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Wives left behind in Mexico by migrants suffer 'poorer mental health'

July 3, 2009 |  9:37 am

Los que se quedan

Mexican women left behind by husbands who migrate to the United States in search of work were one of the focuses of the documentary "Los Que Se Quedan," or "Those Who Remain," by Carlos Hagerman and Juan Carlos Rulfo, which we've mentioned a number of times here on La Plaza.

In response to those posts, Jared Wilkerson, one of the authors of a recent study on that subject, got in touch with us about the findings he recently made with his colleagues at Brigham Young University.

The study, called "Effects of Husbands’ Migration on Mental Health and Gender Role Ideology of Rural Mexican Women," found that those women generally have a poorer state of mental health than a comparison group. The study attributes this condition largely to the nontraditional gender roles that are forced upon the women because of their husbands' absence.

As Wilkerson explained to us via e-mail:

"For most of the women, a shift in ideology comes as a necessity, not a choice. This necessity is brought on when their husbands leave and their duties of livelihood and community representation increase. As the women see themselves doing things traditionally associated with male success — which happens to be the most visible form and baseline of success, they begin to think such success is right and proper for both men and women. This newfound ideology does not die when husbands return.

"When a woman holding this nontraditional ideology is surrounded by society, culture, location or other circumstances that are contrary to that ideology, it may be more difficult for her to act upon or even feel comfortable with the ideology."

And how does he think this can contribute to the immigration debate now raging in the United States?

"Americans should not see this study as a call to 'seal our borders' from the 'evil aliens' in order to keep alien families together. That would likely be less of a solution to the problem of women’s mental suffering, especially in places where farming is not a perennial option like the ranchos, because men would likely become frustrated and agitated with their inability to provide for their families. This agitation would surely lead to familial suffering.

"In the long run, if labor is allowed to flow freely and safely across the border to satisfy demand in the United States, then women who care about their husbands’ well-being will be less anxious for their safety. Further, the free and safe flow of labor would allow families to plan when and for how long forays into the United States would last, providing surety and stability for wives and children who remain at home."

You can decide for yourself what the immigration debate can learn from these findings; download it here.

Wilkerson co-wrote the study with his former BYU psychology professor Niwako Yamawaki and Samuel D. Downs, and it was published in the Healthcare for Women International journal this week. The study was carried out in rural Guanajuato in a cluster of five villages.

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Photo: A screen shot from the documentary  "Los Que Se Quedan," or "Those Who Remain."

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