Women left behind: do women experience more autonomy in the absence of men?

Photo by Ahmed

In the absence of a patriarchal husband, does a woman left behind acquire greater decision-making power and control over her and her children’s lives?  I investigated this question by interviewing 25 women over a three-year period who were left behind in rural Southern Punjab, Pakistan between 2015-2018.

We know very little from research about women who do not migrate themselves when their husbands do, especially in South Asia. Yet, women are directly impacted by migrations and development programs in developing countries. My focus on women and their lived experiences sheds light on how women’s lives are impacted by migration given their cultural context.


The women I met in these areas were home-based workers, primarily in charge of care work for the elderly and children. Their economic activity included care of livestock and making handicrafts. Women usually lived in “joint families” such that in-laws live either in the same house or nearby. Women of the household subsequently spend much of their time together and also do chores together in a common area outside their house(s). It was here that most of my focus group interviews were conducted. Younger wives often seemed too shy or uncomfortable to speak in front of their mothers-in-law and would find excuses to show me around their house to speak with me more comfortably in private.

Most participants in my study were very poor to lower middle class. The families made barely enough to feed themselves and maintained makeshift homes or old structures. All the migrant husbands in my research lived two to five hours away by bus or motorcycle and visited between once every two weeks to once every three months, depending on the distance from work, available money for travel, and/or ability to take time off work for holidays.

While left behind wives may attain slightly increased levels of autonomy in the absence of their husbands, I observed increased levels of decision-making powers and mobility only in certain households, those with less strict family structures and norms, often situated closer to urban areas. Most families simply replace the one missing husband with another male patriarch, the migrant husband’s father, or brother. If there is no alternative male in the household, a male relative close by can assume this patriarch role. 

In some cases, an older mother-in-law becomes the acting “patriarch.” The usually male head of the household has decision-making and veto powers, including the power to grant permission to activities that impact women in the home directly, such as allowing big expenditures and decisions about children, especially marriage. Given the local customs and norms, most women primarily remain inside the home doing informal work such as making embroidery and handicrafts to sell. Women were not usually literate as access to schools was quite limited.  

I did find some exceptions to this pattern in my study: women living independently and/or working outside their homes in the absence of their husbands. But these cases were very rare in the rural setting I studied, although more common  closer to cities.

Within the household among women, a hierarchy exists such that the mother-in-law usually gave orders to the other women in the household. She determined who did chores and what goods were made in the household. While women working together on house chores might be a good way for them to share life experiences and lessons learned, the hierarchy which was silently observed also meant that women were not always able to do what they wanted when they wanted. They had to check with their mother-in-law or other older women in the household before they could make their own choices.

Are women who work outside the home in a better position to make their own decisions when their husbands migrate to a city nearby? The three women left behind who were formally employed as female community health workers had to abide by the same cultural customs that restricted their freedoms despite the opportunities their employment may have given to them. Women who lived closer to urban areas and/or who belonged to middle-class families were more likely to experience slightly higher levels of autonomy than their counterparts in rural areas.

Women left behind do not have autonomy simply because their husbands are no longer in residence. In rural Pakistan, women in working-class and poor families are embedded in patriarchal family structures that continue even if their husbands are absent.  

Sarah Ahmed is a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of Oregon. Her primary research interests include gender, development, healthcare, rurality, and qualitative methods. Her dissertation includes interviews with female healthcare workers in rural Pakistan who negotiate power and space with their families and employers to explore how women understand their own collective identity, gender and labor value.

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