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Labourers pick tea on the slopes of Mount Goalpara, Indonesia [J. Micaud]

Rural employment, gender and poverty

Poverty often pushes women into off-farm employment, which can make a critical difference in the poverty status of their households. How much a woman benefits depends on how her new income is distributed

by Marzia Fontana, with Cristina Paciello

The linkages between employment, poverty and gender inequality are complex and require an understanding of how household dynamics and labour market processes inter-act. The relationship between poverty and women's employment runs in both directions. Poverty can push women into employment – the so called "distress sale of labour", often in informal and poorly paid jobs. On the other hand, women's income from employment often makes a critical difference in the poverty status of their households.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the individual situation of the woman concerned improves, because household income may not be distributed according to the amount of time each member contributes to its generation. Attention should be given to separating out individual from average household well-being impacts, which may differ because of unequal distribution of rights, resources and time between genders. Policies for rural employment and development must give due consideration to women's bargaining position both in the household and in the labour market. Poverty is linked to weaker incorporation in both.

Limited available options

In most developing countries, women often seek wage employment in response to economic crises and difficult family circumstances, such as separation and widowhood. Agricultural casual wage work often appears to be the only available employment option for poor rural women (more than for poor rural men). Because they are crowded in a limited number of occupations and lack start-up assets, poor women enter the bargaining process with their employers in a weak position. Vulnerability may force them to sell their labour well below market rates.

Evidence from Southern Africa corroborates these patterns. In Mozambique, a high share of female wage labourers are single heads of households. In-depth interviews indicate that women who are widows or divorced have greater difficulties in accessing decent jobs. Their weak bargaining position means that they often have to accept irregular wages and receive few, if any, benefits. Evidence from South Asia shows that rural women from poorer households are more likely to take up paid employment, particularly as wage workers, than women from wealthier families. For example, in Pakistan, women from landless households, or from sharecropping households, have higher levels of participation in agricultural waged labour and work longer hours than women in landowning households.

Women's employment income can make a critical difference in the poverty status of their households. A much quoted study for Ghana and Uganda shows that poverty rates for female-headed households engaged in non-farm activities declined faster than poverty rates for other households. In Ghana, for instance, female-headed households combining both farm and non-farm work experienced a 37% decline in poverty compared with a 14% decline for male-headed households with similar characteristics over the 1987–1992 period.

The study finds that women in Ghana are more involved in non-farm activities than in farming, while the reverse holds for Uganda. In both countries high shares of non–farm employment performed by women are associated with higher overall household income. This suggests that the ability of women to diversify out of agriculture may provide an effective pathway out of poverty. However, these findings should be taken with caution as the time period over which changes were analysed is rather short (and the study quite old).

A study in Viet Nam offers similar findings. Rural women's ability to diversify out of farming was more strongly associated with household well-being than that of men's. Diversification into off-farm activities, rather than diversity per se, explained higher levels of household income. The study also suggests that, despite women's longer hours of work in domestic and childcare activities, marginal returns to their off–farm activities were similar to those of men.

Higher income, lower body weight

All these findings are very context-specific and more and sounder evidence is needed to substantiate these claims. Rural non-farm work can be very diverse and female members of the poorest household may be lacking the resources to participate in the most profitable activities. When household income increases as a result of women taking up paid employment, this does not necessarily mean that the individual situation of the woman concerned improves at the same time.

For instance, a study in Kenya shows that increased participation of women in sugar production brought about significant income gains in overall household income and food consumption. However, women's direct control over income from the new cash crop was much less than that of men. Increases in women's own income were associated with decreases in their body mass index, because additional work and greater energy intensity of activities exceeded the concurrent increase in their caloric intake.

As for the impact on other household members, substantial evidence shows that women's access to economic resources increases the share of household expenditures devoted to "public goods" and is more beneficial to households' well-being (in particular the well-being of children) than income earned by men. However the impact of women's access to paid labour more specifically is more mixed because of the presence of two opposite effects: a positive effect due to an increase in household income associated with mothers' paid work and a negative effect due to a possible decline in the time devoted to housework and childcare. These considerations suggest that attention needs to be paid to the type of employment obtained by women and the intensity of their work.

Published: 11/11/2009

Marzia Fontana, a Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, UK, is an economist with particular interest in social and economic dimensions of inequality. This article is extracted from the paper: Gender dimensions of rural and agricultural employment: differentiated pathways out of poverty (FAO/IFAD/ILO, 2009)

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