Support Groundbreaking Reporting on Women
Logo Logo
Economy & Labor , World

Women under pressure as finance sector makes push into remittances

by Maher Sattar December 12, 2022

This Q&A was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on December 12, 2022. Subscribe here.

This Sunday, Dec 18, is International Migrants Day. The event comes just after the end of the World Cup — one of the most controversial in recent history. Thousands of migrant workers have died working on preparations for the tournament, according to Amnesty International, while The Fuller Project’s Louise Donovan revealed the rampant harassment women migrants working in Qatar’s hotels have experienced.

It’s often men who we picture when we think about migrant workers. But as Donovan’s piece shows, there’s another side to the migration story. Women make up almost half of the 244 million migrants around the world and account for about half of global remittances. They also comprise 63% of the primary recipients of remittances, and so are heavily involved in how the money gets spent.

We spoke with Rahel Kunz, an expert on gender and remittances at the University of Lausanne who has written extensively on gender stereotypes in migration. Her comments have been edited for clarity and length.

In 2008 you were writing about the “global remittance trend”: the “heightened interest” of governments, multilateral organizations, NGOs, and the private sector in the potential of remittances for international development. Now, you’re talking about women and the “financialization of remittances”.

The global remittance trend is still relevant in the sense that it’s still the intention of a lot of different actors — private, public, national, international — to somehow get at this money. 

What’s new with the financialization of remittances is an explicit commitment to empower women through finance, which wasn’t the case before. There was no explicit mention of women migrants or women who stay behind. There also wasn’t this focus on finance.

Before it was: “Okay, remittances will contribute to development.” Now, the discourse isn’t just that they contribute to development; it’s that remittances have to be financialized in order to contribute to development. So, migrants have become this new group of clients basically for the financial sector.

What do you mean by ‘financialized’ in this context?

It’s framed as: “Let’s integrate them, because they don’t have bank accounts, they can’t save, they put the money informally somewhere and then they lose it.” 

So, for example in Mexico, whenever women come to pick up their remittances, they’re told they shouldn’t take the entire amount in cash and that they should open an account and leave some behind to save. A lot of the women who remain behind in the countries of origin are being pushed by institutions to save, to invest, and to buy life insurance. 

Sounds like a good thing?

Financial inclusion in itself is not a problem. It’s not a bad idea to do financial education for women who are often excluded, who often have less access to the public sphere. 

But the problem is that it’s a very particular form of financial education that really just works to make money from the women. It’s not really helping them build up assets through saving.

What does this look like?

We have these women telling us that since they’ve opened a bank account, they get text messages every day saying, “you can take out a loan for this or that amount, we encourage you to send us a text message and we’ll send you the loan.” Things like that.

There’s also a real push for women to become entrepreneurs. It’s very much directed towards investing, taking out loans — becoming indebted. So, people are heavily indebted. Sometimes the conditions of the loan are not made clear to them, or they didn’t even know they had bought some insurance.

There’s also a lot of informal lenders. And these have enormous interest rates, up to something like 200%, which is a crazy thing. And they actually go from house to house to offer credit.

You call it a debt trap?

There’s this kind of pressure on women to use the remittances productively, to not waste it. There’s this moral pressure that’s being put on them, even by the banks, even by international organizations like the World Bank. “Don’t waste this money because your men are going out and working hard.” And this totally invisibilizes all the hard work that women are also doing. 

So, women are pushed into investing, but often they’re pushed into investing in things where normal investors wouldn’t if they were making their decisions just based on profits. Because migrants and their families are usually attached to the places where they come from, they want to change something for the local population. They want to maybe help their community members have a job, etc.

So, maybe they buy a few cows to produce milk and sell it on the market but, you know, maybe the infrastructure isn’t there. The milk just doesn’t get to the market. It cannot be used, it cannot be sold, they lose money, they have to sell the animals. That’s just an example of the logic of pushing migrants to save and invest — how this can end up.

There seems to be a big guilt trip aspect to this.

In [researching] Mexico, this was very, very important. There is this view that women are lazy, they just receive the remittances, they don’t do anything, they don’t work. So what happens is a lot of the women have been pushed to show that this is not true, so that the community doesn’t think they’re lazy.

At the bank, if they want to take their money out and they’re told “leave some money with us, because what are you going to do if your husband dies?” So there’s this whole emotional blackmailing going on from financial institutions, and also actually the government. The Mexican government also had these programs where they push financial education programs with migrants and the recipients of their remittances. 

Just imagine that you’re getting financial education training, and the trainer tells you, “just imagine your husband died.” The kind of emotional pressure that is put on you in that situation, you know?

But it also really, really very much depends on the context. The type of migration, the kinds of infrastructure that are in place, all of that determines how this plays out. And there’s lots of regulations, but oftentimes it’s actually geared towards preventing migration, towards excluding people.

What are some alternative approaches to financial inclusion of women?

People have their own informal ways of saving. [In Mexico] They have these rotating savings practices [NB: these are tandas, informal loan clubs where family and friends pool together money to give each other short, no-interest loans]. And these work really well for them. There’s this whole attitude that they have to be integrated into formal financial circuits, but actually, that’s not what always works for them.

Get our groundbreaking reporting on women

Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly
Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly