Rithika Kumar on the Impact of Male Migration on Women’s Political Engagement

Shruti Rajagopalan and Rithika Kumar discuss gender, urbanization, and politics in India.

In this episode, Shruti speaks with Rithika Kumar about the feminization of politics, impacts of migration, and norms holding back women.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and this is the 2023 job market series, where I speak with young scholars entering the academic job market about their latest research on India. 

I spoke with Rithika Kumar, who is a Postdoctoral Visiting Fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She received her PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania in August 2023.

Her research lies at the intersection of gender, urbanization and politics in India. We discussed her job market paper titled “Left Behind or Left Ahead?” and the feminization of politics, political and social impact of migration, norms holding back women, and much more.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit mercatus.org/podcasts.

Hi, Rithika. Welcome to the show. It's a pleasure to have you here.

RITHIKA KUMAR: Thanks, Shruti, and thanks for organizing this for job market candidates. It's definitely a great forum. Thank you.

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to get right into your job market paper. You are basically looking at a phenomenon in India, which is huge—internal migration within India—and relatively understudied. You are, in particular, looking at Bihar where you're looking at the impact of men's outmigration and how that impacts the women, in particular the wives who are left behind in managing the household.

You find that male outmigration actually leads to an increase in female claim-making, because now the women who are left behind actually need to make demands from state actors and institutions. They need to actually get the claims that they're entitled to through welfare services and so on. The effect you find is kind of big, and it truly surprised me. You find that women with migrant husbands are 17 percent more likely to make these claims relative to those with co-reresident husbands. What is the underlying mechanism that's leading to this effect?

KUMAR: Yes, Shruti, thanks for that introduction. My job market paper, which is part of my larger dissertation-book project, looks at how male migration—which is a huge phenomenon not just in India but actually across the global south, given that migration is a pretty gendered phenomenon—how that's affecting local politics and political engagement in migrant standing communities through a gendered lens.

What I'm particularly saying, and maybe this is a one-sentence summary of my argument, is that male migration is leading to what I call the feminization of everyday political engagement, which is defined by the heightened presence of women in these male-dominated political arenas. This is particularly striking given that these are highly patriarchal contexts that we are looking at.

What does this feminization look like? It's as simple as going to your ward member, who's your first point of contact with the state, and asking them for a document or a signature. Or it could be representing your household for some kind of theft in the court ,or it could just be going to the block and making multiple trips to get an Aadhaar card. A lot of this is now being done by women because their husbands are not around. This is what I call the feminization that is occurring in the political space.

My argument really is that male migration is removing this significant barrier that exists in women's lives, and that's their husband. Because there are a lot of norm-based restrictions that are imposed on women just by the presence of their husbands, this absence, even if temporary, can actually usher in political engagement. This is an important pathway that we should be considering.

I'm suggesting that in their absence there are these non-based restrictions that are eased, and women can access the social sphere and get access to information, skills, networks, all of which propel their political engagement, particularly in areas that I'm looking at, which is engagement with the state.

Very importantly, actually, there's this huge body of work that has looked at male absence in the context of war—where we know that it led to an increase in labor force participation, [and] also ushered in the right for women to vote and all of that—and other conflict contexts where also there's this indefinite absence of men. A lot of authors and the scholarship there has established that women must be holding economic leadership positions before experiencing this form of political empowerment.

I'm actually arguing that because of the social exposure that women get in their husband's absence due to migration, women don't really have to be economically empowered before being politically empowered. More so because this migration that their husbands are doing is for economic reasons, and so they are still the primary breadwinners of the family. I'm arguing that there's this other channel that can also usher in political engagement, and that is something that we should be looking at.

Of course, with most political science dissertations, I use a range of methods, so there's a lot of qualitative data collection that did go into this project. My fieldwork was primarily conducted in Araria District in Bihar, which actually shares a border with Nepal, and it's a high-migration region. I also use data from two original surveys. One of them had an embedded survey experiment and, of course, [I] use the national level panel dataset, which is the Indian Human Development Study that a lot of social scientists use to provide some evidence on the effect of migration on women's lives across different dimensions. The effects are pretty striking, as you already said, that women are politically empowered, and as I was explaining.

There are, however, some kinds of caveats, or you can say some factors, that could moderate the overall effect. One of them is primarily the fact that a lot of this migration is happening in contexts where joint families are fairly common, so the presence of an older family member or an in-law can have a moderating effect on the overall effect on political empowerment. There's also the return of men, which can make it seem like there's some kind of going back to the status quo. But there are some effects that persist. It's a very nuanced effect that is occurring on women's lives. What I say is that it's a constrained yet very positive effect.

The Other Side of the Coin: Women’s Capabilities

RAJAGOPALAN: A lot of the survey data that you've collected is talking to women, and the view is trying to get a sense of what are women's preferences when it comes to being more active in the political sphere. And the second part of it is what are their constraints in being more active in the political sphere. That's what you're trying to capture through this survey.

Now, is there another way to think about this question, which is in terms of how female capability is viewed within the household or within the marriage unit? One way of asking the question is, are men who are married to women who they think are more capable of advocating for the household in the political sphere more likely to migrate? It's actually, you're capturing the opposite of what one thinks you're capturing. How do you separate that effect from what is actually going on with women in terms of their preferences and constraints?

KUMAR: Of course. We know that migration, in many ways, is endogenous. It's very hard to randomize migration. There are studies that have created some incentives in that sense. What I do to get around this… yes, I do conduct a cross-section survey, like my own surveys were cross-sections. But to get around some of these issues that might arise from endogeneity in that maybe it's the capabilities of the women that are driving the results rather than migration, what I do is I use the panel dataset, the national level panel dataset, which is the Indian Human Development Study, which is, of course, a great data repository for anybody studying India, and most social scientists would know that.

I used the first two waves of this survey, and the survey tracks the same households across two waves. That lets us control for some of the time in varied confounding factors and mostly innate abilities, et cetera, that could perhaps be leading to these results or something that can confound these results.

What I do is that I take the data from the women's questionnaire. They survey one woman in every household, and they also have information on the migration status of every household member. I take this woman, and I match her with her husband, and I can get the migration status of her husband. What I do is, that gives me effectively two groups of women. One group of women is women whose husbands, in the first wave, resided with them when the survey was being conducted. In the second wave, they migrate, [they] were migrants when the survey was conducted. In effect, this forms my treatment group in that they are treated with migration in the second wave.

Then you have the control group, that's the second group, where these women’s husbands co-resided with them in both waves of the survey. With that, I use a very simple two-period, two-group, difference-in-difference model. I look at the effect, then, of this treatment of migration on women's political engagement as much as I can with the IHDS that's very limited, and other dimensions like their bargaining power, decision-making, financial access, and things like that.

I, of course, do a bunch of checks, because even with diff-in-diff designs there are multiple other kind of caveats. There are robustness checks that I do with conducting some trends and pretreatment trends.

Just going back to your question on, is it about the women more than migration? One of the things that I also do is that I just compare women whose husbands were always co-resident with them and the ones whose husbands returned. I find that there is convergence when these men return home along these different indicators, to the same levels as the ones who are co-residing with their husbands in both waves, which really goes to say that there is something about migration that is happening. Of course, I validate a lot of my findings with my own survey, which is an addition, or a supplement, to the IHDS analysis.

Another thing that I also do is that I conduct this survey experiment which just progressively removes the presence of household members and identifies whether women are then picked. You see that particularly when the husband is removed in a household setup, women are more likely to be picked to carry out a certain political task.

All of this together really says that there is something about migration, and there is something about this male absence that migration is creating that we need to look at when we think about political engagement. Of course, there's a huge body of work in the humanities, and sociology, and anthropology that has looked at it from other dimensions. I'm also providing a political angle to this.

Household Constraints Get in the Way

RAJAGOPALAN: The way I interpret your results is, it is not about innate characteristics of the women because that gets worked out. It is also not about the capability because the assumption is they aren't fundamentally changing in capability between the two rounds. They're also not fundamentally changing in capability when the husbands are back. It's not like all the capacities they've developed have suddenly gone away.

The way you would set it up is most, if not all, women have some baseline preference for political engagement. What is stopping them is all these household constraints. The moment the constraints are lifted, they actually participate in the political arena. The moment the constraints are back on top because the husband's back or the son is of age, or so on, or someone younger in the family gets married and there's another male member now close by or in the neighborhood to look at these things, suddenly those constraints are back on the women and the women stop being as active as they would've been in the political arena. Is that a good way to think about this?

KUMAR: Yes, in a sense, yes. That's the whole point of that survey experiment, which I was looking at, which talks about just household constraints as defined by the presence of certain household members, and where I find that the presence of the husband specifically is particularly restrictive for women.

I think going to your question on… I think this can also perhaps answer some questions about what happens when men come back, and how temporary or persistent these results are. How much of it is, maybe, lasting? What I do find is that on certain indicators—specifically actually on bargaining power within the household, which is a very important indicator of female empowerment—even when their husbands come back, that exposure to migration, at least on those indicators, definitely seems to persist even after men come back.

Men also—once women have had this experience of male absence of their husbands and their husbands are away and they're usually back home for a couple of months a year—they do recognize the importance of the information that their wives have gained in their absence and the knowledge that they have gained. This is evidenced through multiple interviews where migrants themselves acknowledge that women perhaps know more.

With respect to the migration, I think there is this certain level of constraint that women do feel in their husband's presence, but that exposure to migration, can also—even upon a migrant's return—can still have certain persisting effects. Yes, I do agree that the presence of certain family members and consequently some normative concerns can be particularly restrictive for women's mobility. I'm not the only one saying this. There's been research across the South Asian context on this.

The Challenges of Participation in the Workforce

RAJAGOPALAN: Women are now more politically active. On the other hand, women who have migrant husbands are less likely to participate in the labor force outside of the household. One of the things that you do find is that women who have migrant husbands, they increase the household farm labor by six to 10 percent, relative to women who are co-residents with their husbands. They are also four percent to seven percent less likely to participate in non-farm businesses.

So, is one of the downsides of this entire story that women have only so many hours in a day and there are just too many claims on their time? When the partner is absent, they have to do everything for the household. They also have to engage with the political sphere. They also have to make sure the paperwork is right, everyone has an Aadhaar card. The kids have school admissions, so on. And also run whatever tiny bit of land that they might have, or any kind of dairy farming that they may have attached to the household. So, it's just going to further lead to barriers in terms of labor force participation outside of the household.

KUMAR: Right, so it's definitely something I did come across. While I agree that there are these positive effects on, say, claim-making, on women's lives, this whole situation of having a migrant husband is particularly hard. Just that emotional separation itself is pretty hard. It is a moment of significant hardship, in that women are stretched in terms of the labor that they provide within the household and outside. It's definitely a very hard situation, and I do acknowledge that.

However, I do believe that migration is providing maybe other opportunities for women to be empowered that many other women with co-resident husbands, which tend to be women coming from [the] upper caste, who have other barriers, might not get access to, which is networks, and friends, and information. It's maybe unfortunate that they're driven to do this, but there is some amount of empowerment that one does accrue from just having this exposure.

While women themselves might think that it's significantly very difficult for them to carry out their lives like this, and I absolutely agree, I think it is bringing about some kind of norm change or norm bending that is perhaps happening. Even to the fact that men are recognizing the importance of women, the husbands are recognizing what the women do for the family, and the fact that it's increasing household bargaining power and access to petty cash and things like that.

All of that might constitute, of course, some positive effect in the long run. I think it also talks to the fact that there are other pathways that we could perhaps pursue in empowering women even when currently we know how bad the labor force participation in India is, et cetera. So there are other things that we can think about. All of this is not to say that economic empowerment is not required, it of course is, but yes, in the interim to think about other things.

RAJAGOPALAN: The interesting thing is we need to change our lens when we study the global south, right? In most other places, as you mentioned at the top of the conversation, usually political empowerment is the thing that comes last in the sequence of events. Female seclusion has already declined. Economic empowerment is already taking place. Access to credit is taking place. All those things start happening, and then comes the political empowerment and contestation and so on. That's what we've historically seen in most of the relatively developed economies.

In the global south, it's a little bit upside down because in one sense, universal adult franchise is introduced in India very, very, early, right at the birth of the republic. At least on paper there is no difference. Both men and women can stand for elections. They can vote for elections.

The claim-making space is supposed to be relatively a level playing field, but it doesn't actually happen, because before we got there, we never quite solved the problems of female seclusion. We never solved the problem of labor force participation and so on. In this sense, it's a little bit upside down, and in Bihar, that's the context we're looking at. In an upside-down world where there is relatively high female seclusion and low labor-force participation rate and GDP per capita that's closer to Sierra Leone than Kerala. That's the context that we're looking at, where this is sort of a big deal that these changes are taking place.

KUMAR: Right. Yes. It's definitely very interesting in that it's taking place in Bihar, as you mentioned. We've known over time it has had lower levels of economic development, also pretty low on a lot of dimensions of female empowerment traditionally as we would see it, which is why this is very striking that this male migration is bringing these women into these spaces, and even more striking because politics in India—I think across the world—it's considered a male arena. Just that these women are the ones going and making claims on the state and asking.

They go and just pester their ward members and are like, I've not got my money for building a toilet, or I want to get my Indira Awaas, like, house. It's just that their going and doing this itself is pretty striking and empowering. To an extent it is kind of… I do think that they believe that they're being forced in some sense to do it because their husbands are not around, but just the presence of these women in these arenas, it was very striking to me when I did visit these places.

Change in Norms

RAJAGOPALAN: Does this social exposure and access to new networks—both political networks and also other women who are making these claims—does that lead to other kinds of changes within the household, especially in terms of norms? Are these women more likely, or these households more likely, to educate their female children just a little bit more because they now know the value of women making claims in the political sphere? Or are the unmarried sisters and sisters-in-law more likely to start participating in these spaces or attend college or something like that? Do you see much of that? Especially given that you've done so much qualitative work on the field, this would be quite interesting to know.

KUMAR: Right. There's a lot of work that has specifically looked at the effect of migration on educational outcomes. Some of it in India, some of it in China. What I did see in terms of household dynamics, and some of it I demonstrate quantitatively as well. But there was this very interesting case where I was at this talk in Araria, just outside the village because I wanted to talk to women who were stepping out and taking rickshaws to go somewhere. I happened to meet a couple of women, and particularly two women. They were going to see… One of the women's son was of marriageable age, so they were looking for a prospective, you know, I don't even know what you say…


KUMAR: A bride, yes…

RAJAGOPALAN: A suitable girl.

KUMAR: Exactly. A suitable girl for her son. Her husband was a migrant, and she was doing this trip by herself—and I believe it was [also] her neighbor, but they all live close by so they're related because they're all of the same sub-caste (Jati). They were going to this village much further away. They had to transfer two rickshaws almost…two or three…to get to that village, and she was going to do this because her husband was not around. So, she was going to go and meet the family, and talk to them, and see if this girl fits what she's expecting, and maybe then, of course, consult with her husband or talk to him. But she's the one doing this.

This was something that was very, very striking, and it's very exemplar in how women's participation in household decision-making is changing because of migration because they're having this exposure, having to do all of these duties on behalf of the household. So yes, I do think there is significant household-level changes that are happening. There's also, at the community level, I do believe there are shifts that are occurring, and this is something that I am going to study in the future.

There is a very quick small survey that I did of local elites. They do recognize women as being particularly discerning as citizens and voters, more than men actually, in a high-migration context. That women are more earnest, they are more likely to vote for development, and how, a lot of people have told me, “women are the ones who bring us to power.” Like, “because of women we are in power.”

There's a lot that's happening at the community level in that people are recognizing how these women are at the front and center of a lot of things. There is, of course, a lot of nuance, and household-level dynamics don't change that easily, and women's restrictions do not—these are very sticky things. But yes, I think overall there seems to be some positive effect at the individual household and community level.

RAJAGOPALAN: Because there is so much female seclusion in the areas that you're studying, normally the state official in question, whether it's for a particular welfare entitlement or school admissions or something else, is not likely to engage with women. They usually will tell them to come back with their husband or come back with the father or son or something like that, but now that obviously has to shift.

Do you see feminization on the other side as well, that is, either they're more sensitive and willing to engage with women, or they're more willing to hire women, or appoint women to these positions because there are so many women making claims and so on? Do you also see a change in attitudes on that end?

KUMAR: Yes. I think there is some kind of shift that's happening, and that was something that I was talking about previously to answering your previous question. I've had people tell me things like “mahila hi sab kuch hai” [women are everything] and like “mahila hai to hum jeete hain” [it’s because of women that we won the election] Things like that. So, they do recognize women as being particularly important at the time of elections, and I do think that they recognize the presence of women in these places and make efforts to make it easier for them to actually engage with the state. I don't know if that's some kind of feminization that's happening or what, but definitely there's enough awareness and observation of the effect and impact that women can have.

They do things, like at some place they had organized—I'm forgetting the word for this. Basically, they had organized for some kind of desk to be set up at the village so that it's just easier for these women at one time to submit a lot of the documents. Because they know it's women who are doing it, and it's hard for women to leave everything that they're doing throughout the day and take so many hours out of all of the labor that they have to do within the household and go to a block office. They do things like this, or they help [women], like if [women] want to sign up for something they call someone to their home and then they help [women] carry out these things. It's all of these things that perhaps could be some kind of sensitization that's happening to the fact that women are occupying these spaces.

Policy Implications

RAJAGOPALAN: One of the things that's hard—and maybe that's not the point of the paper—that's hard at the end of reading your paper is, what is the policy implication of these findings? The very broad-level implication is yes, we’ve got to get women more engaged in the political space because it does change the landscape. There is a political responsiveness. The things they ask for is more. There are all these other side benefits of networks and they're no longer as secluded and so on.

In terms of implementable policy, are there things that come to your mind when it comes to districts where there are very large amounts of outmigration? We know what these districts are in India. There are like a handful of states where there's massive outmigration and even in those states, there are certain districts where you see this a lot.

KUMAR: I do think that, yes, as you said, the study definitely tells us that women are doing all of these tasks and engaging with the state. It's definitely providing evidence of that and just giving us descriptive knowledge or generating knowledge on the extent to which women can engage with the state and how they're empowered currently. That's always a good thing.

I think one of the other things that this project is suggesting, and which I was talking about a little bit earlier, was that it's telling us that there are these other barriers that we could perhaps tackle first while we work around improving women's labor force participation, which we know in India has been a huge issue and concern. It's things like what my study is saying, that you can equip women with networks and skills, so maybe programs can focus on that. And of course, there's the huge self-help group. It improves networks, and there's a lot of work on that.

It's just suggesting that there are other, maybe alternate, pathways that policies can target and look at in the interim while we get women to actively participate in the labor force, and that women can be empowered, politically at least, despite their not having that much earning autonomy. Of course, all of this is not to say that it's not important. I do significantly believe that women have to have economic earning autonomy and capacity to participate as equal citizens and in any kind of context and community. I just think that this project is definitely saying that there are other barriers we can target and other policies that can equip them with other things which can help their empowerment.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, absolutely. Also, overall I think the positive message I got was these norms are sticky but they're not as sticky as I had originally imagined. We can think about educational programs, a shift in culture. Just a new norm that emerges where women have greater participation in these spaces, which seemed so out of reach even a few decades ago that now feels within reach and we're able to study it because of this economic shock that you're studying of outmigration. It's really fascinating.

KUMAR: I just wanted to say that a lot of what women do, they often couch in this talk of it being driven out of necessity because there's nobody else. I believe that it's their trying to rationalize their actions to fit within the overall norm, structure or what they're supposed to be doing. There is, of course, still a significant amount of norm-bending that's happening in what they're doing because of migration.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, that's so cool. This sounds fascinating. Thank you so much for doing this and telling us all about this research.

KUMAR: Thanks so much, Shruti. Thanks for having me.

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