New Internationalist

Women work twice as hard as men

Issue 089

Developing World

Peter Adamson reports on the results of recent research on women's role in world development.

For millions of women in Africa, Asia and Latin America the working day commonly begins at 4.30 or 5.00 am and ends sixteen hours later, as they struggle to meet the most basic needs of their families - for food, water, firewood, clothes, health care and a home.

The reason for this 'hundred-hour week' is that most women do two jobs - in the home and in agriculture.

In the popular imagination the women of the Third World look after the house and raise the children whilst the men look after the land and raise the crops. But recent research has blown this myth sky-high.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, women are responsible for 'at least 50 per cent of all food production'. A study by the Economic Commission for Africa, for example, has shown that women do 60 per cent to 80 per cent of all the agricultural work on the continent plus 50 per cent of all animal 'husbandry' and 100 per cent of the food processing.

In one region studied - Bukaba in Tanzania - the men work an average of 1800 hours a year in agriculture and then their work is largely done. The women, on the other hand, work an average of 2600 hours a year in the field . . . and their work has only just begun. In the local Haya language, the word 'to marry' literally means 'the man gets a hoe'.

It's the same story in India where women also do more than half of the subcontinent's agricultural work. 'It is usually thought that it is the man who is responsible for farm work, assisted by the woman', writes Shanti Chakravorty in a study of India's wheat-growing Haryana State, 'but in most cases now it is the woman who does the farm work, assisted by the man'.

Taking labour in both homes and fields into account, the Haryana study found that the average working day for women was between 15'/a and 16 hours long. In one particular family, the work load of the three adult women and one twelveyear-old girl totalled 58 hours a day - 12 hours doing household chores, 9 hours tending cattle, and 37 hours in agriculture. In a second family, a woman of seventyfive was putting in a ten-hour day.

In the case of younger women, such work loads are commonly combined with frequent pregnancy, childbirth and breast feeding - exhausting processes for any woman's body but particularly debilitating when compounded by inadequate food and long hours of back-breaking work in the fields.

What all this adds up to is that one of the most important and most ignored health problems in the world of the 1980s is that millions of women are suffering from chronic exhaustion.

Unfortunately, numerous studies over the last five years indicate that the development effort itself can actually make matters worse.

In the effort to improve nutrition, the prevalent myth that farmers are always men has meant that most of the agricultural training and technology has been geared to men's work. Tractors, for example, can shorten the work of the men who do the ploughing and lengthen the hours of the women who do the weeding.

In a now famous African study, Esther Boseup noted that in villages where modern technology had been introduced the women's share of agricultural labour had risen from 55 per cent to 68 per cent.

If the effort to improve food production illogically by-passes women, then so too does the effort to improve health. According to the World Health Organisation, about three-quarters of all illness in the developing world could be prevented by better nutrition, water, sanitation, immunisation and health education - all areas in which women take the major responsibility. But three-quarters of health budgets are being spent - by men on men - to provide expensive curative services to a small fraction of the population.

Similarly, the drive for literacy and education, which has seen school enrolment rates more than double in the developing countries since 1960, has also seen women come off second best. Two out of every three illiterate people in the world today are females. Yet as food producers and processors, as home-makers and health workers, and as the principal educators of the next generation, it is at least as important for women to be educated as men.

In the effort to improve nutrition, health and education - basic building blocks of a better life for the majority of the world's people - the rights, needs and contributions of women are being largely ignored. Recognising the importance of women to the development effort is therefore not only a matter of principal to be enshrined in dusty declarations. It is an urgent practical issue. For nothing could do more to take the brakes off economic and social progress than the ending of discrimination against half the world's people.

Industrialised World

Eve Hall looks at ten years of women's liberation in the developed world and finds that everywhere women still work longer for less.

One of the greatest economic and social changes of the post-war years has gone largely unnoticed. It is that more and more women are going out to work. Today in the United States, in Japan and in the United Kingdom, almost 40 per cent of the work force is female.

In theory this should mean that women are becoming better-off, liberated, equal. But in practice it is a different story.

Most women now work far longer hours than men - in factory, shop or office as well as in the home as cook, cleaner, child rearer, shopper and homemaker. This 'double burden' means that the average woman who goes out to work is now putting in an 80-hour working week - twice as long as most men.

So equality depends not only on women sharing in paid employment but also on men sharing in the tasks of the home. At the moment husbands in all industrialised countries contribute very little to domestic work and recent research shows that this contribution does not increase when the wife goes out to work. American researcher Joan Vanek, for example, found that the average father in the United States spends only 12 minutes a day with his children. Overall, women's unpaid work in the U.S.A. is estimated at about 40 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product.

But even in the work-place itself, women's wages are everywhere lower than men's. In the U.K., women are paid an average of 25 per cent less. In the U.S.A., they are paid 40 per cent less. And this is despite equal pay legislation in most industrialised countries.

The reasons why women earn less than men go deeper than legislation. And again the main cause is the 'double burden' of home responsibilities which means that many women have to take part-time jobs, or less demanding jobs, and that they have less time for training and less opportunity for promotion.

As children, girls are educated and conditioned either for no employment at all or for more menial and lower-paidjobs. As workers, they are crowded into industries like textiles, food, clothing, retailing - where they compete with each other for low-paid and insecure jobs which require little skill or training and offer little chance of promotion. A recent survey in Sweden shows that women have a choice of about 25 different occupations whereas a man chooses from over 300 careers. Indeed certain countries, says the OECD, 'have come to rely on a supply of female labour which costs little and enjoys little protection'.

The result of this inequality is that women have more than their fair share of poverty. And particularly hard-hit are the families dependent on a woman's earnings.

Single parent families are increasing in almost every industrialised country. In Britain at least 600,000 families are now headed by single mothers and the number is growing by 6 per cent a year. The main cause is the rise in divorce rates which have doubled in many countries (including both the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.) during the last 15 years.

It is these single-parent families, says the International Labour Organisation, 'which make up the fastest rising group in any classification of the poor population. Even after the receipt of benefits, the incidence of poverty is only just below that of pensioners and is much higher than in any other group.

As the ILO notes, pensioners are the poorest social group in the industrialised world. But here too it is the women who are worst off - partly because they tend to live longer than men and partly because inequality during their working lives is reflected in reduced pensions. In the United States, for example, the 8 million women who are over the age of 65 make up by far the poorest group of people in America - with almost half of them living below the official poverty line.

For women at work, the final irony is that the trades unions - which have done so much to improve the pay, conditions and benefits of work forces in the industrialised world - are also dominated by men. In America's garment industry, 80 per cent of the union members are women but 21 of the 22 member board of the union are men. In New Zealand only 15 of the country's 323 unions have any women executives despite the fact that women carry over a third of all union membership cards.

The first half of the U.N. Decade for Women (1975-80) has now gone and the vast majority of women in the industrialised countries have seen little or no benefit. Equal-pay legislation in almost all industrialised countries has been one of the big achievements of these five years. The task for the next five years is to achieve equal work which will give substance to equal pay. The biggest barrier is that working women now do two jobs. And overcoming that barrier is as much of a challenge to men as it is to women.

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