Poorly paid, backbreaking jobs on top of caring for families leave women drained not empowered

26 February 2018

National and local level women’s economic empowerment initiatives in developing countries are failing to capture the full physical, emotional and economic costs to women of balancing paid work with unpaid care duties.  Research by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) finds that unless the backbreaking drudgery of water carrying, fuel collection, cooking and caring is urgently addressed future global progress on women’s rights and gender equality could stall.

The new report ‘No Time to Rest’ says the solution lies in the provision of good quality and affordable public services, alongside decent work for both men and women in low and middle-income countries.

Over the past two years (2015 – 2017), IDS researchers worked with partners in India, Nepal, Rwanda and Tanzania to capture in-depth stories of low-income women’s lives and the extent to which state and local NGO-run economic empowerment initiatives are helping to improve them.

It found that women in low-income families are overwhelmed and exhausted by the amount of paid and essential unpaid work they have to manage on a daily basis.  

Most women reported physically punishing working days that involved travelling significant distances between home and work, often carrying heavy loads, and incurring injuries. With no time to rest between work and caring for children and other family members their own health and wellbeing often comes last. However, women dig deep into personal and social reserves and carry on, because of the economic necessities they and their families face. 

Manjari* is 18 years old and lives with her husband, two young children and her husband’s extended family in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India. She told researchers:

“I’ve been doing brick kiln work since I was 11 years old. I work for 15 hours a day. Often I only manage to get only 4 or 5 hours of sleep. Even though I work long hours at the kiln I have to do all the work at home. I have to wash the dishes, make food, sweep the house, all the cleaning I have to do alone. It takes us two hours for each round of water collection.

“Last year I was pregnant with my daughter and I worked at the kilns right up until my ninth month of pregnancy. There was no break for me – it was very intense. I felt helpless and exhausted but I had to continue. 

“Having access to a tap in the slum would ease my burden. Also having some childcare facilities at the kilns would mean I could focus more on work and not worry about my children.”

The research findings show that while women welcome the chance to earn an income their paid work 'choices’ are limited.  They are forced to fit poorly paid, insecure and arduous employment such as agricultural labour, brickmaking, stone breaking and home-based work (rolling incense sticks etc) alongside the unrecognised and undervalued work of caring for young children and families while overcoming the daily challenges of no running water, gas or electricity and a lack of basic services. 

Deepta Chopra, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and lead author of ‘No Time to Rest’, says: “Work with decent pay and conditions, alongside basic public services is essential for women in low-income countries to break free from the backbreaking drudgery of their daily lives. Achieving the UN Global Goal 5 on gender equality by 2030 depends on it.

“The current tendency in international development to view women’s economic empowerment as only a matter of access to employment is failing women and their families.”

All media enquiries should contact media@ids.ac.uk or call IDS communications on +44 (0)7701 286 978.

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Notes to editors

  • *Name has been changed to protect identity. Quote translated from research interview.
  • The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is a leading global institution for development research, teaching and learning, and impact and communications, based at the University of Sussex.  See www.ids.ac.uk  for more information.