The effects of male out-migration on household food security in rural Nepal


In Nepal, international migration is a highly gendered phenomenon. Compared to global figures, where women make up about half of the world’s migrant population, 90% of Nepalese migrants are men. Many of these men migrate alone to earn wages abroad while their families stay behind. This level of male out-migration in Nepal occurs in a context characterized by widespread food insecurity. This paper examines the effects of male out-migration on household food security, especially on the women who stay behind, in the mountains of Far West Nepal. Our findings from in-depth interviews and focus group discussions suggest that male out-migration both alleviates and exacerbates households’ experiences of insufficient quantity and inadequate quality of food, and uncertainty and worry about food. Migration can benefit households that stay behind through remittances which help cover basic expenses, and by facilitating access to loans and credit, and alleviating anxiety about having enough to eat. However, it comes at high costs. Men report undignified, unsafe, and difficult working conditions in India. Women bear additional childcare, fieldwork, and housework responsibilities. Limited male agricultural labor also hampers agricultural productivity and increases households’ reliance on markets to meet basic needs. Drawing on gender- and caste-specific findings, our study highlights the importance of looking beyond the financial aspects of migration when examining its effects on food security.

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  1. 1.

    While men dominate international migration, domestic migration is increasingly feminized in Nepal. In 2011, for every 100 women moving from one ecological zone to another (e.g. Hills to Terai) only 84 men were doing the same. Just a decade earlier, it was near parity. This is a significant shift for women who traditionally migrated within Nepal for marriage; women are now increasingly engaging in labor-related activities and becoming breadwinners due to their husbands’ out-migration and/or inadequate and infrequent remittances (Clewett 2015).

  2. 2.

    The Nepal Living Standards Survey 2010–2011 defines an absentee “as someone who, at the time of enumeration, was temporarily away from the household for more than six months or was not expected to return for at least six months, and hence, includes both internal and external migrants” (Sharma et al. 2014, 10).

  3. 3.

    Based on the Food Consumption Score, which is a composite indicator that measures food, dietary diversity, and nutritional importance of food groups (Ministry of Agricultural Development and World Food Programme 2017).

  4. 4.

    In March 2017, the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development announced the dissolution of the Village Development Committee as an administrative unit in Nepal (Himalayan News Service 2017). VDCs were replaced by gaunpalika (rural municipalities). As the study was conducted prior to the dissolution, we maintain the reference to VDCs in this paper.

  5. 5.

    Of the three of the women who we were not able to interview twice, one respondent had moved to India between field visits and two respondents were unavailable for interviews.

  6. 6.

    In order to reflect the caste demographic in the eight wards included within the study, we sampled proportionally fewer respondents from the Dalit castes for both the interviews and focus group discussions.

  7. 7.

    Interview with high caste woman with migrant husband in Boreli, February 22, 2017

  8. 8.

    For brevity, we do not provide an account of the controversy surrounding the terminologies of “validity” and “reliability.” Some qualitative researchers outright reject these positivist concepts and their application to qualitative research (Golafshani 2003; Maxwell 2005; Creswell 2012; Patton 2002).

  9. 9.

    The larger study had a longer engagement in Maulali. Since late 2015, a dedicated team of local enumerators and a study coordinator who made frequent trips to Maulali were on site to introduce and garner support for the research.

  10. 10.

    Focus group discussion with high caste men, October 25, 2016

  11. 11.

    While respondents referred to migration as a necessity, labor migration to India appears to be an important part of fulfilling men’s identity as a “breadwinner” (Sharma 2008)

  12. 12.

    Focus group discussion with high caste women, February 21, 2017

  13. 13.

    Focus group discussion with high caste men, October 29, 2016

  14. 14.

    5000–6000 INR is equivalent to approximately 75–89 USD (on date of interview, October 28, 2016)

  15. 15.

    Interview with a widowed low caste woman, October 28, 2016

  16. 16.

    2000, 3000, 5000 INR are equivalent to approximately 30, 45, 75 USD (on date of interview, October 26, 2016)

  17. 17.

    With the introduction of cellphones and relatively affordable services in Maulali, women are now able to readily communicate with their husbands and defer decision-making to their physically absent husbands. Previously, women communicated with their migrant husbands by hand-written letters. Months could elapse between sending a letter and receiving a reply. Women therefore often felt compelled to make time-sensitive decisions without their husbands (such as selling livestock), often with the help of other men in the family or village. The effects of male out-migration on women's intra-household decision-making in Maulali are discussed further in Kim J.J. (forthcoming).

  18. 18.

    Interview with high caste woman with former migrant husband, October 26, 2016

  19. 19.

    Focus group with high caste women, October 30, 2016

  20. 20.

    There are some exceptions. For example, women noted taking over traditionally male responsibilities like fetching firewood from the forest and going to the mill in men’s absence.

  21. 21.

    Respondents also reported that it was believed that women would get leprosy on the part of their hand that touched the plow and if they were to jump over the plow, they would get a moustache.

  22. 22.

    1500 NPR is equivalent to approximately 14 USD (on date of interview, October 27, 2016)

  23. 23.

    While respondents noted that some men were now expecting to be paid for their agricultural labor, majority of the respondents reported that labor was exchanged for future labor (in lieu of payment).

  24. 24.

    1500 NPR is equivalent to approximately 14 USD (on date of interview, October 27, 2016)

  25. 25.

    Interview with high caste woman with migrant husband in Tamil-Nadu, October 27, 2016

  26. 26.

    Focus group with high caste men, October 25, 2016

  27. 27.

    Focus group with lower caste men, November 2, 2016

  28. 28.

    Focus group with high caste men, October 27, 2016

  29. 29.

    Interview with high caste woman with migrant husband in Mangalore, October 24, 2016

  30. 30.

    Interview with high caste woman with migrant husband in Bangalore, February 24, 2017

  31. 31.

    Interview with high caste woman with migrant husband in Uttar Pradesh, October 25, 2016

  32. 32.

    Focus group with high caste women, October 30, 2016

  33. 33.

    Interview with high caste woman with migrant husband in Bangalore, October 31, 2016

  34. 34.

    Focus group with high caste men, October 24, 2016

  35. 35.

    Interview with high caste woman with former migrant husband, October 26, 2016

  36. 36.

    Focus group with high caste men, October 25, 2016

  37. 37.

    Interview with high caste woman with migrant husband in Bangalore, October 31, 2016


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This study was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Support for Patrick Webb’s time was provided specifically by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Nutrition, which is funded by USAID. The contents are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

The authors acknowledge the support of Promoting Agriculture, Health, and Alternative Livelihoods initiative, led by Mercy Corps. Jeeyon Janet Kim also gratefully recognizes the funding from the Gerald J. Friedman Fellowship in Nutrition and Citizenship. Many thanks to Mr. Poshan Dahal for his instrumental support in study coordination and logistics support, and for his insights during study activities. We are grateful to Ms. Gomati Awasthi for her invaluable translation support and help in building rapport and trust with the respondents. We also thank the two anonymous reviewers for their detailed feedback. Last but not least, we are indebted to the women and men of Maulali who so generously shared their experiences, challenges, and hopes; dhanyabad.

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Correspondence to Jeeyon Janet Kim.

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Kim, J.J., Stites, E., Webb, P. et al. The effects of male out-migration on household food security in rural Nepal. Food Sec. 11, 719–732 (2019).

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  • Migration
  • Food security
  • Gender
  • Caste
  • Nepal