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Uncovering women's work

By Jayati Ghosh

A substantial amount of women's time is devoted to unpaid labour. Yet, much of women's work is invisible. The productive contribution of household maintenance, provisioning and reproduction is ignored. As a result, inadequate attention is paid to the conditions of women's work and its economic value

Work defines the conditions of human existence in many ways. This may be even more true for women than for men, because the responsibility for social reproduction -- which largely devolves upon women in most societies -- ensures that the vast majority of women are inevitably involved in some kind of productive and/or reproductive activity. Despite this, in many discussions, the importance of women's work generally receives marginal treatment simply because so much of the work regularly performed is “invisible”, in terms of market criteria or even in terms of socially dominant perceptions of what constitutes “work”. This obviously matters, because it leads to the social underestimation of women's productive contribution. More importantly, as a result, inadequate attention is typically devoted to the conditions of women's work and their implications for the general material conditions and wellbeing of women.

This is particularly the case in developing countries, where patterns of market integration and the relatively high proportion of goods and services that are not marketed have implied that female contributions to productive activity extend well beyond those that are socially recognised, and that the conditions under which many of these contributions are made entail significant pressure on women in a variety of ways. In almost all societies, and particularly in developing countries, there remain essential but usually unpaid activities (such as housework and childcare, and community-based activities), which are seen as the responsibility of the women of the household. This social allocation tends to operate regardless of the other work that women may perform.

For working women in lower income groups, it is particularly difficult to find outside labour to substitute for household-based tasks, which therefore tend to devolve upon young girls and aged women within the household or put further pressure on the workload of the women workers themselves. It is in fact wrong to assume that unpaid tasks by women would continue regardless of the way resources and incomes are allocated. “Gender neutral” economic policies may thus imply possible breaking points within the household or the collapse of women's capacity. Social provision for at least a significant part of such services and tasks, or changes in the gender-wise division of labour with respect to household tasks, therefore become important considerations when women are otherwise employed.

This makes the consideration of work participation by women a more complex matter than is often recognised. Since most women are actually employed in some kind of productive/reproductive work, whether or not this is recognised and quantified by statistics, the issues relating to female employment are qualitatively different from those of male employment. Thus, the unemployment-poverty link which has been noted for men in developing countries is not so direct and evident for women: many women are fully employed and still remain poor in absolute terms, and adding to their workload will not necessarily improve their material conditions. Nor is the pressing policy concern that of simply increasing the volume of explicit female employment, since simply adding on recognised “jobs” may in fact lead to a double burden upon women whose household obligations still have to be fulfilled. Instead, concern has to be focused upon the quality , the recognition and the remuneration of women's work in developing countries, as well as the conditions facilitating it, such as alternative arrangements for household work and childcare. All of these are critically affected by broader economic policies as well as by government interventions at micro and meso levels. And these together determine whether or not increased labour market activity by women is associated with genuine improvements in their economic circumstances.

The relative invisibility of much of women's work is now more widely recognised. Since many of the activities associated with household maintenance, provisioning and reproduction -- which are typically performed by women or female children -- are not subject to explicit market relations, there is an inherent tendency to ignore the actual productive contribution of these activities. Similarly, social norms, values and perceptions also operate to render most household-based activity “invisible”. This invisibility gets directly transferred to data inadequacies, making officially generated data in most countries (and particularly in developing countries) very rough and imprecise indicators of the actual productive contribution of women.

All this means that data on the labour force participation of women is notoriously inaccurate. Not only are the problems of undercounting and invisibility rife, but there are often substantial variations in data across countries which may not reflect actual differences but simply distinct methods of estimation. Further, even statistics over time for the same country may alter dramatically, as a result of changed definitions of what constitutes “economically active” or because of more probing questions put to women, or simply due to greater sensitivity on the part of the investigators.

The impact of social structures is reflected not merely in the data, but in the actual determination of explicit labour market participation by women. Thus, in certain regions of India social norms determine the choice between participation in production and involvement in reproduction, and consequently inhibit the freedom of women to participate in the job market or engage in other forms of overt self-employment. The limitations on such freedom can take many forms. While the explicit social rules of some societies limit women's access to many areas of public life, the implicit pressures of other supposedly more emancipated societies may operate no less forcefully to direct women into certain prescribed occupational channels.

It is also true that, since the activities of reproduction and child nurture put so many and varied demands upon women's labour and time, combining these activities with other forms of productive work is only possible when other members of society (whether within the household or outside it) share the burden at least partially. The issue of social responsibility for such activities is therefore critical. Certainly, involving women in other forms of work without ensuring the sharing of tasks and responsibilities associated with child-rearing and household work puts tremendous pressure on both mothers and children.

Obviously, given the nature of women's participation in economic activities, which involves a substantial amount of unpaid labour, overt participation in the labour market or in what is declared to be “economic activity” does not capture the full extent of women's work. The major Indian sources of data in this matter, the Census of India and the National Sample Surveys (NSS), have increased their attempts to recognise women's work by asking probing questions that seek to establish women's involvement in economic activity. However, this is still defined to include only participation in work for the household farm or enterprise, and does not include housework, childcare, care of the sick and old, and related activities associated with social reproduction. It also does not include related work necessary for provisioning for the household, whether it is fuel wood collection in rural areas, or attempts to obtain access to clean water in urban areas, activities that are typically the responsibility of the women of the household.

Recently there have been attempts to capture some of the evidence on unpaid work by women, through time-use surveys. These in general show not only that a very substantial amount of women's time is devoted to unpaid labour, often at the cost of leisure and rest, but also that such unpaid labour may actually have been increasing over time, especially in the past decade.

There are several reasons for this. The structural adjustment policies which have squeezed various types of government expenditure have in effect meant a reduction in access to a range of public goods and services for ordinary citizens, which tend to affect women especially adversely as the additional burden typically falls on them. Cutbacks in per capita health expenditure and the increase in user charges for such services typically reduce the extent to which the poor especially use such facilities. Quite apart from reducing their own access to health facilities, this in turn increases the burden of labour on women in poor households, as the responsibility of caring for the sick who cannot be hospitalised typically falls on them. Worsening of urban infrastructure conditions, such as drinking water and sanitation, implies greater time spent in ensuring minimally clean water supply for the household. Inadequate access to fuel for cooking requires more time spent collecting firewood, or going in for more time-consuming and labour-intensive forms of cooking. And so on.

Sometimes the increase in women's unpaid labour results not from cutbacks in public expenditure so much as from the attempt to fulfil other social objectives. A case in point is the nationwide attempt to conserve and regenerate forest resources through decentralised village-level Joint Forest Management Committees (usually with one representative from each household) which set aside areas to be developed as forest, prohibiting any encroachment, including for minor fuel wood collection (which still remains the dominant source of cooking fuel across rural India). A study by Bina Agarwal shows how this has led to very major increases in the time spent collecting fuel wood, as the women now have to travel much further away from their homes to access even minor amounts of such resources.

In turn, such increases in the unpaid labour time of mothers often imply that other household tasks have to be shared, typically among older girl children. There are numerous micro studies that indicate this tendency, in both rural and urban areas.

In addition, even the 2004-05 NSS found that 52% of rural females and 63% of urban females (15 years or older) dominantly engaged in domestic work. This was not simply because they were not working outside and therefore described themselves as working within the home. Rather, the dominant proportion of girls and women who were engaged in domestic duties were constrained to spend most of their days in this way, whether as sole occupation or in addition to other economic activities. According to this survey, 45% of rural women and 56% of urban women dominantly engaged in household work had no choice but to spend their time in this way -- mostly because there was no other member to fulfil these tasks and they could not afford hired help.

Predictably, these proportions were particularly high for women in the age-group 30-59 years, but they are close to half even for younger women. Even for women older than 60 years, around one-third was still constrained to perform unpaid domestic labour. The higher ratios of unpaid (and largely unrecognised) domestic labour were higher for urban women across all age-groups.

Incidentally, this excludes those who are engaged in unpaid household labour in a subsidiary capacity, which would include a large part of women otherwise employed. The NSS finds that 16% of rural women and 25% of urban women who are dominantly engaged in household work also engage in some other “economic activity” on a subsidiary basis. Similarly, of those women involved in recognised economic activity most also have to perform domestic duties. This implies a “double burden” of work for such women.

Many of the unpaid household-based activities of such women are not simply those related to social reproduction but are very clearly economic in nature. Some are activities that continue and have become even more significant because of the invisibility of and social lack of attention to the unpaid labour of women. For example, NSS 2004-05 showed that of those involved in unpaid domestic work, 57% of rural women and 19% of urban women were engaged in the free collection of fuel wood for household consumption. Activities related to food processing, such as husking and grinding grain, were engaged in by around 15% of women. Other unpaid activities such as maintaining kitchen gardens and looking after livestock and poultry also occupied a majority of women -- 60% in rural areas and 24% in urban areas. These are all economic activities which in developed societies are typically recognised as such because they are increasingly delegated by women and performed through paid contracts.

Unpaid labour is rarely something to be celebrated, and as far as possible there should be not only social recognition of it but also some attempt by society to reward or compensate those who perform it. Thus, unpaid workers should be given the same social concern that motivates the public policies for pension and insurance schemes for workers in general. Similarly, other changes that reduce the amount of time spent in unpaid labour should also be encouraged. It should be noted that certain changes in technology can have significant effects on the time spent and the drudgery involved in unpaid labour, in particular. Thus, some innovations involving basic cooking technology (for example, smokeless chulhas ) have reduced discomfort during the cooking process, while other changes such as access to safe water supply can dramatically reduce the time taken to procure water for drinking and other household uses.

However, the converse is also unfortunately true: slower rates of labour-saving technological change in precisely such activities also mean that unpaid labour continues to account for a large proportion of women's time, and that such work remains arduous and tedious despite development in other areas. Similarly, certain public policy measures often have the unfortunate (and unintended) effect of increasing women's unpaid work. This is true of many apparently “gender-blind” policies that end up increasing unpaid labour time, whether they are afforestation policies that increase the time spent on collecting fuel wood, or sanitation policies that require large amounts of time to be spent collecting water for household use, or health policies that put the basic burden of care of the sick upon household members.

One of the more disturbing features of the way in which labour is organised and performed in India is the extent to which it devolves upon girl-children. The latest information on the usual activity of girl-children (from the NSS once again) suggests that, despite the increase in school enrolment of girls, a significant proportion of girls are still forced to engage in unpaid work, either as part of the household enterprise or in domestic duties or in miscellaneous activities. In rural areas, around one-fourth of girls are not in school but are working as part of their usual activity, and in urban areas around 12% of girls are so engaged. Even among girls who attend school as their principal activity, a significant proportion also engage in unpaid labour, usually in the home. And more than 75% of such girls say that they are forced to do this because of the absence of others to do the work.

So it appears that young girls are still put to work -- in domestic duties, as workers in household enterprises and in a range of miscellaneous activities. And the dominant proportion of this work is unpaid. Yet this phenomenon remains little recognised; even women's activists have devoted relatively less attention to this issue. Until society as a whole is more able to recognise and appreciate the extremely necessary but continuously undervalued and unpaid labour of women, this is likely to continue.

(Jayati Ghosh is Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi . Some parts of this article recently appeared in her column in Frontline)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007