Between Unpaid Agricultural, Domestic Labor, Women Lack Time, Energy to Feed Children
New research in the journal Feminist Economics has revealed that Indian women’s unpaid agricultural work negatively affects household nutrition, leading to malnutrition among children. Women in rural India work as agricultural and farm laborers in addition to doing what women are expected to do universally — all the childcare and household work. With increased migration of men to cities for higher-paying jobs, women are left behind to juggle agricultural and home duties, which leaves them little time and energy to feed their children.
Writing for IPS News Agency, Lakshmi Puri, Former UN Assistant Secretary-General & Deputy Executive Director of UN Women says: “Food security and gender equality and women’s empowerment are concomitant and inextricably interlinked.” 43% of the agricultural labor force across all developing countries are women; six out of ten women in Asia are agricultural workers. Given how women are responsible for the food and nutrition for communities “in the entire food value chain”, Puri concludes, that women are central to addressing malnutrition, hunger, and poverty.
Women are especially on the front line of nutrition as caregivers in the family — producing, storing, cleaning, cooking food for consumption – and ensuring that food, when available, reaches children first. Women have a crucial role in ensuring the health of children.
To explore this further in the Indian context, Nitya Rao from the University of East Anglia, U.K., and S. Raju from India’s M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation undertook the study titled “Gendered Time, Seasonality and Nutrition,” drawing on primary data between 2014 and 2016 from 12 villages in two districts, Wardha in Maharashtra and Koraput in Odisha.
Malnutrition is high in both districts, with more than 50% of children between 0 and 5 years of age being underweight. Across both districts, women — from land-owning farmers, to landless laborers — reported spending almost 80% of the time that men spent on income- or food-generating activities, despite owning less than 5% of all landholdings; they are simply thought of as “unpaid family helpers,” the report said. In addition to this, they reported being in charge of almost all housework such as cooking, bathing, and feeding children, washing clothes, cleaning and collecting water.
In Koraput, planting and harvesting seasons are most hectic for women, with their average workday stretching to 13 hours and leaving them sleep-deprived and with no time for household chores and childcare. In Wardha, a region suffering from drought almost every year, harvesting season is the most intense for women, when they spend hours picking cotton manually. Several women reported headaches due to exposure to the smell of cotton and cotton dust; they are left with no energy or desire to cook or eat by the end of the day, which has negative implications for their own health and, in turn, affects their ability to care for their children.
The study concluded that unpaid labor by women in agriculture led to high rates of malnutrition in children, through a combination of reduced time for care work and reduced energy levels. Rao said: “Women’s agricultural work could potentially have negative outcomes, especially for the young child whose nutrition depends more on the other’s time for breastfeeding and supplementary feeding…The double burden of work and care often leads to a time-tradeoff between the two,” reported by The Week.
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Around the world, housework is seen as ‘women’s work,’ with women performing 77% of unpaid domestic work, according to a United Nations report. In India, women account for 49% of the population and do roughly 352 minutes of unpaid labor daily, a stark contrast to men’s 51.8 minutes. This is just housework; for Indian women in agriculture, their very significant contributions at work are also not counted.
A UN Women report emphasizes that the need of the hour is to think of food security, gender equality and women’s empowerment simultaneously. “Gender inequalities in the distribution of unpaid care work burden both in developed and in developing countries continue to deprive women of opportunities for paid work, education, and political participation, all of which have a bearing on their food security and nutrition,” the report says. It adds that women’s participation in decision-making processes in rural institutions also remains low, leading to government policies and institutions on agriculture, food security and nutrition completely overlooking women’s contributions to agriculture.
Rao and Raju remain optimistic despite the findings of their study. They say infrastructural support can reduce the burden of daily chores, provide energy and clean water and strengthen child-care services. “While designing policies, it is [also] important to recognize women as farmers and agricultural workers and ensure equal entitlements given their significant contributions to farming,” the study concludes.