Nell Compernolle: How international job migration affects what it means to be a family

Nell Compernolle, winner of a Marshall Weinberg Population, Development, and Climate Change award, is studying how international job migration from Nepal is affecting marriages, household dynamics, and the environment.

By Susan Rosegrant

Ellen "Nell" Compernolle. Photo by Eva Menezes/ISR.Nell Compernolle’s interest in gender, family dynamics, and “what it means to be a woman” isn’t hard to understand. She grew up outside of Chicago as a twin and one of five siblings. About 30 cousins lived nearby. Her family was close, and she held her mom’s hand as her mother gave birth to her little sister, a “kind of wild” experience. “Family was always present for me,” she says.

After graduating from Northwestern with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Compernolle set out to broaden those experiences. She got a job as a paralegal in San Francisco, then periodically saved up money and took off to Southeast Asia, where she lived with families and taught English. “It opened my eyes,” recalls Compernolle, now a doctoral student in sociology and demography at the University of Michigan (U-M). “What does it mean to be a family, a woman, in contexts other than a safe place in Chicago.”

To learn more about development and gender, Compernolle pursued a master’s degree in international policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. Work with a nonprofit in Katmandu, Nepal, deepened her interest in that part of the world. But at the same time, her sense of what it takes to do rigorous research also changed. “I realized that I wanted more tools than that degree gave me to answer and ask questions,” she says.

While working in Katmandu, Compernolle had visited the Institute for Social and Environmental Research-Nepal, a research and development institute in Chitwan that is a close partner with U-M’s Institute for Social Research (ISR). The existing relationship with the Nepalese institute, and the ability to work with the Chitwan Valley Family Survey, a longitudinal survey that has been collecting data on family life in Nepal for more than 15 years, made Michigan “the absolute best fit” for doctoral study, Compernolle says.

Now in her second year, Compernolle is working on an ambitious research project on the impact of international job migration on Nepal, with funding from the Marshall Weinberg Population, Development, and Climate Change Fellows Program and support from the Nepal team at ISR.

Nell Compernolle during a recent trip to Nepal. (Photo courtesy of Nell Compernolle)

Nell Compernolle during a recent trip to Nepal. (Photo courtesy of Nell Compernolle)


Government instability, a stagnant economy, and falling crop yields due to erosion and climate change, have driven many men to pursue work outside Nepal, particularly in Qatar and other Persian Gulf countries. Compernolle wants to understand what effect that’s having back in Chitwan—on marriages, on household dynamics, and on land use.

This summer, she went to Chitwan to interview women whose husbands have migrated, husbands working in the Gulf region (interviewed by phone), as well as non-migrant husbands and wives.

Compernolle had certain hypotheses before she went to Chitwan. With a patriarchal culture and husbands away she guessed that women—suddenly in charge—would feel more empowered. She also predicted that conflict and disagreement between husbands and wives would decrease with the men gone, and that wives would find daily life easier. As for the impact on land use, that was a question mark. “I didn’t know if they’d be using increased income to buy more land and hire workers, or if they would say, ‘Forget it, let’s buy things from the market, instead,’” Compernolle says.

But the interviews with about 20 individuals, conducted with the help of translators, produced some unexpected findings. Most poor couples had to take out loans to pay for the men to fly to the Gulf, and those loans diminished the value of the foreign job—at least at first. “For those households that were poor at the beginning, it’s still really quite stressful,” Compernolle says.

[quote author=””] How are families changing, how are community dynamics changing, how are social norms changing, and what do these changes mean for local resources and the environment?” Compernolle asks. [/quote]

In addition, while many women feel more empowered, they’re also working harder than before. “She’s still raising the kids, but now she’s also managing the house alone,” Compernolle explains. Only the households that were wealthier to begin with are reaping the expected rewards of the demographic rejiggering. “Those at the higher end of the spectrum have better jobs and they are living in these big houses and they’ve hired workers or sold the farmland,” she says. “They’ve made real changes.”

Compernolle is using the interviews to inform the survey that she’s currently pre-testing and that she hopes to implement soon with some 400-500 respondents, split between migratory and non-migratory husbands and wives.

The results should provide insights into the economic impacts of international job migration. They should also shed light on social, humanitarian, and environmental implications. “How are families changing, how are community dynamics changing, how are social norms changing, and what do these changes mean for local resources and the environment?” Compernolle asks. “How do people understand their existence and their place in the world?”

The Weinberg grant, she says, made both the in-person interviews and the informed survey design possible. “For me to be the principal investigator, to be able to have my own research questions—explore them, design a survey questionnaire to test those hypotheses, and then analyze the data to see whether they’re true or not—not many graduate students have that chance.”

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