Intimacy, love, freedom, heartbreak, separation and migration

By Kate Hawkins

A conference participant views the ‘Queer Crossings’ poster

Sitting in front of a South African poster on ‘queer crossings’ was one of my highlights from the recent Migrating Out Of Poverty conference in Singapore. It made me happy that one of my pet subjects – sexuality – was being addressed by such a stellar line-up of researchers studying gender, poverty and migration linkages.

I find it difficult to think about gender without a corresponding focus on sexuality as the two things so often intersect in interesting and important ways. It is particularly pertinent when we look at issues of women’s empowerment:

If for example, you look at women’s empowerment through a sexuality lens, you see a more complete and realistic picture of a woman: not a victim, nor an end-product ‘empowered’ woman, but a woman with a complex and changing life. You see a woman whose well-being depends, among other things, on making choices about her own body, about pleasure and about her own sexuality. You also see a woman who lives within or perhaps challenges the confines of social pressure and expectations about her behaviour. A woman’s sexuality and identity can affect many aspects of her life including her work and her means to earn a living, her family relations, her ability to move around in public, her opportunities to participate in formal and informal politics, and her access to education.

It is also a useful way of thinking about gender in terms of men and people who define themselves as something beyond/outside the binary of man and woman. (Even Facebook now has a list of over 58 gender options that people can choose from to describe themselves. Some of us scholars are lagging behind on this score!)

Sexuality came up in many of the sessions at the conference – even if it was rarely used as a frame of analysis.

Poverty, precarity and sexuality
Susie Jolly has written about the importance of housing to the realisation of sexual rights and desires and the constraining effects of poverty. This seemed relevant to some of the examples of migrant life spoken about at the conference. Trond Waage’s film, Les Mairuuwas, followed migrants from the Central African Republic in Northern Cameroon who were working as water carriers. One character didn’t see the point of a home, or felt that it was an unnecessary use of resources. But when he moved in to a room he realised that he had invested in the community and it also gave him the opportunity to have a sexual relationship. We heard from many presenters at the conference about the (inappropriate/inadequate) housing conditions of migrant workers. Some were living in their workplace with employers, particularly domestic workers. It would be interesting to better understand the effects of these living and working arrangements on migrants’ abilities to form intimate relationships and the wider effects on their lives.

‘Dangerous’ sexualities and the female migrant
There is a prevailing narrative about the sexual vulnerability of female migrants which was echoed in some of the discussions at the meeting and the presentation on employment brokers was particularly chilling in this regard. However speakers also pointed to the way that female migrants are often stigmatised on the grounds of their sexuality – which is imagined as undisciplined and unruly when far from home.

In a memorable talk about young women from Zimbabwe Stanford Mahati quoted one boy as saying ‘Good girls do not cross the border’. Mahati’s analysis of humanitarian workers’ formal and informal discourse around working migrant girls showed that they were often labelled as ‘promiscuous’, ‘lacking in morals’ and ‘far from innocent’. Meanwhile Ishred Binte Wahid spoke about notions of ‘purity’ in relation to Bangladeshi women migrants who travelled to work in the Gulf States. Female migrants found that religious piety (for example wearing the burkah) was a way of counteracting negative aspersions about what may have happened in their sexual lives whilst they were away from their families. She questioned the notion of female migration as inherently empowering and pointed to how it could sometimes reinforce patriarchal norms.

We heard from South African sex workers in the MOVE visual exhibition. Sex workers are arguably some of the most maligned ‘bad women’ in patriarchal societies’ bogus hierarchy of womanhood. Visual methods enabled them to take back control of the stories about their lives and express their humanity. Chantel, a participant from Johannesburg, wrote in her journal,

Telling my story is so powerful for me. Every day I look forward to writing or thinking about my story. I want to take images that show the way that sex workers are treated. That I am a person. This project let me do this. It helps me to take away stress and to know that I am not alone.

The conference was silent on the issue of the clients of sex workers, despite the fact that it is likely some of them are men characterised problematically in the HIV literature as ‘mobile men with money’. Migration researchers may have some interesting insights for their counterparts in health on this issue.

The pain and the liberation of separation
Some presentations at the conference explored the ways that prolonged separation due to migration could lead to challenges in maintaining ‘family unity’. One study from Indonesia showed how 18% of married migrants ended up getting divorced which was contrasted with a divorce rate on 7% in non-migrant families. This had particular impacts on the income of divorced women who also faced negativity from the wider community on account of their divorcee-status.

Deirdre McKay’s presentation of the lives of Philippine women working without documents in the UK explained how long separations with little chance of being reunited due to cost and visa restrictions created stress and a strain on family life. However, she also argued that living in chronic poverty can cause family tensions. She pointed to the potentially liberating aspects of separation in some circumstances and highlighted how when men are ‘dud’ husbands (i.e. they gamble, drink, or can’t look after money) there is often migration in lieu of divorce.

Future sexuality-migration exploration
As a newcomer to the field of migration studies it was fantastic to attend the recent conference. I hope that as work on gender continues there is critical reflection on the topic of sexuality and some cross learning with other programmes working on the poverty-sexuality links. In particular it would have been interesting to hear more about same sex desire and the migrant experience and to have a more explicit focus on heteronormativity. Interesting research from (my friends at) Galang in the Philippines described how lesbian women and trans men migrated because of homophobia and gendered discrimination. For these people migration (and the money earned) sometimes created opportunities for sexual freedom and improved status within the family but it could also leave people vulnerable to homophobic abuse. These are interesting insights which are ripe for further investigation in other contexts.
Kate Hawkins is the Director of Pamoja Communications. She works on communications and research uptake for projects looking at health, gender, sexuality, and more. Kate was the communications consultant on the Gendered Dimensions of Migration conference for the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.