Rural outmigration and the gendered patterns of agricultural labor in Nepal


January 8, 2021

When men migrate out of rural areas, those who remain are faced with both challenges and opportunities. Less male labor is available for agricultural work; the migrant’s labor may be replaced by men or women who remain. New opportunities may arise for women to manage the farm. This may be empowering for them. It may also be a burden if the new responsibilities come without additional resources.

While studies have examined the impacts of male outmigration on labor force participation and employment in sending communities, few have analyzed the specific impacts on agricultural work. Agriculture is the backbone of many developing economies and is the main employer for a large share of the rural population. Using survey data collected in 2017 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Bank, a new IFPRI/PIM discussion paper “Rural outmigration and the gendered patterns of agricultural labor in Nepal” analyzes how male-dominated outmigration impacts the work and responsibilities of men and women in rural migrant-sending communities in Nepal. The survey collected comprehensive information on all types of migration from rural areas, as well as detailed information on individuals’ livelihoods in sending areas, on agricultural production and food security. For a sub-set of women, it also collected self-reported information on their participation in specific agricultural activities and their time use through the Abbreviated Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (A-WEAI).

The Nepali context is particularly relevant for studying the gendered effects of migration on rural areas. Approximately half of all Nepali households have at least one family member who is an international or a domestic emigrant.  The remittances generated from foreign employment were equivalent to 27.5 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product in 2017 (World Bank, 2020), and almost one-fifth of the country’s poverty reduction between 1995 and 2004 has been attributed to migrant remittances (Lokshin, Bontch-Osmolovski, & Glinskaya, 2010).

Men dominate international migration patterns. According to the 2011 census around 87 percent of international migrants are men, but other national data sources estimate the share to be even higher.

The new study makes two contributions to the literature. First, it looks not only at how male-dominated migration impacts the employment of the remaining women and men, but it analyses changes in the types of work they do both on and off the farm. The analysis uses labor information for all members of our sampled households, focusing broadly on the sector of employment and type of employee (e.g. agriculture and non-agriculture self-employment versus employee). In addition, the authors use A-WEAI data collected from one member of each household on the respondents’ participation in a wide range of farm and non-farm productive activities. Second, the study uses a set of instrumental variables – historic weather shocks preceding the start of the migration combined with proxies for social norms around remittances – to identify the impacts of migration. Thus, it provides evidence of causal impacts of migration on the work of the family members who remain in rural areas.

The analyses show that male outmigration affects women and men’s roles in agriculture in distinct ways. Men reduce their labor supply to non-farm work without significantly increasing their labor supply to other activities leading to an overall decrease in their labor supply to any activity. Women continue to work on the farm, but their roles shift from contributing family workers to primary farmers. Despite this shift in farm management, the authors find no evidence that women diversify into higher value activities, such as horticulture, cash crops or any livestock production. Nor do they increase participation in higher value nodes of the value chain, such as trading and processing agricultural products. Instead, they continue to grow staple grains, mostly for own consumption.

The findings have important policy implications and are directly relevant for ongoing discourses around the feminization of agriculture and the ‘changing opportunities’ for women in rural areas. While the massive out-migration of men from rural areas increases the number of women farm managers, it does not shift the composition of their productive activities, raising important questions about the role of migration and remittances for agricultural growth, sustainable development and for building resilient rural livelihoods.

Read the paper>>

Also see: WEBINAR: Migration and gender dynamics in irrigation governance in Nepal


Slavchevska, Vanya; Doss, Cheryl; Mane, Erdgin; Kaaria, Susan; Kar, Anuja; and Villa, Victor. 2020. Rural outmigration and the gendered patterns of agricultural labor in Nepal. IFPRI Discussion Paper 1981. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Top banner: Sita Kumari, farmer, working in her field. Photo by C. de Bode/CGIAR

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  1. Shelvi Shivasubramaniam says

    I t is empowering for women to become self standing although Farm working is harder than house work. I would like to work in a farm if it is not hard for me. I would like to migrate to Nepal and work for a peaceful country life than hard working, bone breaking western life even though I have good education.

    I lost my peace of mind and religious nature for western scientific models.
    I need God, love and nature again. I am a Sri Lankan Tamil, but a mixed raced child.

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