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Women migrants' money changes home turf

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SAN FRANCISCO (AFX) - Every two weeks, Margarita Gutierrez takes the money saved from her $7-an-hour job washing cars and sends it to her two children in El Salvador, even though her husband frets over the cost of living in their adopted home.

"As a mother, I thought first, second and last about the children, and I sent them everything I had," said Gutierrez, 45, who lives in San Francisco.

A recent United Nations Population Fund report shows that Gutierrez is not alone. Although female immigrants generally earn less than men, they tend to send home a larger portion of their earnings, playing an important role in poverty reduction and development in their countries of origin and upending many traditional mores.

About 95 million women around the world have left their home countries to live and work in a foreign land; they account for nearly half the world's immigrants. But until now little research had been done on how men's and women's immigration experiences differ.

According to the report, titled "A Passage to Hope: Women and International Migration," they send up to three-quarters of their income home, contributing substantially to the approximately $232 billion the World Bank estimates was transferred last year to immigrants' countries of origin.

"It's a trend worldwide, and reflects the investment priorities of women in general," said Maria Jose Alcala, the report's primary author. "Women will always prioritize family and children and their well-being. Men will seek more consumer items. Women tend to be more reliable, and send home larger amounts."

In developing countries, this steady stream of funds can be substantially larger than official assistance, and is the second largest source of external income after foreign direct investment.

Individual country studies cited in the report reveal aspects of women's roles in this larger phenomenon. In 1999, women from Sri Lanka sent home about 62 percent of the more than $1 billion the country received in remittances. A study of Bangladeshi women working in the Middle East showed that in 2000, they sent home 72 percent of their earnings, on average.

"The contributions of women's remittances to poverty reductions are critical, but they've been largely ignored," said Alcala.

Every time she calls home, Gutierrez, 45, hears about the results of her work washing over 20 cars an hour, and cleaning houses on the side.

Reviewing her children's homework on the phone, going over their multiplication tables and encouraging them during the eight years she's been away from them, she's helped her son, who was 10 when she left, graduate high school, and her daughter, who was 15, finish law school.

Her money has kept them fed, clothed, and focused on their studies -- her goal when she left her hometown of Usulutan, in El Salvador.

There have been days when she had to eat at soup kitchens and live in shared quarters, but she didn't mind.

"At least I had the satisfaction of knowing my daughter was going to the university," she said.

By sending money home, women also find they're earning more respect and authority than they might have had at home, though that can meet with some resistance, Alcala said.

"What's very interesting about remittances and the whole migration experience is that it transforms traditional gender norms in both public and private life," she said. "In more traditional societies, money is the men's field."

Aida Andino realized that when she decided to go against her husband's wishes and join him in the United States. He had been sending home about $100 a month -- not nearly enough to support their four children.

Andino, 39, decided to come anyway, without her husband's financial support. Two years ago, she left her native Honduras, clinging to the side of cargo trains as she traveled the length of Mexico.

Finding herself alone in California, she cleaned homes during the day and supplemented that by cleaning a restaurant at night. The steady income lets her send $400 a month to her eldest son, who attends university in the evening so he can take care of the three younger children during the day.

"Now I don't even remember that man I call my husband," she said. "I used to not be able to help my own mother when I was there, and that hurt. Now if she needs something, I'm right there."

Some of the social and financial barriers that women face when trying to put the money they send home to productive use will be discussed by the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 14 and 15, Alcala said.

"Gender equality is critical to poverty reduction and development," Alcala said. "As immigration is changing norms and attitudes, it's also fostering societies where there are greater chances of reducing inequality overall." Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be

Copyright 2006 AFX News Limited. All Rights Reserved.

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