Who Works the Most? Rural Women Do!

by Quentin Wodon

International days are often an occasion to provide analysis and commentary about service projects and development issues on this blog. Before the blog was launched on World Polio Day, the annual International Day of Rural Women was celebrated on October 15. The original impetus for this International Day was to recognize rural women’s role in enhancing agricultural and rural development worldwide. Rural women are essential for food security, which is why the day is held one day before World Food Day. Rural women clearly deserve recognition: in many countries, they are the ones who work the most in the household!

Women and girls carry charcoal in Uganda (Photo: C. Tsimpo)
Women and girls carry charcoal in Uganda (Photo: C. Tsimpo)

Comparative analysis of the work patterns of men and women in urban and rural areas is typically done with time use data (see this book from a few years ago on gender and time poverty in Africa). In virtually all countries, women work longer hours than men, especially in rural areas.

With Clarence Tsimpo I recently conducted a similar analysis with the latest Uganda National Household Survey for 2012/13. The survey is nationally representative and it includes an interesting module on time use. Information is available for all individuals in the sampled households on their time use allocations along five core activities: market activities (for example working for a wage), collecting firewood, fetching water, cooking, and children and elderly care. To the extent that other types of work or domestic chores are not included, the weekly workload of individuals could be underestimated with those data, but on the other hand one could argue that other activities are often performed as secondary activities in combination with primary activities.

So, how hard does Uganda’s population work? Nationally, the mean working time is 47.7 hours for the adult population aged between 15 and 60. This total includes an average of 32.7 hours in market work, 2.1 hours for collecting firewood, 3.4 hours for fetching water, 7.6 hours for cooking, and 6.8 hours for children and elderly care.

However, women work on average 55.2 hours per week, well above the average of 39.3 hours for men. Men do spend more time on market work, but women do most of the domestic chores and this leads them to work longer hours overall. For some women, the workload is much higher than those averages. In rural areas, 19.2 percent of women work more than 69 hours per week, and 8.8 percent work more than 92 hours per week. For men, the proportions are lower at 9.0 percent and 1.8 percent respectively.

Women work on average longer than men because they are involved, as men are, in farm and often other labor market work. But what differentiates women from men in terms of their total working time is the fact that the responsibility to fetch firewood and water as well as to cook and take care of domestic chores typically falls on women and their children, often from a young age.

The time needed for such chores can be consequential in low income countries. In the case of water for example, in Uganda only a very small minority of households (7%) has access to piped water in their house or yard. Under usual definitions from the World Health Organization’s Joint Monitoring Programme three in fourth households in Uganda have in principle access to an improved water source. However these sources are sometimes located far away from household’s dwellings, so that the time needed to fetch water may be substantial.

The fact that for some households, substantial time is needed to fetch water means that time may be lacking to make water safe by boiling it. As a respondent in a focus group explained it: “It’s the woman who suffers with water and that’s why we don’t expect her to travel for a long distance looking for water and boiling it as well since she has other domestic chores awaiting for her.” Not boiling water may have severe health consequences.

In addition to walking time to water sources, waiting time is also common. This is illustrated by the following comments: “They are few public taps available and, there is a lot of congestion, making it hard to access water without waiting for a period of one to two hours”; “At the shallow well, in the dry season the water is very little and after pumping five jerry cans one needs to wait for another 30 minutes”. In areas where water is scarce, congestion may lead to chaos and even fighting at water sources. Instances of abuse of children and wives have been reported, especially when wives take too much time to fetch water according to their husbands.

What can be done to reduce the workload of women and shift some of their time from domestic chores to market work, thereby enabling women to earn additional income and help households emerge from poverty? As I already mentioned it on this blog (see the 3-part series on infrastructure and poverty: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), better coverage of basic infrastructure services is one of the keys. In Uganda, a connection to the grid or piped water network could enable women to decrease their domestic working time and correspondingly increase their market working time by about two hours per week. The additional earnings that could be generated through this shift could reduce the share of the population in poverty by about one percentage point for each of the two basic infrastructure services.

While this would not by itself eradicate poverty in the country, it would help beneficiary households, and especially rural women, fairly substantially. But whether women work on domestic chores or market work, Uganda’s population can count on them to help carry the day.

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