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Addressing the double burden of work for rural women

Jemimah Njuki

Jemimah Njuki

Senior program specialist, IDRC

This month, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is meeting in New York. The theme of the meeting is women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work. And the conversation will center on women like me: Women who work in offices or in wage jobs, juggling work responsibilities, kids and household chores. As a single mother working full time, I know about the double burden of work all too well.

Unfortunately, these global conversations about women’s economic empowerment and unpaid care work exclude some of the women who need it most: rural women farmers. These are the millions of women engaged in agricultural work in small family farms across Africa and much of the developing world.

I grew up on one of these farms in a small village in Kenya. My earliest memories are of my family — my mother, my five sisters and two brothers — cultivating crops and raising livestock. When the day’s farm activities were done, my mother and sisters would start a whole new set of activities: fetching water, cooking, washing clothes and doing other domestic tasks. Yet by many official measures, this is not considered “work.”

But if we dig a bit deeper to learn how rural women farmers are spending their time, it’s clear that they face the double burden of work more than anyone. Data from UN Women shows that rural women are spending more time than urban women and men in reproductive and household work, including time spent collecting water and fuel, caring for children and the sick, and processing food.

In Malawi, for example, rural women are spending on average 9.1 hours per week fetching water and firewood, compared to 1.1 hours per week for men. Collectively, rural women in sub-Saharan Africa spend about 40 billion hours a year collecting water, equal to a year’s worth of labor by the entire workforce in France. In Tanzania alone, increasing access to water would free up women’s working hours and, if converted into paid employment, would be equivalent to 1 million new full-time jobs for women.

When rural women farmers have to engage in agriculture and economic activities in addition to domestic care work, it is the health and nutrition of their families — and especially children — that are at stake. In Kenya, studies of dairy farms showed that in families that had more cows, mothers were more likely to stop breastfeeding early, introduce weaning foods before six months and leave their children with an older sibling in order to look after the cows.

We know that policies on care work and the domestic work burden can be developed for whole populations, including rural women. Immediately after taking office in March 2015, Uruguay President Tabaré Vázquez announced the implementation of the National Care System as his flagship policy. The aim of the program is to provide care for children and the elderly. The policy covers the whole country, with the rationale that providing this care will increase the participation of women in formal employment and other economic activities, as well as contribute to gender equality.

Many of those working to develop agriculture programs and policies believe that reducing the burden of domestic work for women is outside our mandate. They could not be more wrong.

In fact, there are several ways we can help.

The first is through developing innovations that reduce the time and drudgery of unpaid domestic work. In many countries in Africa, for example, beans are an important food and the main source of protein in diets. Unfortunately, it takes two to three hours of a woman’s time to collect the required water and firewood, and to cook the beans. In 2015, researchers in Kenya and Uganda developed precooked bean products that reduce the cooking time of beans to just 10 to 15 minutes. This releases women to engage in income-earning activities.

Secondly, we can change the way we work with smallholder farmers, both men and women. Through dialogue, media and engaging men and boys, those working in agriculture can change the gender norms and stereotypes about domestic work. These dialogues can shift the gender division of labor toward more equitable sharing of tasks by all family members. In a fisheries project in Malawi and Zambia, researchers are using community theater to change norms and practices around fishing and domestic work. Engaging men and women to act out the different roles ascribed to men and women — and the constraints that men and women face — creates the space for discussion on workload sharing. As a result, more men share in domestic tasks and women engage in income generating activities such as fish trading.

Thirdly, we should invest in measuring and tracking how women use their time. By measuring how much time rural women are spending on economic activities and domestic care work, we are better able to determine how to improve their lives and identify where the best opportunities are to reduce the burden of care work. In 2013, USAID’s Feed the Future program developed the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index. Using this index, people working in agriculture and development can track what impact their innovations have on women’s time use.  

As the Commission on the Status of Women meets in New York, let’s consider the work done by millions of rural women farmers and ensure that the resolutions and recommendations on care work coming out of the meeting can benefit rural women farmers.

This op-ed was first published on on March 27, 2017.

Jemimah Njuki manages a portfolio of agriculture and food security, and women's empowerment projects at IDRC.