Between Motherhood and Agency (english)

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von Silvina Monteros Obelar und Valentina Longo

Many studies dealing with migrant women in Spain are focused mainly on their role and impact as workforce in the labor market. Their legal situation and/or integration are aspects often taken into consideration as central issues related to their migrant condition, nevertheless other issues more linked to citizenship are far less treated.

Among these aspects, interconnection can be considered one of the main features of international contemporary migration. Migrant networks are a key element in contemporary migrations where information and communication flows play a central role in such a phenomenon. Especially in the case of ICTs and migrant women, the issue is relatively new and still many data are not disaggregated by gender, driving to the invisibility of the experiences of migrant women.

Migrant women in Spain: Current trends and old divisions

During the 1980s and 1990s, Spain slowly became a place of destination for migrants. Nowadays, among foreign people living in Spain with valid documents, almost the half is constituted by Communitarian citizens [1] (48.14 percent) while the other half is composed by people coming from third countries (51.86 percent). Concerning the main nationalities, Moroccans, Ecuadorians and Colombians represent altogether the 52.44 percent of the total migrant residents.

Immigration to Spain has been favored by a production system based on economic sectors of intensive labor. Migrants are employed in subsidiary positions, characterized by hard and sometimes deregulated work. This has enabled local workers to move to higher skilled positions, as well as native women to enter the paid labor market.

Among the sectors that require a large amount of foreign labor, we can find the domestic and care one, where women migrants are employed allowing native women to conciliate work and family life. This phenomenon is partly due to the weak conciliation policies of the Spanish state and its low level of responsibility concerning families that led to the feminization of migration, as it happened in other late-industrial countries. Generally speaking, Latin American women, especially from Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay, migrate often alone to Spain and work in the domestic sector, while women from African countries, Pakistan or India, come thanks to the family reunification and find many difficulties in order to find a job.

Most of the domestic and care sector is situated within the informal economy, among other reasons because Spain has a poor regulation on it. [2] Official statistics count around 300,000 domestic workers, of whom 61 percent of foreign origin. [3]

Migrant domestic workers

The domestic sector is characterized by the intensity of work and a lack of limitation of tasks. Specifically, in the case of Spain many households hire a person for cleaning, cooking, ironing, washing and caring for children or the elderly, but also for cleaning and cooking of other family members. No qualification is usually required for these jobs and there are still live-in workers especially when an old person has to be taken care of. Some authors talk about nearly slave-labor conditions.

Domestic workers face enormous difficulties in reconciling work and family life. The majority of foreign domestic workers in Spain left their children in the country of origin with their mothers or sisters. They usually start to work as live-in workers until they have regularized their status. Once they get the documentation, often after an average period of three years, they try to get an hourly-based job both in the domestic as well as in other sectors.

As second goal, they try to reunify their spouse and children even if family reunification is difficult from the normative point of view. The requirements in order to be eligible are very strict (having a long term contract, a good salary, a home of a certain size, etc.). Having the proper documentation, the reunification process can take up to two years, so that living away from the family during the early years in Spain, is common among the migrant population.

Transnational ties, long-distance education

The motivations for migration and the migratory paths can be very differentiated, however, our study focuses on the migration as familiar strategy since a significant proportion of migrant women coming alone to Spain is motivated by such a strategy.

Family separation in the context of migration during the early years can cause pain, frustration, sadness and even depression. However, a potential field of transnational communication is created in order to overcome the physical separation. The idea of family becomes more complex, expanding its borders and finding new ways of being and belonging within this social field. Gender norms, authority and morality are rewritten in the field, even the meaning of being a "wife" or being a "mother".

This transnational social field has developed especially thanks to the new communication technologies. It has been mainly the phone that has allowed migrants to keep in contact with family members in the country of origin. A clear example of this form of communication comes from migrant mothers, who have been able to "educate" their children through the distance by the telephone thanks to the Internet cafés. Many migrants don't have telephone or Internet at home but they need to be reachable for both work and family reasons, so many of them make use of mobile phones more than land line. In fact, some studies claim that the use of mobiles among migrants is very similar to that of the natives and that the income level does not affect the consumption concerning such a tool.

Some differences between natives and migrants concern the use of Internet, moreover within the migrant population itself there are differences between men and women and also by age. Although many migrants learned to communicate through the Internet, not always migrant women, especially those over 45, use this medium. Nevertheless many of them use the Internet cafés not only to call home, but also to open an email account and then to use services such as Skype. When they are able to improve their legal and economic status, they install Internet at home following the same patterns as the Spaniards. However, some studies show that migrants have less computers at home than the Spanish people and in many cases they only have one computer and share it with other family members.

The use they make of the Internet is mainly for transnational and intra-familiar communication and to a lesser extent in order to find a job. It is mainly an instrumental use, while far less common is the use aimed at buying online or participating in associations.

Tecno-sociability and structural constraints

In many cases the migration process has pushed women to learn to use ICTs. It is one of the ways in order to live their transnational citizenship. ICT enter their daily lives in specific ways constructing a sort of tecno-sociability that informs their whole migration experience.

Nevertheless, their use of the computer and the internet show big differences by nationality, social class, gender, age and educational level. We can find women who do not use the computer at all, but they can perfectly utilize a last generation mobile phone, or other women who can use different computer programmes. In general, women migrants who live separated from their families (spouses, sons or daughters, mothers and fathers), show great interest in learning to use some communication technologies during the first years of residence in Spain in order to connect with their families. For this reason they use to go to the internet cafes to make phone calls, but also to open an e-mail account, to take a look at Facebook or make use of Skype. Their learning is mainly motivated by their need and desire to feel closer to their affections in the country of origin.

Yet as a consequence of the economic and financial crisis that started in 2007, many migrant workers who used to have a computer with connection at home, had to renounce because of economic reasons: ICTs are perceived as luxury goods and not as a priority. Moreover, in case of heterosexual couples living together, the husband has often more access than the wife. Another factor that has to be taken into account when dealing with media usage and literacy is the fact that the interviewed migrant women do not use ICTs in their work environment, thus the usage is mainly referred to their reduced spare time since they usually work long hours.

These features derive especially from the high workload characterized by low salaries combined with the fact that the care for household and children remains mainly women's responsibility. Given this premises, it becomes clear how the intersection of gender, class and race, besides age, educational lebel and personal history, is crucial in the ICTs experiences and knowledge of migrant women.

Migrant motherhood ...

The main result from the fieldwork can be described as the vicarious use of the new communication technologies mothers make. They show an intensive use of the computer and the Internet when they live separated from their children, while once they are reunified mothers seem to limit their utilization leaving more time for it to their children. If families have a home Internet connection, the time devoted to its use by children or adolescents increase, and the mothers can connect just as subordinate users. When families cannot count on a home-based internet connection and have to go to an Internet café, we can still appreciate that the mothers’ use of such a place decreases compared to the period in which their children lived in the country of origin.

The interviewed mothers express a twofold attitude towards their children's ICT use. On one hand they express satisfaction and support the need of autonomy of their children, on the other hand they are afraid of the negative consequences of a possible misuse of ICT (especially of internet) and they explicit the need of controlling their children's ICT use. This second aspect was much stronger than the first one.

The issues of safety, privacy, online predators and cyber bullying are sometimes complex, both technically and psychologically, and mothers can struggle to keep up. Concerning sons, violent games and sex-related events [4], even if to a lesser extent, seem to be the major concerns for their mothers, while about daughters sex-related events, and more precisely online predators (both unknown persons and peers) are the main fear. A clear gendered division operates in the different preoccupations of the mothers for boys and girls.

According to the interviewed mothers, authority can be achieved by their learning and thus appropriating of the tools and sharing them with their children, as a Bolivian woman states: "My oldest son asked me to open a Facebook account for him, and I tried to understand what it was. I realized that you can get invitations from people that you don't know. At the same time I realized that if I opened an account for my son, I could also check what he does with it, what kind of friends he has [...]. I asked in the community centre and enrolled in a basic course, then an internet course, later I followed one for blogger and finally one of Facebook." The interest of the mother begun as a need of control on his son's internet activities, but then it turned to be a way for her to discover the many possibilities given by the use of internet.

... mediated through technologies

Other mothers suggested that rules are not necessary because the computer is located in a shared room like the living room, where they can oversee what their children are doing. In other cases, when there is no computer at home, mothers go the internet cafés with their children in order to control which pages they access and also the time spent in front of the screen. Others would like to know more technological tools in order to block the access to unwanted websites, especially those with violent and/or sexual contents.

Mothers report the use of rules primarily because they were concerned about the amount of time a child spent on the computer (reflecting the need for computers to be shared between users): "I allow them half an hour each, but just during weekends 'cause I realized that they used to forgot everything, even to get a shower" (Bolivian woman). Other rules concerning the use of the Internet are about privacy, some mothers specify that their children are not allowed to give out their name and address online to unknown people and forbid the use of chat rooms. In many cases mothers outlined how they checked the content of the visited websites in order to ensure that their children had not accessed inappropriate ones.

Nevertheless the level of control exercised by migrant working mothers do not seem to be very high or effective. In the interviews, some mothers explained their relatively low level of supervision of children’s computing activities, arguing that they do not have enough time since they have to work long hours.

Concerning their own use of the new technologies, an important feature for all interviewed women is the chance of maintaining constant relations with relatives and friends in their home countries. The telephone has not disappeared from their daily lives, but other ICT tools seem to be more suitable for a collective and social use. Indeed, transnational communities are kept alive by the use of Facebook or Skype: "Now I don't have to write to each relative individually, I can post something on Facebook and everybody can see it" (Bolivian mother): "During the Feast of Sacrifice we were communicating all day long with Skype, from morning till night, like a real feast, not like before, by phone, when we talked for 3 minutes and that we had to hang up" (Moroccan woman).

Conclusive reflections

The intensive working schedules especially in the domestic sector, characterized by precariousness and high flexibility, contribute to complicate the pedagogic relation of mothers and children once the latter are reunified. When children are in the country of origin, mothers are the main ICTs users while after the reunification process, sons and daughters hold the primacy, relegating mothers to a more traditional social role. Such a subsidiary technological position is reinforced by the fact that there is usually just one computer in the household, hindering further the accessibility for mothers.

The project aimed at the digital literacy for migrant mothers should start from generating motivation toward ICTs (usefulness, importance or role they can have in their lives, prominence) and should help them in developing processes of peer-learning, as well as enhancing the autonomous and creative use of the new media. It is not only a matter of access, but of active appropriation and creation through the new technologies, focusing not only on the individual level, but also on the collective processes developed through or thanks to the ICTs. In other words, a process that contributes to the use of ICTs beyond “motherhood”.

This article develops the first results of an European project coordinated by maiz. The project, titled “Self-defence IT: Migrant women defend themselves against violence in new media”, involves five countries in the European Union: Austria, Spain, Greece, United Kingdom and Germany.


[1] We are talking about the migration regulation called "Communitarian Regime" that applies to citizens of EU countries, those from the EFTA countries as well as their relatives and the relatives of Spanish citizens who are third countries nationals.

[2] Until June 2011 when the Royal Decree 1620/2011 was approved which improved the working conditions of domestic workers.

[3] Data from the Social Security, available at: >

[4] By sex-related events we mean very different practices cited by the interviewees, such as viewing, sending and/or exchanging pictures of unknown naked persons, as well as of their children; sexual harassment online or even vis à vis as consequence of online predators.


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Valentina Longois member of the organization "Studies and Cooperation for Development" (ESCODE) and has a PhD in sociology.
Silvina Monteros Obelaris member of the organization "Studies and Cooperation for Development" (ESCODE) and has a PhD in social anthropology.