women mostly leave their children with their parents or parents-in-law when they seek employment in Russian cities (Thieme 2008).
Female migrants do not have a chance to be physically present for their children. Upon they leave origin country, it is hard for Kyrgyz female migrants to visit their families often due to the travel expenses. Central American and Mexican women, who migrated to the United States and left their children back in their countries, had to actively build “alternative constructions of motherhood” by improvising new strategies (Hondagneu-Sotelo, and Avila 1997, p.309). Whereas, the attempt of Kyrgyz migrants to perform their roles of mothers from distance, frequently limit to remittance, regular, sometimes, rare calls, and even less visits. The conversations over mobile phones are the only mean of communication between migrant mothers and their children (Ablezova et al, 2008).
Spatial distance along with poor communication cause weakened relationships (Costachi 2013). Communication between mother and children occurs on rare basis – children often do not see mothers for years. There are cases when children were left when they were very little and when mothers visit them a few years later, children do not recognize their biological mothers. In the study conducted by Ablezova and her colleagues (2008, p. 39) in regions of Kyrgyzstan, one of the respondents said she has been looking after her grandchildren starting from their very early age. Their mother visited them for the first time only after three years of working abroad. However, when her four-year-old child saw her, he resisted to call her “mother,” and refused even to come close. Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila (1997) explain in their work that transnational mothers and their children are separated due to the time and distance detachments. As a result, families grow apart: while mothers try integrating in their workplace, children are being formed as personalities in an environment without their biological mother.
Some experts say that emotional detachment of a child from a mother unwittingly destroys the “family unit” and often may cause bad grades, ineptitude to communicate with peers, etc. The next section looks closer into this issue.
Poor academic performance and deficient access to medical service
Migrants’ children left home with grandparents are most likely to have poor access to social services. For example, most of them experience difficulties in their studies and have poor academic performance (Ablezova et al. 2008). One of the main reasons is that their grandparents are not able to provide sufficient assistance. Elderly do not know how to help their grandchildren with preparing homework, or simply do not pay much attention on education. However, even if grandparents were willing to do home assignments with children, there might occur some other problems, where biological parents would do better. According to the survey conducted by Ablezova et al. (2008, p. 37), 37% of respondents – elderly guardians – have not completed even secondary school, finishing only 4-5 classes of school. In addition, we should consider the fact that the education system has drastically changed since then and elderly are less conscious about sophisticated effective approaches for child development (Ablezova et al. 2008).
Another reason children lack education is because they must take the burden of their parents at home. With migration, the roles of family members at home also shift. “When parents migrate, children may take an adult role in household and agriculture” (Ablezova et al. 2008, p. 37). Instead of attending school and devoting time for studies, migrant’s children take the load of housework to sustain living. Frequently, children do the work that grandparents are physically not able to do, such as tending cattle, chopping wood, harvesting, etc. For many grandparents it is more important for their grandchild to do his or her daily workload than to spend much time on studies. While underestimating education, grandparents tend to have higher expectations from children. According to UNICEF (2012, p. 42), articularly during the fall and spring farming seasons, which last from four to five months, 83% of children miss schools because of farm work. Boys consist 58% of all the absentees, whereas 42% are girls (UNICEF 2012, p.42). For example, researchers Ablezova and her colleagues (2008) described the scene they saw in many regions of Kyrgyzstan that they travelled to: many boys and girls of age from 8 to 12 were working in the field, preparing the grass, bringing wood to the village, as well as riding donkeys.
Moreover, many children who are being taken care of by grandparents do not have decent access to health care (Ablezova et al. 2008). It mostly happens because grandparents do not tend to trust official medical services, and try to heal themselves using traditional methods. It might be a bad practice, because most of the times they do not know the exact symptoms of diseases and late treatment might be too risky. A school teacher from Ak-Kiya village (Ablezova et al. 2008) explains that those children who live with their grandparents are most likely to get sick a lot. According to her, instead of going to a hospital or taking medicine, their grandparents use old traditional methods. One of such methods is making a child to smoke Archa (spruce) tree and saying “Alas, Alas” (one of the old Kyrgyz rites used when someone is not feeling well). As a teacher states, grandparents usually say they do not use medicine (Ablezova et al. 2008). Neglecting the healthcare and medicine, might result in high rate of child mortality. According to UNICEF (2009), child mortality in Kyrgyzstan is 65 per 1000 children.
In most of the cases, children are the ones who become the victims of migration and the decision of adults, who migrate for better opportunities often leaving behind their children and parents. The latter are the ones who also contribute to the migration process, by taking care of grandchildren. Following section provides an insight into this issue.
Grandparents are the ones who take much burden of migration
The migrants’ parents are the ones who take much burden of migration and separation of the family. The “heaviest physical and emotional load” of family growing apart and family members’ separation lies on migrants’ parents (Ablezova et al., 2008). Grandparents often agree to raise their grandchildren when a mother or both of the parents decide to migrate internally or to more developed countries. While for healthy and young grandparents, who are physically able to take care of the household and children it is not difficult, for others, young grandchildren can become a heavy burden. Aytolkun eje (Ablezova et al., 2008), who looks after two of her 4.5 year-old grandsons can barely walk and needs to have a surgery on her gall-bladder soon. However, she cannot stay in the hospital because she does not have anyone to look after her grandchildren. Aytolkun eje (Ablezova et al., 2008) says how difficult it is for her to take care of young grandsons:
For me it is difficult, because he [grandchild] hasn’t even started walking; he is crawling everywhere. And I need to work. I roll him in beshik [cot] and till the time I return he is in it. Half of my health is spend on this child.
Grandparents often sacrifice their own lives and health in order to help their children to succeed in more developed countries. Based on the old Kyrgyz traditions, children used to give the first child to their parents to take care of their first granddaughter or grandson. However, now this tradition has another connotation. Mothers are constrained to leave not only the oldest child but all of her children to her parents or parents-in-law. According to Ablezova et al. (2008), grandparents’ jobs and contribution to the migration process are often undervalued. Nevertheless, grandparents become the ones who are responsible for children for the time when their biological parents are absent. “In villages across Kyrgyzstan, only grandparents with small grandchildren are left behind,” a 23-year old Anara says (Thieme 2008). According to the research conducted in the regions of Kyrgyzstan by Ablezova et al. (2008), 45% of an average household have grandchildren. The average number of grandchildren living with grandparents is 2.5 to each household (Ablezova et al. 2008). In addition, in every settlement where Ablezova and her colleagues went to, almost every single house had at least one family member who left as a migrant, resulting to 92% of families (Ablezova et al. 2008).
Moreover, grandparents take not only physical and emotional burden but also financial. Despite of the overall opinion, that their migrant daughter or sons financially support them, remittances are not enough. Out of 92%, only 38% of migrants send some money, apparel, groceries and medicine to their parents back home (Ablezova et al. 2008). Often most of the family members including grandchildren rely on the grandparents’ pensions. The same research has proved that 24% of elders consider remittances sent by their children as the main income in a family (Ablezova et al. 2008). Therefore, migrants’ parents take care not only of the household and left behind children but also the financial part that families have to face.
This paper examined the impact of female migration on Kyrgyzstani families. As a result of the analysis it has been concluded that rising number of female migrants has negative effects on family ties.
The paper closely looked at various factors that can influence family ties. The first section provided insight into the lost or weakened communication between a mother and a child over the time based on the cases of Latina women in the USA. Similar to Latina women, Kyrgyz mothers tend to search for new “ways” to perform their social role of a mother from the distance, even though this is limited to remittance and rare visits in most of the cases. However, remittance is not enough for grandparents and children left behind, as it was shown in the section three. Therefore, grandparents take a burden of not only raising a child or children but also to financially sustain their living. The transformation in education, along with underestimation of its importance by grandparents, leads to children’s poor academic performance. The same applies to another social service that is undervalued by grandparents – healthcare. The analysis has demonstrated that three main factors analyzed in the paper might have adverse effects on Kyrgyzstani families.
The issue of female migrants has important negative implications on Kyrgyzstani families and a society as a whole. Since family is the basic unit of a society, and female migration has negative effects on family ties, the entire Kyrgyz society feels negative effects of this trend. Further research is needed in order to gain more quantitative data related to consequences of female migration. These studies could be then further used by the relevant government stakeholders in order to develop strategies to address this issue in a more systematic way.
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