Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Return migration and gender norms: evidence from Jordan

Migration can be responsible for the spread of new social norms about gender roles. This column explores the impact of temporary migration from Jordan to more conservative and highly unequal neighbouring countries. The results indicate that women in households with a return migrant become more conservative themselves.

In a nutshell

International return migration is a powerful channel for the transmission of gender norms.

But return migrants may also absorb the norms of their host country even if those norms are not more democratic or equitable.

Analysis of labour market data on temporary migration from Jordan to more conservative and highly unequal neighbouring countries suggests that these norms can encourage even greater discrimination against women.

Exposure to different practices and ideas through international migration can be a powerful tool for modifying norms in source countries. In fact, when migrants visit or return home, they bring back norms and attitudes that they assimilated abroad, and those may spread around their origin communities.

In a recent study, we show that international return migration is a powerful channel for the transmission of gender norms. Remarkably, however, we find that return migrants may also transfer discriminatory norms from highly unequal destination countries.

Our study focuses on Jordan, a non-oil middle-income economy where both gender inequality and emigration rates are high. Although women’s educational attainment has gradually reached the level of their male counterparts, Jordan still has one of the lowest rates of female labour force participation in the world: just 15% in 2010. Women’s economic role in Jordan does not correspond to the pattern seen in similar middle-income countries.

Our research asks to what extent temporary migration to more conservative neighbouring countries drives discriminatory gender norms in Jordan. We analyse data from the Jordan Labor Market Panel Survey 2010, a nationally representative dataset covering about 5,100 households and 25,000 individuals. We measure three different sets of gender norms using rich information from the survey on:

  • The self-perceived role of women in the society, such as the equality of opportunity in education and employment.
  • Women’s freedom of mobility, including whether women need permission to move, go to the local market or visit friends and relatives.
  • Female decision-making, both in terms of purchasing day-to-day goods as well as bargaining power and agency within the family.

Taking account of the non-randomness of return migrants, we find that women with a returnee in the household are more likely to believe in discriminatory gender norms than women in households with no migration experience.

The values on which women became more conservative range from equality of opportunity in education and employment to whether women need permission to visit friends and relatives to women’s rights to make decisions for the family.

Similar findings are obtained when examining women’s freedom of mobility and decision-making power. Moreover, the impact of return migration goes well beyond perceptions and negatively affects women’s outcomes, such as employment, school dropouts and fertility.

It is striking that our results are driven by return migrants from more conservative Arab countries, which have a high level of gender inequality. This confirms our initial hypothesis of a transfer of gender norms through return migration.

But in our case study of Middle Eastern return migration, this does not promote better institutions at home; instead, it encourages greater discrimination against women if the return migrant has lived in a highly conservative destination.

Our findings suggest that migrants absorb the norms of their host country even if those norms are not more democratic or equitable. Although this may reflect a potential negative impact of international migration, it also implies that migrants moving to destinations with better institutions and norms might bring home superior norms.

Further reading

Tuccio, Michele, and Jackline Wahba (2015) ‘Can I Have Permission to Leave the House? Return Migration and the Transfer of Gender Norms’, IZA Discussion Paper No. 9216.

Most read

Fair competition is needed to empower women economically in the Arab world

The participation rates of women in the labour market in Arab countries are the lowest in the world. This column argues that remedying the under-representation of women in the labour force is a social and economic imperative for the region. There are three dimensions for action to realise the potential of Arab women: amending laws and regulations; instilling fair competition in markets; and promoting the digital economy.

Recession without impact: why Lebanese elites delay reform

The survival of Lebanon’s political elites is highly dependent on the wellbeing of the economy. Why then do they delay necessary reform to avoid crisis? This column examines the role of politically connected firms in delaying much-needed economic stabilisation policies.

Competition laws: a key role for economic growth in MENA

Competition policy lacks the attention it deserves in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region characterised by monopolies and lack of market contestability. As this column explains, there are many questions about the extent of anti-competitive barriers facing new market entrants in the region. What’s more, MENA’s weak overall performance on competition is likely to be hindering economic growth and the path towards structural transformation.

Formidable challenges facing the Middle East require a sea change in economic policies

Weakening global growth, endemic conflicts and increased tensions within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – as well as emerging challenges such as climate change and rapid demographic shifts – are likely to have an adverse impact on the region’s economic, social and political stability in the coming years. This column outlines the policy responses that are needed to avert disaster.

Domestic demand and competition: a new development paradigm for MENA

A lack of competition in domestic and regional markets is holding back development in the Middle East and North Africa. This column argues that the region and the international community must ensure that barriers to market entry and exit are eliminated, and that independent regulatory bodies at the national and regional levels help to promote domestic demand as the main engine for sustainable and inclusive growth.

The future of Egypt’s population: opportunities and challenges

Egypt’s potential labour supply depends on the growth and changing composition of its working-age population. This column reports the latest data on labour supply and fertility rates, concluding that the country has a window of opportunity with reduced demographic pressures to try to address longstanding structural challenges for the labour market.

Effects of urbanisation on productivity and wages: evidence from Turkey

Are the substantial productivity gains associated with larger cities in developed countries similar for developing countries? This column provides evidence on urbanised economies in the non-Western world by focusing on Turkey, a country that has experienced fast urbanisation and a high rate of growth of the urban population.

How import dependence could lead to corruption in MENA

Export-led development strategies have had little success in MENA countries; what’s more, instruments of earlier import-substitution strategies – such as state-owned enterprises, high tariffs and subsidies – have survived. As this column explains, these legacies have created crony-capitalist industries that have limited the level of competition in many sectors of the economy and furthered the region’s dependence on imports.

Social security for young workers in Arab countries

Social security coverage of young workers in Arab countries is low – in part because many are employed in informal jobs; and in part because they do not see the value of the system. This column reports survey evidence on young workers’ attitudes towards participation in both social security and politics. It also explores policy reforms that might make access to social security universal for young workers.

Gender discrimination in small business lending: evidence from Turkey

Discrimination in access to financial services can prevent women from exploiting their entrepreneurial potential. This column reports on a ‘lab-in-the-field’ experiment to test for the presence of gender discrimination in small business lending in Turkey.