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Grandmas ‘play vital family role’

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Two women care for a child outside the White Building yesterday afternoon in Phnom Penh. A recent study found that older women who are not bread-winners are playing a pivotal role in household economic decisions. Eliah Lillis

Grandmas ‘play vital family role’

Grandmothers are playing a vital and remarkably empowered role in the lives of families whose mothers migrate to work, according to new research in Cambodia.

Contrary to the perception that they are just left at home with their children’s kids, researchers from King’s College London found that the typical grandmother child carer was well aware of the value of their roles.

Older women who are not wage earners often play a central role in the household and determine the economic decisions of Cambodian migrant workers, according to the paper by Sabina Lawreniuk and Laurie Parsons in the peer-reviewed journal Environment and Planning.

In Cambodia, where around one-third of the labour force migrates for work, people often believe that elderly mothers and grandmothers are left behind by travelling offspring who find it inconvenient to care for ageing relatives. Older women are portrayed as burdensome and passive actors in the family unit.

Now, however, new research paints an entirely different picture by demonstrating the active role elderly women play in determining how and where younger people migrate for work.

Far from complying passively with the needs of their economically active family members, older women take on important decision-making and caretaker roles that enable younger relatives to migrate.

Moreover, the decision to follow the migrant worker or stay behind is often determined by the logistical needs of the family unit, not the physical abilities of the elderly, the report determined.

“Older members of migrant families are key participants in trans-local livelihoods systems,” the study’s authors write. “This participation is not passive or unwilling, but actively engaged with as a means of reasserting the (often financial) value of the grandparental role.”

Many of the subjects interviewed said they encouraged their children to migrate to urban centres in order to support the family. The large majority of these migrant workers were young women employed in garment factories.

Grandmothers would stay behind and look after the children, but would also travel frequently to the city to care for their migrating offspring and assist with household duties. The elderly women generally viewed their activities as having intrinsic economic value.

“When describing the importance of their activities, they tend to do so not with reference to abstract norms and values – family loyalty, or duty, for instance – but via a narrative wherein their role is not merely pastoral, but financially essential,” the authors write. “Their participation and engagement in the migration patterns of their children was the only means by which both of their grandchildren’s parents could work.”

Grandmothers noted that their roles as caretakers allowed their children to send the family greater sums of money more frequently. The women also reported feeling highly valued and respected because of the help they provide.

But Ros Sopheap, director of the organisation Gender and Development for Cambodia, said there is a dark side to this arrangement. Not only is it unfair to put elderly people to work, but grandparents are less equipped to care for young children, she said.

“In Cambodia, we joke that the grandmas are having the babies because they take on the role of the parents,” Sopheap said. “It is really sad, because how can you ensure that the children will develop their education if the grandparents don’t have access to other ways of thinking? And a lot of kids get raped by their uncles or neighbours because the mothers are not there.”

Some of the study’s participants echoed the sentiment that, despite the emotional and psychological benefits of feeling useful, the burden on older women is too great.

“This was always grandmothers’ work,” one woman said. “But it has become harder for us since our children started to work in the city because now we have to look after the children, the house, and the fields all on our own.”

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