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No Time To Spare


new internationalist
issue 181 - March 1988

No time to spare
Ben White summarizes the research on
how women, men and children spend their time
in the villages of the developing world.

Women have always got some spare time in which to make baskets or sew school uniforms for a little pocket-money. Their other work - looking after the house and children - is less important than the work that men do. These two assumptions lie behind far too many well-meaning projects aimed at helping rural women in the nations of the South.

But do these assumptions hold true? How long is the average woman's working day and what does she do with her time? It is only since the 1970s that reliable detailed information has been collected about the activities of rural women, men and children. And the results of five major studies - from villages in Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Java in Indonesia, and Nepal - are summarized in Table 1. The figures shown are divided into 'production' (such as farming, working for wages, trading) and reproduction' (domestic work such as grinding food grains, cooking, cleaning, fetching water or firewood, looking after children). Each study calculated the length of the average working day over one year, taking holidays and slack periods into account.

There are many differences, of course - between different countries and between social classes - but several common trends emerge strongly and confirm 'scientifically' what most rural women could have told the researchers themselves, had they only been asked:

[image, unknown] Rural women work long hours. The average woman's working day is between and 13 hours long. This gives a working week of 56 to 91 hours. Now, if you were working a 13 hour day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, and someone arrived at your door with a project to provide you with additional 'employment', you might think they had got the wrong address.

[image, unknown] Rural men work hard, but women work more. Although in every country studied men worked between 40 and 75 hours a week, women's workload was always heavier by up to 21 hours a week.

[image, unknown] Women do both 'productive' and 'reproductive' work. Work for most rural women means not only housework and child-care but also earning income or growing subsistence crops. The village in Bangladesh (where women's mobility outside the home is quite severely restricted) is the only exception. But even there women do around 12 hours a week of income-earning work.

[image, unknown] Women bear almost all the burden of 'reproductive' work. Men's contribution to housework and childcare is negligible compared to women's contribution towards productive work. In three countries (Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Java) men spent a matter of minutes each day on domestic work. It is men's failure to share the domestic burden that accounts for women's longer working days.

So let's take a closer look at this domestic burden. Table 2 shows the hours spent on various domestic tasks. And some of the information is surprising. We have all heard of the long hours it takes to grind grain, fetch fuelwood and water, wash clothes, prepare and cook food, when there is no electricity, piped water or washing-machines. How can women possibly manage all this work in only five hours per day (Java and Nepal) or just three hours (Tanzania and Burkina Faso)?

The answer is that children also work hard, as can be seen in Table 1. By the time they reach their teens, children are generally providing at least half as many hours of work as adults despite the demands of school. One of the important contributions made by children, particularly girls, is in time-consuming chores like collecting firewood and water, and looking after their younger brothers and sisters. Indeed if they did not help with these tasks the burden of reproductive work would be truly impossible for adult women to bear. In the Javanese village, for example, the total amount of 'reproductive' work needed each day to maintain a household was nearly 13 hours. It would be almost impossible for them to do anything else. Adult women are able to spend time working in production only because their daughters - and, to a lesser extent sons, and, to a still lesser extent, husbands - share part of this reproductive work.

Of course this understanding of how the domestic workload is managed does not provide any answers by itself, but at least it underlines the dilemmas. It exposes the ignorance - and arrogance - involved in the assumption made by many development agencies that rural women's time is 'free' time, ready to be filled by development activities. But it also highlights the dangers of the opposite assumption: that women are so burdened already with domestic work that projects should concentrate on lightening this burden, leaving the 'real' work of income-generation to others. Because access to an independent income is an important source of security and status to women.

Ben White is a researcher, specializing in time use in the Third World, at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands.

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New Internationalist issue 181 magazine cover This article is from the March 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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