Between domestic chores and agricultural work, rural Indian women have no time for child-rearing

Worst of both worlds.
Worst of both worlds.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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Working in agriculture-related jobs brings financial freedom to Indian women, but it comes at a cost.

Intense work leads to stress and compromises in care responsibilities towards children and also affects the women’s own health, according to recent research published by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

“Women’s work in agriculture seems to have a negative effect on household nutrition through two pathways: lack of adequate time for care work in peak agricultural seasons and seasonal energy with consequent losses in body weight,” the study notes. “Recognition of women’s contribution to both agricultural production and domestic reproduction, and supporting them adequately, is central to improving nutritional outcomes.”

The researchers, Nitya Rao from the UK’s University of East Anglia, and S Raju from the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, India, gathered data from 12 villages in two Indian districts—Koraput in Odisha and Wardha in Maharashtra. In both areas, women perform nearly all the household work, such as bathing, cleaning and feeding children, washing clothes, and collecting water. Poor health plagued both regions with half of the child population malnourished.

The data details the socio-economic status, livelihoods, farming and agricultural practices, and diet of about 150 households in each district. The researchers tracked women’s paid and unpaid domestic services, market-based work, care and voluntary work, as well as leisure and non-productive activities throughout the year.

The planting season was the worst for women, the research found.

Men and women spent almost the same time on agricultural labour—the former spent 10 hours ploughing and preparing the land while the latter spent roughly nine hours planting and transplanting paddy seedlings. But for women, the time available for childcare reduced by 30% during the season, affecting the hygiene and health of their children. The long work days also deprived women of sleep, draining their energy to perform household chores.

The responsibility balloons when “men migrate for work during the lean summer months and are absent from their homes,” the study notes. “They bring home cash for household expenses, yet in their absence the entire burden of managing the home falls on the woman.” She has to do subsistence farming in addition to carrying out domestic work and fulfilling child-bearing and child-rearing duties.

The way to lessen the pressure on women, as per Rao, is to improve “infrastructural support that can reduce the drudgery and effort/time intensity of tasks, especially cooking, as well as clean energy and drinking water, alongside strengthening child-care services.” Doing so will “help India move toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of reducing hunger and stopping intergenerational nutritional deprivation,” the professor added.