Women’s work in agriculture potentially has a negative impact on household nutrition, through a combination of reduced time for care work and seasonal energy deficits, according to a study published in Feminist Economics. In most of rural India, women work as agricultural and family farm laborers, in addition to performing nearly all the childcare and household duties.
Often men have gone to work in urban areas, leaving women to balance agricultural and household work, including food gathering and preparation. In addition, class, caste and ethnicity play important roles in shaping access to resources in India, especially land. Those structural factors also determine women’s agency, social norms around appropriate behavior, notions of care and food cultures.
“Women’s agricultural work could potentially have negative outcomes, especially for the young child whose nutrition depends more on the mother’s time for breastfeeding and supplementary feeding. The double burden of work and care often leads to a time trade-off between the two,” said study co-author Professor Nitya Rao of the University of East Anglia. The study draws on primary data from 12 villages in two Indian districts, Wardha (Maharashtra) and Koraput (Odisha) between 2014-2016. The study villages comprise a mix of castes and ethnicities, all with distinctive cultures and livelihoods, from land-owning cultivators to landless groups who survive by engaging in wage labor. Malnutrition is high in both areas, with near or more than 50 percent of children underweight.
In both regions, women account for nearly all the household work, such as bathing and feeding children, washing clothes and collecting water. In Wardha, women harvest cotton manually, but the semi-arid region has reported severe agrarian distress over the past decade. Moreover, the smell of cotton and cotton dust causes headaches and leaves workers with no appetite or desire to cook or eat, which has implications for the rest of the household. In Koraput, located in the semi-humid tropics, literacy rates and other human development indicators are low. People in this region work, on average, close to 13 hours a day, resulting in sleep deprivation, especially during the peak agricultural seasons of planting and harvesting. Rao said in order to improve women’s lives and household nutrition and health outcomes, policies need to be context-specific, taking into consideration factors such as caste and location. Regardless, though, policies must aim to reduce the time- and effort-intensity of women’s agricultural work.
“The lack of attention to women’s time as a key factor in child nutrition outcomes is perhaps the main reason for the persistence of poor nutritional outcomes despite economic growth,” Rao said. “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, will help India move toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of reducing hunger and stopping intergenerational nutritional deprivation.”