Running Out of Time: The Reduction of Women's Work Burden in Agricultural Production


Direct Link to Full 46-Page 2015 FAO Publication: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4741e.pdf




Based on a broad literature review, this publication discusses rural women’s time poverty in agriculture, elaborates on its possible causes and implications and provides insight into the various types of constraints that affect the adoption of solutions for reducing work burden. This paper raises questions about the adequacy of women’s access to technologies, services and infrastructure and about the control women have over their time, given their major contributions to agriculture. It also looks into the available labour-saving technologies, practices and services that can support women to better address the demands derived from the domestic and productive spheres and improve their well-being. The reader is presented with an overview of successfully-tested technologies, services and resource management practices in the context of water, energy, information and communication. The findings elaborated in this paper feed a set of recommendations provided for policy makers and development partners. A gender-transformative approach at community and household level is suggested as a way forward to promote women’s increased control over the allocation of their time.



Family farms represent up to 80 percent of all farm holdings in developing countries (FAO, 2014a). The majority of these are small or medium-size farms ranging from 1 to a maximum of 5 hectares.1 Most of them rely primarily on family members for labour and management, and produce essentially for their own consumption, with some surplus for the market. Women make an important contribution to family-run economic activities and represent an average of 43 percent of the agricultural workforce worldwide (FAO, 2011b).


Among smallholders (small-scale farmers, pastoralists, forest keepers and fishers), men and women have diverse and often complementary roles related to household food provision. Women play an essential role in food and nutrition security through their responsibilities in provision and preparation of food consumed in the home. However, research indicates that in comparison with men, they often bear a disproportionate work burden (see Table 1 for an example of time distribution within a day).


Rural women’s long working hours correlate to a triple work burden in the productive, reproductive and social spheres, and in contrast to men their work is mostly unpaid and unrecognized. This work overload restricts women’s well-being and their engagement in activities of value, including remunerative activities. Surveys from 45 developing countries show that women and children bear the primary responsibility for water collection in the vast majority of households (76 percent). This is time not spent working at an income-generating job, caring for family members, or attending school.


Over the last decades, attempts have been made to assess women’s time use in agriculture using data collected through household surveys, but this information is often very patchy and difficult to aggregate at the country level. In addition, several internationally comparable indices such as the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index measure women’s time burden as an indicator of empowerment. Unfortunately, this index is presently only available for a mere 16 country cases.


Since the 1980s, research and investment has focused on promoting and introducing technology, services and infrastructure solutions to reduce the care and productive work burden of rural women. When specifically tailored to women’s needs these technologies can be effective, but there are important hurdles to their adoption, as explored in this paper.


The number of women farmers feeding their households, communities, countries, and regions is increasingly on the rise (Caselli-Mechael, 2014). Yet, women’s access to and control over resources and work burden is still not adequately addressed, despite ample evidence that better access for women tends to lead to higher agricultural yields and food and nutrition security (FAO, 2011b). This paper argues that there are no “quick fixes”, such as the mere introduction and diffusion of technology with labour-saving potential. The issues surrounding the lack of access to and adoption of technology are context-specific and complex. Social norms and behaviour need to be targeted for change to take place and for greater equality to be achieved between men and women in relation to time availability and choice.


Yet, labour-saving technologies and related services can contribute to freeing up women’s time and improve their quality of life, enabling them to engage in activities of their own choice, whether for the home or remunerative nature.