Labour-saving technologies: freeing up women’s time and improving family wellbeing and nutrition

By Jeanette Cooke, Rural Development Consultant, Gender Team

The International Day of Rural Women on 15 October is an opportunity to recognize the critical role rural women can play in eradicating hunger and poverty and driving inclusive economic transformation in rural areas. It is equally important to highlight one of the most persistent hindrances that prevents them from fulfilling this role − domestic drudgery − and how they can overcome it.

In almost all countries around the world, women work longer hours than men every day when both paid and unpaid work are taken into account. This is primarily due to the fact that women spend two to ten times longer on unpaid domestic work than men.

In rural areas, domestic chores can include water and fuel collection, food processing and preparation, travelling, and transporting and caring for children, the ill and the elderly. These chores are particularly burdensome where there is no or limited access to essential public services and labour-saving technologies.
Niger: Woman and girl carrying heavy loads. ©IFAD/David Rose

A heavy domestic workload makes rural women extremely time poor. This in turn restricts their mobility, their economic activity on- and off-farm, and their ability to influence decision-making at home, in the community and in institutions. In addition, the heavy and rudimentary nature of many domestic chores can cause poor health and nutrition for a woman and her family. Schooling also suffers when women need help from their children, mainly girls, to perform these chores. A heavy domestic workload is therefore both a major cause and a major effect of gender inequality and poverty. Unless addressed, women’s drudgery will continue to blight agricultural development, hold back inclusive rural transformation and keep generations of women and girls trapped in poverty.

Part of the solution to reducing women's domestic workload lies in a more equitable division of labour and in technologies that lighten their load (Carr and Hartl, 2010; IFAD, 2016).

In IFAD-supported projects labour-saving technologies and practices range from large-scale infrastructure investments in water, energy and roads to medium-scale machinery and small-scale equipment for use at home and/or in group-based activities.

Here are some examples:
  • In Niger, the Project for the Promotion of Local Initiative for Development in Aguié, (2005-2013) built 20 village wells and 15 boreholes. Access to drinking water greatly improved in the project areas and women used the time saved to take part in setting up and managing food and cereal banks. 
  • IFAD has successfully piloted the Flexi Biogas system in India, Kenya, Rwanda and Sao Tomé and Principe giving households their own power supplies. With an efficient above-ground biogas system, which is relatively cheap and simple to use, a family with just one or two cows can produce 60-100 kg of high-quality fertilizer and 2.8 m3 of biogas each day for cooking, lighting or food processing. 
  • In Bhutan the Agriculture, Marketing and Enterprise Promotion Programme (2005-2012) built feeder roads to improve market access and enable more shops to open in rural areas. Women can now buy essential items closer to home in the newly opened shops and use the time saved for vegetable production, an important source of income and nutrition. 
  • In Bolivia and Mongolia IFAD has supported temporary mobile child day care centres. In Bolivia, this meant that women were able to take part in project training sessions. In Mongolia, while the children attended the kindergarten, both men and women had time in the summer to milk animals, process dairy products, grow vegetables and earn some income in preparation for the long winter. See the video here about how the kindergarten benefitted the children (Mongolia: Learning in motion
Gambia: Woman using biogas powered stove. ©IFAD/Nana Kofi Acquah
Of course, the concept of labour-saving technologies is not new, nor has their dissemination by development agencies always been successful. So what has changed? And how can we do things better?

Putting housework on the global agenda

In an unprecedented move at the international level, domestic work has been formally recognised as an essential element of sustainable development. Countries have committed to working towards target 5.4 of the Sustainable Development Goals on gender equality to recognize, reduce and redistribute responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work.

IFAD and its Member States have also committed to reduce rural women’s domestic workloads through one of the three strategic objectives in the IFAD Policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment to “achieve a more equitable balance in workloads”. We know that if women’s workloads are not reduced, the Policy’s other two objectives on economic empowerment and decision-making cannot be achieved.

We have learnt several important lessons on how to improve or support the impact of labour-saving technologies:
  • The daily activities and workloads of the project target group must be identified and understood in the context of livelihood strategies and gender roles and relations. In other words, we need to know who is doing what, why and when. 
  • Factors that determine the sustainability of technologies must be considered in project design, such as affordable and reliable operation and maintenance and who will cover what costs over what period of time. 
  • Labour-saving technologies do not lead to equitable workloads on their own. The underlying causes of gender inequality must be addressed. Discriminatory gender roles and relations need to be challenged and pathways for positive behaviour change identified. Gender transformative approaches, such as the household methodologies , are a means to this end. They bring all household members together to discuss and identify a shared vision for a better future. 
More information is available on this topic in the Toolkit on “Reducing rural women’s domestic workload through labour-saving technologies and practices”.

Guatemala: Woman washing dishes using water supply available at home. ©IFAD/Santiago Albert Pons
Read more:

UN Women. 2015. Progress of the world’s women 2015-2016: transformingeconomies, realizing rights. UN Women.
OECD. 2014. Unpaid care work: the missing link in theanalysis of gender gaps in labour outcomes.
Carr, M., and M. Hartl. 2010. Lightening the load: Labour-saving technologiesand practices for rural women. IFAD and Practical Action Publishing Ltd.
IFAD. 2016. Reducing rural women’s domesticworkload through labour-saving technologies and practices toolkit
FAO. 2015. Running out of time: the reduction of women’s work burden in agricultural production. Rome: FAO.
IFAD. 2015. How to do: mainstreaming portable biogas systems into IFAD-supported programmes. Rome: IFAD.