Labor migration is associated with lower rates of underweight and higher rates of obesity among left-behind wives in rural Bangladesh: a cross-sectional study

Kristin K. Sznajder, Katherine Wander, Siobhan Mattison, Elizabeth Medina-Romero, Nurul Alam, Rubhana Raqib, Anjan Kumar, Farjana Haque, Tami Blumenfield, Mary K. Shenk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Among Bangladeshi men, international labor migration has increased ten-fold since 1990 and rural to urban labor migration rates have steadily increased. Labor migration of husbands has increased household wealth and redefined women’s roles, which have both positively and negatively impacted the health of wives “left behind”. We examined the direct and indirect effects of husband labor migration on chronic disease indicators and outcomes among wives of labor migrants. Methods: We collected survey, anthropometric, and biomarker data from a random sample of women in Matlab, Bangladesh, in 2018. We assessed associations between husband’s migration and indicators of adiposity and chronic disease. We used structural equation modeling to assess the direct effect of labor migration on chronic disease, undernutrition, and adiposity, and the mediating roles of income, food security, and proportion of food purchased from the bazaar. Qualitative interviews and participant observation were used to help provide context for the associations we found in our quantitative results. Findings: Among study participants, 9.0% were underweight, 50.9% were iron deficient, 48.3% were anemic, 39.6% were obese, 27.3% had a waist circumference over 35 in., 33.1% had a high whole-body fat percentage, 32.8% were diabetic, and 32.9% had hypertension. Slightly more women in the sample (55.3%) had a husband who never migrated than had a husband who had ever migrated (44.9%). Of those whose husband had ever migrated, 25.8% had a husband who was a current international migrant. Wives of migrants were less likely to be underweight, and more likely to have indicators of excess adiposity, than wives of non-migrants. Protection against undernutrition was attributable primarily to increased food security among wives of migrants, while increased adiposity was attributable primarily to purchasing a higher proportion of food from the bazaar; however, there was a separate path through income, which qualitative findings suggest may be related to reduced physical activity. Conclusions: Labor migration, and particularly international labor migration, intensifies the nutrition transition in Bangladesh through increasing wealth, changing how foods are purchased, and reducing physical activity, which both decreases risk for undernutrition and increases risk for excess adiposity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number81
JournalGlobalization and Health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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