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World Bank

Gender, time use and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa

World Bank Working paper No. 73

Edited by C.Mark Blackden and Quentin Wodon

The World Bank

SARPN acknowledges the World Bank and Country Analytic Work as the sources of this document.
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This volume aims to shed light on the question of “time poverty” in Sub-Saharan Africa and its relationship with consumption-based measures of poverty, as well as other development outcomes. Time poverty, especially as seen in the “double workday” of women, has long been a staple of discussion of women’s situation in Africa. Yet it is not always clear what is meant by time poverty, how time poverty is measured, or what actions are required to tackle time poverty once identified. The papers presented in this volume seek to address these questions by reviewing the existing literature and analyzing new data available in time use modules of household income and consumption surveys in several African countries. The objective is to provide guidance and examples of how to define and measure time poverty, and also to address ways through which a better understanding of time poverty can inform poverty diagnostics, national poverty reduction strategies, and the design and implementation of development interventions.

Time Use and Africa’s Development

Perhaps nowhere is the asymmetry in the respective rights and obligations of men and women more apparent than in the patterns of time use differentiated by gender, and the inefficiency and inequity they represent. Both men and women play multiple roles (productive, reproductive, and community management) in society (Moser 1989; Blackden and Bhanu 1999). Yet while men are generally able to focus on a single productive role, and play their multiple roles sequentially, women, in contrast to men, play these roles simultaneously and must balance simultaneous competing claims on limited time for each of them. Women’s labor time and flexibility are therefore much more constrained than is the case for men. Comparative time use data reflect these constraints, though it is particularly difficult to capture “simultaneous” tasks and to measure the “intensity” of work, whether for men or for women. The gender division of labor defines women’s and men’s economic opportunities, and determines their capacity to allocate labor time for economically productive activities and to respond to economic incentives. Although some of these differences in time allocation can be explained through economic factors, in many societies these are secondary to non-economic factors in determining time use patterns (Ilahi 2000).

Gender-differentiated time use patterns are affected by many factors, including household composition and life cycle issues (age and gender composition of household members), seasonal and farm system considerations, regional and geographic factors, including ease of access to water and fuel, availability of infrastructure, and distance to key economic and social services such as schools, health centers, financial institutions, and markets. But social and cultural norms also play an important role both in defining, and sustaining rigidity in, the gender division of labor. This is most evident in the division of responsibilities between productive (market) and reproductive (household) work. In addition to their prominence in agriculture and in much of the informal sector, women bear the brunt of domestic tasks: processing food crops, providing water and firewood, and caring for the elderly and the sick, this latter activity assuming much greater significance in the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The time and effort required for these tasks, in the almost total absence of even rudimentary domestic technology, is staggering.1

It is important to examine time use in Sub-Saharan Africa and to address its policy and operational implications for at least three reasons. First, time use data in Sub-Saharan African countries show what people actually do in their daily lives, and therefore provide important information on work and on labor allocation within households. Second, in doing this, they make apparent not only that there is a division of labor, in that different people do different things, but also that differences in how men and women use their time are of considerable importance in understanding poverty in Africa—the gender division of labor is especially significant. Third, time allocation data reveal not only the substantial market economy contributions of men and women to Africa’s development, but also, and just as importantly, the existence of a whole realm of human activity—what is termed here the “household economy”—that is largely invisible and uncounted in economic data and in the system of national accounts (SNA).2

Examination of time use data therefore performs the critically important function of giving policymakers and development practitioners a much more complete and comprehensive picture of employment and labor effort than would otherwise be afforded by labor force data alone. This is done by making visible and providing quantified estimates of nonmarket contributions to total household production and welfare, alongside market-based work. Because these contributions are essential for family survival, it is important for policymakers and development practitioners to focus on them explicitly. Non-market labor is of particular importance from a gender standpoint, as the household economy is where women predominantly work.

One of the most important insights from gender analysis of time use in Sub-Saharan Africa is that there are synergies, and short-term tradeoffs, between and within marketoriented and household-oriented activities—economic production, childbearing and rearing, and household/community management responsibilities. These assume particular importance because of the competing claims on women’s labor time in most environments. There are interconnections between rural development and transport (Barwell 1996), between education, health, and fertility, between girls’ education and domestic tasks, and within the population/agriculture/environment “nexus” (Cleaver and Schreiber 1994). Other critical interconnections illuminated by time use studies exist between the time spent (mainly by women and very young children) preparing and cooking meals in degraded and polluted environments and health, as reflected in high levels of acute respiratory infections related to exposure to air pollutants (for an articulation of this issue in Uganda, see Green 2005). Several studies document that workload constraints limit the likelihood that children will be taken to health posts for vaccinations, or that sick children or family members will access health care in a timely manner. As argued by the World Bank (2006), there is a critically small “window of opportunity” for addressing undernutrition in children, which in turn hinges on timely access to food, including time for breastfeeding and timely preparation of meals in the first two years of life—a period in which, according to time use survey data, women with young children are likely to be especially heavily burdened with work. Building on these cross-sectoral interconnections can have positive multiplier effects for growth and poverty reduction.

A related insight is that some time uses are indispensable, as argued by Harvey and Taylor (2000) when they refer to “household time overhead.” This concept refers to the minimum number of hours that a household must spend on the basic chores vital to the survival of the family, that is, the time spent preparing meals, washing clothes, cleaning, fetching water, and gathering fuel for cooking and heating. They argue that, in general, a household with low household time overhead will be better off than a household with high time overhead, though they recognize that the impact of the time overhead will in turn depend on the number of adults and children available to assist in performing these tasks.

Tradeoffs in time allocation, and sometimes harsh choices, are at the core of the interrelationship between the “visible” market and “invisible” household economies, given the simultaneous competing claims on women’s—but not men’s—labor time. There are tradeoffs between different productive activities, between market and household tasks, and between meeting short-term economic and household needs and long-term investment in future capacity and human capital. The work burden on women, and the disproportionate cost borne by women of reproductive work in the household economy not only limits the time women can spend in economic activities but restricts them (spatially and culturally) to activities compatible with their domestic obligations (Blackden and Morris-Hughes 1993). A review of the relationship between female headship and poverty found that the reasons for greater poverty among female-maintained families lie not in structural factors in household composition, such as higher dependency ratios, or in gender-related differences in economic opportunity, but in the combination of the two. Where women heads of households have no other adult women to fulfill home production or domestic roles, they face greater time and mobility constraints than do male heads or other women, that in turn leads to lower paying jobs more compatible with childcare (Buvinic and Rao Gupta 1997). The review cites evidence from Malawi indicating that female farmers were inclined to limit their labor time in farm activities due to a heavy commitment to domestic chores, while responsibility for children and housekeeping made it difficult for female heads to opt for regular or off-farm labor activities to increase their earnings. Because they must carry out their multiple roles simultaneously, and because the “household time overhead” is not dispensable, women can only engage in directly productive economic activity (whether measured or not) after or in conjunction with the discharge of their domestic responsibilities. Balancing competing time uses, in a framework of almost total inelasticity of the gender division of labor, presents a particular challenge to reducing poverty. In many circumstances, necessary and essential actions, including both directly productive tasks and meeting the “household time overhead,” must compete for scarce labor time.

Here too, though, the situation is not necessarily straightforward. The idea that poverty is a function of time as well as money is not new, as this was articulated by Vickery in 1977 (see Harvey and Taylor 2000). Time poverty and income poverty may reinforce each other with negative consequences for individual and household well-being. For example, the sheer drudgery and low productivity of many non-market tasks, which are time- and labor-intensive, reduces the availability of time for household members engaged in such tasks to participate in more economically productive activities. Given that such tasks are primarily carried out by women, this means that women in particular are less likely to be able to take full advantage of economic opportunities, to respond to changing market conditions and incentives, and to participate in income-generating activities.3 Time poverty also impedes individuals’ ability to expand their capabilities through education and skills development that could enhance economic returns in the market place. However, the question can also be asked in a different way, namely: to what extent could more time spent working (but without making a larger share of the population time poor) help reduce poverty? The logic is then inverted, by showing that even if many men and women work a lot, there may be a reserve of time that, if jobs were available, could be tapped to reduce consumption poverty. Said differently, there are circumstances in which underemployment is widespread, at least at certain periods of the year, and “time poverty” as such does not appear to be the main constraint that prevents the consumption poor to escape poverty.

The above discussion suggests that the time problem is a key component of the more traditional poverty problem, and one which deserves more attention in poverty diagnostics and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. A possible avenue for further research is to define more precisely the “household time overhead” and to link it with other dimensions of time use. This would allow for more exact specification of when the household time overhead becomes a constraint on labor use for other tasks, and constitutes a form of time poverty even in environments of under- or unemployment where total time use does not appear to be a constraint. More generally, omission of the household economy from conventional development planning means that:

  • The picture is incomplete and our understanding of the total labor effort of households is insufficient—much of what we are (or should be) concerned with occurs in this invisible realm;
  • There is a tendency to make misleading assumptions about labor availability and labor mobility treating, for example, women’s capacity to undertake unpaid domestic labor as “infinitely elastic” (Elson 1993)—overlooking the differences in men’s and women’s contributions to household time overhead can lead to inappropriate policies which have the unintended effect of raising women’s labor burdens while sometimes lowering those of men;
  • We do not invest in (or prioritize) what is not there—if the household economy is not visible to policymakers and planners, they are unlikely to prioritize investment in it; and
  • We do not see the tradeoffs among different tasks and activities, and, by extension, do not place reducing or minimizing these tradeoffs at the core of our response—nor do we see sufficiently the positive linkages, and prioritize the benefits from these linkages in our actions.

  1. Some studies have found high correlation between opportunity costs to the household of children’s time and enrollment figures. In Tanzania, on average, the opportunity cost for families to send girls to schools is significantly higher than that of boys. If boys from 13 to 15 years old are in school, households lose about 25 hours of work per week. For girls of the same age, they lose about 37 hours of work (World Bank 1999). Boys may drop out of school to herd, farm, fish, hunt or to engage in petty trade. For girls, the main reasons for dropping out are pregnancy, parental concerns about toilet facilities, long distances, and lack of security.
  2. Ironmonger estimates, for example, that labor market employment statistics cover less than 50 percent of all work performed, and that the regularly published labor statistics cover perhaps 75 percent of men’s work and 33 percent of women’s work. See Ironmonger (1999).
  3. The wider set of issues linking gender inequality and economic growth are beyond the scope of this paper. Discussion of these issues can be found in World Bank (2001), Blackden and Bhanu (1999), and Gelb (2001).

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