Paid work and unpaid care work in India, Nepal, Tanzania, and Rwanda: A bi-directional relationship

Deepta Chopra


This chapter draws from primary research with women living in low-income families in four countries—India, Nepal, Rwanda, and Tanzania—as they strive to balance their various work responsibilities and make a living for themselves and their families. Specifically, this chapter focuses on the relationship between women’s paid work and unpaid care work to shed light on how these activities feed into women’s economic empowerment (WEE).

The data for this chapter is drawn from the research project ‘Balancing unpaid care work and paid work: Successes, challenges and lessons for women’s economic empowerment’, funded through the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) programme. The research was conducted from 2015-2017 and used an innovative, mixed-methods approach for data collection across 16 sites in the four study countries, including a survey of 800 women; 126 qualitative case studies of women’s lived experiences based on interviews with women, men, and children; and a series of participatory exercises with women, men, and adolescents in the study communities. This chapter presents a summary of the research findings on the links between women’s paid work and unpaid care work across the four countries,1 and their relationship to WEE. Additional insights from the research are also available in Chapter 4 of this volume.

The research defines unpaid care work as encompassing different types of tasks, all uncompensated, including childcare and care for older individuals (e.g. the elderly, the ill), housework, ancillary tasks such as water and fuel collection, and care for animals. The world over, women perform the majority of all unpaid care work in their homes and communities, regardless of the share of household income that they earn (Elson 1995; Razavi 2007; Budlender 2008; Eyben and Fontana 2011; see also Chapter 4 in this volume). This unpaid care work occupies large amounts of women’s time and constrains their participation in broader economic, political, civil, and social spheres. As Razavi (2007: 22) has argued, the constraints imposed by women’s disproportionate burden of unpaid care work increases their risk of “economic disempowennent”. However, there is little documented understanding of the dynamics by which this risk plays out for women as they endeavour to juggle their multiple responsibilities of daily life. This chapter aims to fill this gap in understanding and documenting women’s lived experiences of balancing paid work and unpaid care work in India, Nepal, Tanzania, and Rwanda, as well as its impact on their economic empowerment.

The assumption that women will achieve economic empowerment through participation in the labour market has been problematised elsewhere in this volume, including in Chapter 1, and I pick up this thread again here. While WEE has been discussed and understood by some international development agencies as the mere inclusion of women in the labour market (World Bank 2006; OECD- DAC 2011), ongoing critiques of this approach have focused on the dual (i.e. paid work and unpaid care) responsibilities that women and girls shoulder, and the constraints imposed by labour markets and gendered social nonns that push women into informal, low paid, and insecure work (Razavi 2007; Antonopoulos 2008; see also Chapters 1, 2, and 5 in this volume).

This chapter sets out to explore how and whether women’s paid work in these situations is conducive to their empowerment. In doing so, I adopt the idea of ‘empowerment’ as a process rather than an outcome (Kabeer 2008; Schuler, Islam, and Rottach 2010; Kabeer, Mahmud, and Tasneem 2011; Chopra and Muller 2016). Empowemient is understood as a process through which there is a change in power relations—involving a holistic notion of power over, power to, power with, and power within—and a privileging of the relational dynamics of women’s lives embedded within their families and communities, rather than an exclusive focus on an individual’s incorporation into the labour market.

Finally, this chapter aims to shed light on the consequences of women’s engagement in multiple domains of work on their emotional and physical wellbeing. In doing so, it puts forth the argument that there is a critical, yet under-recognised bi-directional relationship between paid work and unpaid care work that underpins WEE.

The chapter is structured as follows. It begins by presenting the relational dynamics of how care is organised across the 16 research sites and the conditions affecting the intensity and drudgery of care work for women living in low-income households. Next, the types of paid work that women undertake—specifically their working conditions and the choices and trade-offs they make in order to engage in paid work—are examined. Then the efforts that women exert and the strategies they employ to balance their paid work with unpaid care work are highlighted— including strategies of extreme multi-tasking and time-stretching. In addition, the consequences of this double burden on women themselves, their children, and their families, in terms of their physical and mental depletion, are discussed. I conclude by unpacking the complex dynamics of the relationship between paid work and unpaid care work that underpin WEE.

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