Working women and nutrition

Dhaka,  Thu,  21 September 2017
Published : 07 Aug 2017, 22:04:24

Working women and nutrition

Researches carried out in India have found women's involvement in economic activities to be a boon from the point of earning income for households and women's empowerment. But such an involvement has also turned out to be a bane from the perspective of nutritional status of children, writes Abdul Bayes
Women's work, particularly in agriculture, has drawn considerable attention. Their involvement in economic activities is generally considered as a boon from the point of earning income for households and women's empowerment. However, such an involvement has also turned out to be a bane from the perspective of nutritional status of children. There are claims that women's work outside home entails huge opportunity costs as these conflict with child-bearing and child-care. The creeping feminisation of agriculture in recent times in South Asia points to this paradox. Unfortunately, there are relatively a few studies that point to a link between women's work in agriculture, their traditional roles in housekeeping and household and nutritional outcomes.

A recent LANSA-led research in India, credited to Nitya Rao, undertaken in 12 villages in two districts - Koraput (Odisha) and Wardha (Maharashtra) is drafted as a part of the Farming System for Nutrition feasibility study. It throws interesting insights from baseline anthropometric and diet surveys with 150 households in each district. Detailed time use surveys and qualitative and in-depth interviews were conducted with 30 households in each location. The major findings are as follows:

Women tend to spend three to four-fifths of time in sites, pointing to their significant contributions to agriculture and productive works. Women's (and men's) works in agriculture vary with agro-ecological context, cropping pattern and availability of water. In Koraput (a rain-fed paddy-growing area), planting season was the most time-intensive for women, with their work-day stretching to 13 hours. On the other hand, in Wardha (a cotton-growing region), harvest time was the busiest for women. During these periods of work, time for care-work shrink by close to 30 per cent on both sites. However, both women and men work on an average for two hours more in Koraput than Wardha across seasons. Social identity (caste/ethnicity) also matters. 

Despite generalised deprivation across the two sites, research reveals that particular caste/ethnic groups are worse affected by time and work pressures compared to others. For instance, among the landless Parojas and the vegetable cultivators or Malis, women's agricultural work burdens are at par with men during the planting and harvesting seasons. Child underweight and stunting are the highest among these groups. Seasonality of work and care cannot be ignored altogether. During the peak agricultural seasons, the time spent on productive work by women increases, and care tasks are squeezed. As women undertake almost all unpaid care and domestic work, this has adverse consequences for child and maternal nutrition as women fail to feed the young child regularly when engaged in tasks such as cotton-picking (in Wardha). They lose appetite and have no desire to cook after a long day's work.  

What can be done? First, the constituents of domestic and care work need to be changed. Among the range of unpaid domestic and care tasks, cooking appears to be the most time-consuming of all the household tasks. If addressed properly, cooking can free time for care. Men are able and willing to supervise and teach children, but cleaning, cooking and other household chores remain firmly in the women's domain. Second, a rough estimation of energy intake and expenditures highlight several interesting elements. First, a subsistence economy such as that of Koraput revealed higher levels of cereal adequacy than a cash-crop based, market-dependent economy like Wardha. Clearly cash has uses beyond nutrition, with education and production-related expenses prioritised over food. Second, there is also a gender dimension to this pattern. Men in Koraput seem to face higher levels of energy stress than women. This is perhaps due to the need to migrate in search of work during the lean season - a finding also confirmed by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (2009) study on Scheduled Tribe populations. 

Most studies of seasonal weight loss undertaken in Africa indicate a modest gender difference with women tending to have slightly smaller weight losses than men. Among the Scheduled Tribes in Koraput, however, women (already thinner) reveal 3-4 per cent decline in body weight seasonally as against 2-3 per cent for men. In Wardha too, women experience a seasonal weight loss of 2-3 per cent, while this is negligible for men. A possible strategy to counter this is for women to reduce their activity levels when food consumption declines.  Nevertheless, this is not possible in agricultural communities when periods of intense work often coincide with periods of hunger.

Gender, location and social identity determine duration and intensity of work across seasons as well as the food available for consumption, be it home-grown or purchased. While all women confront seasonal care deficits, it is more intense for particular groups of women - those who have young children and no household support, irrespective of land owning or economic status. Men often do worse, calling attention to focus on households through their life course, rather than individuals at particular moments in time.

In line with SDG 5.4 calling for recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care and domestic work, it is important to: 

a) Recognise the most vulnerable women across different contexts in terms of their work burden, both agricultural and care-tasks; 

b) Reduce the time and drudgery involved in domestic tasks through the provision of clean energy, cooking stoves, clean drinking water and sanitation facilities; and 

c) Support men in sharing caring roles, but equally ensuring the provision of reliable, institutional day care, especially during the peak agricultural seasons. 

The writer is a former 

Professor of Economics at 

Jahangirnagar University.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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