Saturday 30 June 2012

"Gender" is also about time

Counting women in decision-making positions is a popular way to determine whether gender is "mainstreamed" and women are empowered. That seems reasonable: where women are not or poorly represented, their perspectives and concerns are likely to be ignored.  But women's numbers are a blunt indicator: "token" women, drafted into a committee to fulfil the quota, might have little influence on decisions; and women will not necessarily defend women's gender-specific interests. In rural areas, many women simply don't have time for meaningful participation in those village development committees: they wake up before dawn to fetch water and firewood, prepare food for the day, get their children ready for school, and then spend 8, 9, 10 hours in agricultural work. After that, more water- and firewood-fetching, cooking, other houselhold tasks...  A UNIFEM report estimates that women in Sub-Saharan Africa collectively spend 40,000,000,000 (40 billion) hours a year fetching water. And that is just the water-fetching part of the picture.

Exciting change is taking place, but do we pay enough attention to it? During a recent trip I visited a village with a water scheme that piped water from a distant hill to the village. A woman told me that before the scheme was installed, she'd spend at least three hours a day to fetch water. The tab stand right in front of her house freed up 3 hours of her day! Also interesting, I learned that the introduction of a new, long weeding tool, which allowed farmers to work in an upright position while weeding paddy (rice) fields, had prompted men to take over weeding tasks - previously a back-breaking job reserved to women in that region. It took me some time to find out, discussing with people how women and men respectively spent their time during the agricultural season.

"Freeing up" time in rural women's dense daily work schedules enables them to take up new tasks of their own choice - for example, starting a vegetable plot around the house, joining an agricultural training course, or indeed participating more in shaping local development intiatives and polititics. Well-designed projects take into account the division of labour between women and men and what that means for the time people can dedicate to their own and their community's development. This form of gender sensitivity is concrete, easily understood, and quite acceptable to anyone.  

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