Changing Division of Labour between Men and Women in Rural Areas in India

The original basis of all sexual division of labour is undoubtedly men’s and women’s different role in human reproduction.

In societies at the subsistence level, of which there are very few left, women were generally responsible for such tasks as the gathering, production and processing of food for the family; the care, education and socialization of small children; the fetching of fuel and water; and local trade or exchange of surplus products. A common feature of these tasks is that they could usually be performed near the home.

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Men, on the other hand, went hunting and fishing, often far from the home; assisted in clearing the ground under burn and slash agriculture; conducted long-distance trade and were responsible for the security of the community.

Children of both sexes assisted their parents and were thus trained to assume their adult roles in due course.

By way of generalization, one may conclude that men’s and women’s tasks were related to their differential roles in securing the survival of the family.

Even so, many activities were not directly, if all, related to physical differences but were assigned as need and interests indicated.

Additionally, in small communities or relatively self- contained households, it was often not possible to be unduly strict in the matter and men and women occasionally assisted with each other’s tasks.

As societies have become more complex and stratified, division of labour has becomes more rigid, within as well as between the sexes, and ultimate authority and power have, practically without exception, become vested in a male elite.”

These matters, a strictly enforced sexual division of labour, often imbued with the absolute command of religious beliefs, and the maleness of public authority, appear essential to any understanding of why development seems as a rule to have had an adverse effect on the role and status of women.

First of all, a basic feature of development is to introduce new and modified technologies, inevitably accompanied by changes in economic and social organization, with a view to increasing the total output of society’s productive resources, human and non-human.

Additionally, as part and parcel of the development process, population has been growing at a very high rate, thereby greatly intensifying the competition for often precariously scarce resources. A general consequence of these and related factors is that development has as a rule been accompanied by complex and painful societal disruptions.

As urban areas have generally been favoured over rural areas in the allocation of resources, the rural population has been particularly hard hit by these negative effects of development, which may be summarized as having led to the by now well-known polarization of society into rich and poor.

A closely associated but until recently overlooked phenomenon is the intensified dichotomization of the relationship between men and women, leaving women relatively worse off than men even though both sexes obviously are very hard hit by the effects of the impoverization of large sectors of the rural population (many of whom migrate to urban areas in search of a better life).

In this context it is also highly relevant to consider the changing relationship between the private family and society at large. The increasingly specialized methods of production that constitute the core of the development process require, inter alia, ever-larger units of economic and social organization.

As a result, the family progressively loses its role as a relatively independent economic and social unit. Gradually, a large number of both decision-making and other functions are transferred to society at large.

In the course of this transformation, men’s and women’s functions in the private and public spheres of life tend to become more and more lopsided, with men losing touch with family life and problems and women understanding less and less of the workings of the public machinery. In many ways this is a well-recognized phenomenon but its political and administrative implications for men’s and women’s joint responsibility for societal well-being remain largely unexplored and would seem to deserve special a’ttention, not least, not least by women.

Given the world as it is, with men overwhelmingly in charge of the public sphere and women often left to handle the private sphere as best they can, it is not surprising that women are forgotten in development planning and implementation and find themselves shortchanged in the process.

When they protest and want to change the situation, they are faced with grave handicaps because of their inferior position.

(b) Manifestations of Women’s Problems:

Women’s special problems manifest themselves across the board but can in large measure be traced to three main areas: the data base for development planning; education and training, including extension services; the technological change, not least its social implications.

In the book-keeping system of development, i.e., the statistics used for the preparation of development plans, women (and girls) have generally been seen as consumers, not as producers.

It is in varying degrees recognized that they are in need of public services, such as health care and education. The contribution of such services to the productivity of labour is, however, not well understood and is usually ignored.

Moreover, women’s work, in particular rural women’s work, is often not counted statistically. This alleged lack of contribution to the productive effort, in combination with a general shortage of funds, tends to give women a low priority as recipients of public support.

A primary reason for not including women’s work in the computation of the Gross National Product (GNP) is that so much of it is performed in the family setting. Additionally, it is often of a subsistence nature. On both counts such work, when performed by women, tends to be excluded from official statistics.

According to generally accepted standards, it should be recorded as “unpaid family labour” if it concerns production that may, at least in part, is sold on the market. In many countries such work is recorded, in many others it is not fully recorded or omitted entirely.

The reason for non-recording is usually that the societal ideal is that women should not perform such work, in particular not field work. It should be done by men or, in parts of India, e.g., by hired lower-caste women.

Another reason for non-recording of women’s work is that it is to a large extent labelled domestic work and this is conventionally excluded from statistically recognized work.

The exclusion is particularly misleading as concerns rural women’s work in developing countries where it often includes all post- harvest processing of grains and the fetching of water and fuel, in addition to child care, cooking and preservation of food and other house-keeping duties.

Still another reason for non-recording appears to be what has been called “occupational multiplicity”, i.e., the necessity individuals or households to combine several economic activities—often in the course of the same day—in order to subsist.

In principle this phenomenon is not limited to women; it also applies to men and children. Often it appears, however, as if more occupational options are available or explored by women.

The lack of reporting of such activities appears mainly to reflect the limitations of commonly used concepts and methods of gathering employment information.

Typically, simple retrospective questions are asked concerning the amount and kind of work performed the previous week, say.

The questionnaires leave no room, and the interviewers have no time or instructions for how to handle the complex stories that are covered by the term “occupational multiplicity” (assuming that those questioned would recall all of their different occupations).

For all of these three sets of reasons, official statistics on rural women’s labour force participation are generally of very limited use. Often all they indicate is that women’s work is understated, often grossly so.

So far, the only remedy is intensive time-use studies, of which an increasing number have become available in recent years.

A general finding of these is that women work at least as much, often considerably more, than men. In some instances it has also been found that the prevalent ideas of rural underemployment, of men or women, are very misleading.

Over employment with pitifully low returns is a more accurate description. Such data also seem to confirm that conventional questionnaires concerning economic activities, even when great care is taken to include unpaid family labour, e.g., may nevertheless result in considerable under-reporting. The main drawback of time-use studies is their high cost and limited coverage, usually a village.

Because of its wide ramifications, the discrimination against women in matters of education and training is probably the most damaging of all.

It is a well-documented phenomenon that will be discussed in all subsequent regional reviews and country case studies.

It is of course also closely related to technological change and it is more than coincidental that the educational gap between men and women, boys and girls, is widest in technical fields.

Not infrequently, most lines of technical education and training, including agricultural education, are closed to girls, even though such education would help them substantially in carrying out their traditional tasks.

The obstacles to change are, however, not limited to formal admittance but are also firmly entrenched in traditional attitudes of both men and women, making it difficult for girls to avail themselves of many forms of technical education even where the legal barriers have been removed.

In the few areas where women as a rule admitted—often because they are less indispensable— they are generally employed in relatively subordinate positions, such as nursing and the teaching of girls and young boys.

Needless to say, these matters vary a great deal from country to country and exceptions exist. Additionally, changes in practice and attitude seem to be spreading.

Nevertheless, as a generalization of some of the key problems responsible for the inferior position of adult rural women in developing countries, the above comments seem valid.

Nothing illustrates more clearly than women’s lack of access to modern technology, closely linked to the pervasive bias against women in technical education and training, that women’s problems in becoming part of the development process, as participants and beneficiaries, are not limited to the obstacles raised by class and scarcity (which are equally men’s problems and, in a men’s world, affect men more directly than women) but involve admittance to the male hierarchy of power and status.

At any rate, it is difficult to find any other explanation for the bias encountered in matters of technological change, where the general rule is that whenever the change leads to improved income-earning opportunities, men tend to avail themselves of these, even if the work affected was formerly in the domain of women’s duties.

Examples of the latter case will be found in the Indonesian case study. Here it seems that the replacement of female by male workers may in one instance—harvesting—be justified by changes in the nature of the work, as the new methods require more physical strength than the old methods.

However while displacement of significant numbers of male workers is usually viewed as calling for remedial action of some sort, this is very rarely the case with female workers.

Other common examples along the same lines concern the offering of agricultural training and extension services to men while the work is being done by women.

The net effect of such programmes is mainly a drain on scarce resources. In part this bias in favour of men goes back to colonial times when female farming was seen as inferior by the European administrators, but it also fits the pattern of a more general bias in favour of men.

In short, there is a consistent tendency to allocate resources to the advantage of men, leaving women behind in all aspects of development.

Rural women must in the vast majority of cases continue to do their work without the assistance of education, training, and improved technology, the only significant change being that, with more surviving children, the work­load becomes heavier and output tends to fall as competition for land and other scarce resources intensifies.

With a growing recognition that this state of affairs acts as a deterrent to development and is harmful not only to women but to society at large, the next question concerns the strategy for change how and by what means can women become active participants in rural development?

Interestingly enough, the tentative answer to this question has in large measure been provided, or implied, by the continuing re-evaluation of development strategies that constitutes an important element of development itself.


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