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DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Remittance Crunch, But Women Migrants Keep Sending

Elizabeth Eames Roebling and Tove Silveira

SANTO DOMINGO, Jun 29 2009 (IPS) - Among the colourful houses in the neighbourhood called Vietnam in East Santo Domingo, many families have at least one family member among the 1.5 million Dominicans living abroad.

Mercedes Berenice Pérez runs a small beauty saloon. "All the businesses are affected by the crisis in remittances" Credit: Willian Silveira/IPS

Mercedes Berenice Pérez runs a small beauty saloon. "All the businesses are affected by the crisis in remittances" Credit: Willian Silveira/IPS

These families are among the 70,000 who have come to depend on the remittances sent home from the migrants.

Nelis Polanco, mother of three, used to receive about 100 dollars per month from her children’s father in the U.S. Six months ago the remittances stopped.

"I’m very glad I have a job and that I’m not totally dependent on the remittances. But I will feel the difference when the school semester starts and the children need their uniforms and supplies," she says.

The children’s father used to have two jobs but in February he told Nelis he was losing one of the jobs and the other one was cutting down on his working hours. She has not heard from him since.

"I think he is ashamed to call as he is not sending any more money."

Nelis walks through the neighbourhood shaking hands with people, asking them how the mother is, or the baby, telling some young men off for not having attended a job searching course the other night.

She works for the ‘Tú, Mujer’ project with transnational families, giving 300 families in East Santo Domingo support and guidance. The organisation gives workshops in starting small businesses and how to invest the remittances so that they create opportunities, rather than dependence.

Mercedes Berenice Pérez is the head of a household of one of the participating families. She lives in a small house with her two children. Two grandchildren. Arlene, 7, and Alexis, 2, are playing in front of the house.

The house is divided into two sections, living quarters along with a small beauty salon. But business has been slow lately, as the remittances that Mercedes used to receive from her Dominican partner living in Miami to pay for the material she uses in the salon have become smaller. What used to be around 100 or 150 dollars monthly is now an occasional remittance of 15 or 20 dollars.

"You can feel the lack of money in the neighbourhood. And you can also feel the sadness of many people living here. All the businesses are affected by the crisis and decline in remittances," she says.

Pérez knows of many in the neighbourhood who have a family member working abroad. "And you can tell when it is a woman because she always thinks of the children and the family. She always sends money to the mother or clothes for them."

Pérez explains that it is the women who are the ones administering the economic changes. It is them who are worrying about how to make the money last.

"I don’t have the products for the salon, but if someone comes to get their hair done or dried, I make some 50 pesos (less than two dollars), which I can use to buy some eggs or an onion. Whenever I get hold of some money I try to buy things I know I will need later on, like the school supplies."

Christina Sanchez, executive director of Tu Mujer says: "The women living abroad are also affected, as they are in a vulnerable position. Often they are the first persons to be fired, especially if they are undocumented migrants."

"But," she continues, "we have seen that in the families where there is a woman migrant sending remittances, families keep recieving something, at least. It is more common that the male migrants stop sending remittances."

She cites the example of young people whose mothers live in Spain, who register for university, but at least they are receiving something, to eat, to survive. "We see that the migrant women worry a lot, they feel strongly for their family back home, for their kids, their well being. They send a lot of letters, make many phonecalls."

Letty Guitierriez, who works at the Central Bank and holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University in New York, did intensive studies in remittances across the region.

"Our culture is very specific," she says. "Every Dominican who lives abroad is expected to send home remittances. Most Dominicans, in the States (U.S.) at least, are intending to return here for their retirement. They send home money to help their families and their communities. I even had some of them in New York who asked me if I wanted them to send money to me when I returned."

She explains that the remittance delivery system in the Dominican Republic is very advanced. The money, in pesos or dollars, is delivered right to the home, all across the country. Many of the companies are not even charging now for transmission, making their money on the foreign exchange rate.

"This," according to Guitierriez, "makes it difficult for the banks to get this money into regular accounts, where perhaps the receivers might access other bank services such as credit for business. Remittance money is seen as something separate, as money that a person can keep and spend just as she wants."

While the rate of remittances has dropped over the last year, the Central Bank figures still show a steady rise over the years. From 1999 to 2008 the total value of remittances doubled from 1.5 billion to 3.1 billion dollars a year. Remittances account for more than 10 percent of the GDP.

Will there be a decline because of the U.S. crisis? "Families will be hard hit as this money is used primarily for daily living expenses, for rent, school, food, not luxuries," she replies. "But there is also a concern since remittances are the second largest source of dollars for the Dominican Republic, after tourism. That is money that we use to pay our foreign debt."

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