Choosing to migrate is not always easy, particularly when it involves leaving family members behind. In this article, Ghamz E Ali Siyal draws on PRISE research to discuss how distance influences people’s choices in semi-arid regions in Pakistan, and explores how this varies according to gender and marital status.

Migration decisions are often influenced not just by economic and social factors but by distance, i.e. how far an individual or family has to move from their place of origin. This idea has been elaborated in distance laws of migration by George Kingsley Zipf, whose 1949 inverse distance law of population movement clearly explains that the magnitude of migration is inversely proportional to the distance travelled. Even before that, Ernst Georg Ravenstein outlined 11 laws of migration in the late 1800s. Law 1 indicated “The majority of migrants move only a short distance in any one migration”, while Law 4 stated that, “Females are more migratory than males within the county of their birth, but males more frequently venture beyond that county boundary”.

These laws provide a useful foundation for exploring the influence of distance on migration today. During research conducted for a multi-country research consortium project titled Pathways to Resilience in Semi-Arid Economies (PRISE, co-partnered by the Overseas Development Institute (lead institution), UK; Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, UK; Innovations Environnement Développement en Afrique, Senegal; and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan), we observed how choice of destination is influenced by distance, and looked at how this varied with gender and marital status. In line with both Zipf and Ravenstein’s laws we found that distance affects negatively on number of migrants but this was stronger in case of unmarried individuals than among married couples. The majority of would-be migrants made their decision based on proximity coupled with access to basic facilities, like electricity, gas connections, schools and transport infrastructure. As one 26 year-old small business owner who had moved to an urban area described, “Faisalabad (Punjab) was near to my village, and access to other basic facilities created more opportunities for earning higher income from my spare parts business”

Figure 1: Distance travelled by urban migrants by gender

Source: PRISE Project ‘Migration Futures in Asia and Africa’ survey conducted in semi-arid regions of Pakistan (D.G Khan, Mardan, and Faisalabad) during January, 2017.

For women, migration was only possible with the support of a male relative living in city. For example, a 31-year old female respondent from Mardan said, “the major reason for choosing Mardan was proximity to my village so that I can visit my family easily. My relatives helped in shifting here”.

In contrast to Ravestein’s 4th law, our project found that males are more migratory than females within Pakistan. Although this result is not based on a nationally representative sample (the study focusses on the districts of Dera Ghazi Khan Khan, Mardan and Faisalabad), it shows clear trends that men still dominate Pakistan’s labour force and as the primary bread winner(s) they tended to be more migratory. This was true regardless of marital status. This finding supported earlier research conducted in Ghana, which found that women were significantly less mobile than men.

Male respondents often cited economic drivers for as their rationale for migrating. “I completed my education, and wanted to support my family expenses which were very high” a 21 year old male respondent from Mardan district told us. In contrast, a lack of control over resources and autonomy for decision making as well as restrictive social norms reduced women’s ability to move. A 38 year-old woman who had settled in the urban area of D.G Khan explained the challenges women faced in rural areas:

“People are narrow-minded in villages. They restrict commutation of females; they backbite especially if you’re working in Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). There you have to be answerable to the whole village; here [in the city] you only have to be answerable to yourself and your immediate family. My family is educated so they totally supported my work. But some relatives did object. However, later they begged me to find work for their own daughters”.

One interesting finding was that single individuals are less migratory than couples. This is likely to be due to the fact married people have more financial burdens because they will often need to support both aging parents and their own children. Therefore, married couples are more likely to move longer distances to earn higher wages and increase access to public utilities.

Figure 2: Urban labourers in Dera Ghazi Khan. Photo used with the author’s permission.

There are key implications that can be derived from these results. First, it is likely that female migration will increase as social norms and assumptions around role of women change. This is happening as more and more women push boundaries or negotiate with their communities to migrate for educational or economic opportunities. Secondly, as income and access to basic facilities such as utilities and quality education improve it is likely that even married couples will be more reluctant to move to far-flung areas. Therefore, if the government wants to reduce migration to urban areas and promote more widespread development it should prioritise improving access to these necessities in rural areas. Finally, the consequences of split migration must be taken into account (i.e. couples where one partner – usually the male – migrates, leaving their family behind). This invariably increases the burden on females and left-behind family members who have to care for children and elders. The government must acknowledge the economic realities behind these decisions and develop policies to keep children in school, reduce child labour, and make care programmes and support for the elderly more readily available.

This article is based on research conducted as part of the PRISE project, which was funded by International Development Research Center (IDRC) and Department of International Development (DfID).

This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Author

Ghamz E Ali Siyal is a Project Assistant on the Pathways to Resilience in Semi-Arid Economies (PRISE) project. This is based in the Environment and Climate Change Unit of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). The author can be contacted at

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