On 20 February 2019, SEESOX hosted a seminar by Dr Julie Vullnetari (University of Southampton), entitled Gendering Remittances: Women`s Empowerment in Albania. The Discussant was Emre Eren Korkmaz (Department of International Development, Oxford) and the Chair Alev Ozkazanc (St Antony`s College, Oxford).
In her presentation, Vullnetari first gave a general statistical picture of the state of family remittances worldwide, then explaining the Albanian context of migration, drawing on her long-term research and academic engagement in the country. Finally, she went through the key findings of the research project she had conducted in 2007-2009, together with Prof. Russell King, for UN-Women.
Albania is one of the most interesting case studies given the massive scale of internal and international migration after the 1990s (9% of its resident population lost since 1989, mainly to Greece and Italy) and the significance of family remittances as a share of the country’s GDP. As regards the fiscal and economic significance of the remittances, she noted that the total amount was €1. 16 bn in 2017, or 10.8% of Albania`s GDP. At a micro-level, existing research has found that financial remittances constitute as much as 42% of recipient households` total income in the surveyed sample.
She stressed that both the migration processes and the remittances have been shaped strongly by gender relations. She also proposed that the gendered impacts of remittances should be considered within a human development paradigm, where migration and remittances are seen as potential avenues for individual development.
As regards migration, the first wave had been male-led because of the dangerous migratory journey, as well the difficult working and living conditions for migrants in the receiving countries. Regarding the gender agenda of the remittances, and drawing on an extensive qualitative research she had conducted in 2007-2009, she provided answers to questions such as:
- Who sends remittances?
- Who receives remittances?
- Who decides how they are used?
- Who administers their use?
- What effects do remittances have on gender relations?
Looking at the gendered sending and receiving profiles, she pointed out that it is mainly migrant men who are the most important remittance senders. Women are the receivers in nuclear households, but not always in settings of extended families, where often the migrant’s father is the recipient. The pattern of migrant men`s remittances varies according to their status in the family (single, husband in a nuclear household, youngest/eldest son, etc.) and to the receiving household types. Although migrant women also send remittances, their contributions are usually seen as secondary, and labelled as “a gift” or “money only for coffee”. Married women also send in-kind remittances, such as clothes and furniture, to compensate for not being able to send more financial remittances.
As regards the decision on how the remittances are used, Vullnetari underlined the complex intra-household decision-making processes, where the varying status, needs and concerns of different family members have to be negotiated, but certainly within the parameters of a strong patriarchal structure. Decision-making processes vary according to different household types, mostly depending on whether the household is female headed or male-headed.
As to how remittances are used, Vullnetari showed that housing improvements, household goods and spending on lifecycle/life-stage events constitute important areas. Some of these have been considered in academic literature as `conspicuous consumption` and `non-productive` expenditures, but these value judgments tend to come from a narrow economic view of development.
On the question as to how far remittances really empower women, she suggested that, although the responsibilities and the burden are heavily increased for women whose husband has migrated abroad, the consequent decision-making empowered them in many ways. From the human development perspective, she underlined that quality of life of family members, in terms of health and education, has considerably improved, with some important gendered implications. Moreover, remittances have improved women`s working and living environments, as household expenditures increase, and housing improvements are made. There is some change in traditional gender roles for women and men, albeit slow and context-dependent. While in certain cases change is durable, in other cases gender roles such as the breadwinner and the housekeeper are reinforced. For instance, the husband is seen as a successful (migrant) man who assured such affluence to his family, so that his wife can afford `the luxury` of staying at home. However, this must be understood in conditions where wage work for women in the local communities of origin is poorly paid and exploitative, for instance in export-oriented fruit processing plants.
After the presentation, Emre Korkmaz raised several questions. Firstly, he asked about the impact of migration and remittances on Albania`s development after the 1990s from the poorest nation in Europe into a middle-income status country; he also asked about the role of migration in the growth of population in Albania, given that 10% of the population left the country. Secondly, he asked how gender relations had changed in post-socialist Albania, shifting from a relatively immobile society to the hyper-mobility of the post-communist period. He finally questioned whether traditional family relations had remained intact or had changed substantially, as capitalism and urbanisation developed, as internal migration accelerated and as older members of the rural family lost authority.
The presentation was followed by a short Q & A session, where Vullnetari commented on the meaning of the concept of `empowerment of women`, and changing gender relations of in Albania, as well as the conditions of male and female migrant workers in Greece and Italy.
Alev Okazanc (Visiting Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford)