According to a new UN report released last month, international policy makers have largely overlooked the role that immigrant women play in their contribution toward remitting money back to their home countries. Women have a disproportionate role in determining the level of remittances sent home to developing countries, tending to send a larger proportion of their lesser resources home than men, and to focus those funds more on social welfare
The UN Population Fund's 'State of the World Population 2006'
Generally, worldwide growing attention is being focused on the importance of remittance flows, or the money being transferred by immigrant and migrant workers back to the country of their origin. It is found that these remittances constitute the second largest source of external financing in developing countries after foreign direct investment.
The UN is appealing to a high-level meeting on international migration this month in New York to pay more attention to the part played by female workers, something that has not been carefully analyzed until now.
50% of the world's migrants are women (just about 95 million). Only recently have policy-makers begun to address their specific challenges, the UN report points out, including the exploitation of female domestic workers, and the sex trade.
However, female migrants not only have a crucial impact back home, they may very well have the most crucial impact for any specific demographic.
"Despite a paucity of data, one thing is clear," the UN, says. "The money that female migrants send home can raise families and even entire communities out of poverty."
For example, women contributed more than 62% of the $1 billion dollars sent in remittances to Sri Lanka in 1999. Women transferred a full one third of the $6 billion sent annually to the Philippines in the late 1990s – even though they typically receive significantly less pay for the same jobs.
"The total women remit may be less in comparison with men," the report notes, but "women send a higher proportion of their earnings, regularly and consistently."
A 2000 study showed that Bangladeshi women working in the Middle East sent home 72% of their earnings on average, and that 56% of female remittances were used for daily needs, healthcare or education.
"This is largely because women are more inclined to invest in their children than men," the report noted, as well as having less control over their finances. Men tended to spend remittance income on consumer items, such as cars and televisions, as well as investments such as property and livestock. However, even that pattern was not fixed.
A survey in the Dominican Republic found that 100% of women returning from Spain established their own businesses; another study found that 56% of Ghanaian women migrants in Toronto, Canada had begun the process of building homes in their country of origin.
"Remittances would have an even greater role in poverty reduction and development if women did not face wage, employment, credit and property discrimination, and if they were not excluded from decision-making within the family and in hometown organisations," the report says.