Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Return migration and gender norms: evidence from Jordan

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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.

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