Migration and the transfer of gender and democratic norms

Despite the large attention received in the global development debate over the past years, gender inequalities still strongly persist throughout the world. Similarly, democratic and equal institutions are far from standing firm in all countries. The question at the forefront of the policy discussion is: how can we shift political and social norms towards a more modern and equal paradigm?

In our study, presented at UNU-WIDER's Human capital and growth conference, we argue that, through exposure to different foreign practices, international migration may serve to channel ideas and behaviours from one place to another. In fact, ideas and behaviours in destination countries interact with the set of norms that migrants have acquired at home. When migrants visit or return to their countries of origin they bring newly acquired norms and those may then spread around communities.

The migration-induced transfer of gender norms in the Middle East

The past few decades have witnessed an increasing awareness of the importance of gender equality for economic development. However, policies aimed at promoting gender equality have often failed to completely remove discrimination against women. One of the reasons for such a persistence of gender inequality lies in the set of customs and behaviours that govern societies. When social institutions and norms deprive women of their autonomy and limit their ability to use their capabilities, a gender gap persists whatever policies may be put in place.

Clearly, modifying norms is a hard task, and little is known about the best routes to modernization. Exposure to different practices within a country has been proven to be a powerful tool to modify underlying gender norms. In a recent paper, we draw on an innovative survey undertaken in Jordan in 2010 to demonstrate that also international migration acts as a catalyst for change. Indeed, we find that returning migrants bring back with them new ideas from their destinations, which consequently shift the social norms and institutions at home.

However, our analysis reveals that women with a returnee in the household are more likely to suffer from discriminatory gender norms. This is driven largely by women living with a returnee from highly conservative Arab destinations, which notably have greater gender inequalities in empowerment, freedom of mobility and decision-making. Moreover, this effect goes well beyond perceptions — affecting also development outcomes, such as female labour force participation, girls’ education, and fertility choices.

Migrants as catalysts for political change in the Arab world

In addition to modifying gender norms back home, another channel through which international migrants may affect their countries of origin is by driving political change. The issue is particularly relevant in the Arab world, where in the early 2010s a revolutionary wave of protests spread throughout the region, sparked by dissatisfaction with the rule of governments. At the same time, another salient feature of those Arab countries is that they have high emigration rates. Hence, an interesting question given this context is whether international migration may act as a catalyst for political and social change.

Exploiting detailed data on Morocco, our recent paper shows that, after being exposed to more democratic and equal behaviours in Europe and North America, households with a returnee from the West are more likely to ask for a change in the political and social status quo than non-migrant families.

In order to test whether the impact of migration also affects actions, we study electoral participation and find a positive and significant impact of the share of returnees in a given locality on the participation rate in the 2011 parliamentary elections in Morocco.

Implications for policy

Overall our findings suggest that international migration can be a driver of political and social change. However, the impact of host countries matters, as newly acquired norms and attitudes are not always ‘superior’ to the norms at origin. This implies an eventual benefit for migration to Western countries, where the level of democracy, institutional quality and gender equality is greater than in the rest of the world, and hence there is potential for positive transfer of norms from host to home countries.

Michele Tuccio is a PhD candidate at the Economics Department of the University of Southampton

Professor Jackie Wahba is Professor of Economics within Social Sciences and Economics at the University of Southampton.

Further reading:
  • Tuccio, M., and J. Wahba (2015). ‘Can I Have Permission to Leave the House? Return Migration and the Transfer of Gender Norms’, IZA Discussion Paper No. 9216. Bonn: IZA. Available at:
  • Tuccio, M., J. Wahba, and B. Hamdouch (2016). ‘International Migration: Driver of Political and Social Change?’, IZA Discussion Paper No. 9794. Bonn: IZA. Available at:
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